Last Wednesday, a Chinese court sentenced a lawyer at a controversial human rights firm to seven years in prison. Authorities convicted Zhou Shifeng, of Beijing’s Fengrui Law Firm, of political subversion, a ruling that comes as part of a recent crackdown by the Chinese government against the nation’s dissenting forces. Zhou’s sentencing follows the conviction of two activists earlier this week, and is the newest step in China’s year-long retaliation against human rights figures, particularly lawyers, celebrities, and activists.
Since mid-2015, over 300 people like Zhou Shifeng have been arrested for criticizing the Chinese government. But Zhou’s heavy sentence comes as a surprise to many involved in the case, including colleague Liu Xiaoyuan, who said he expected a “light sentence” if the defendant plead guilty and accepted the charges. Zhou did both. Nevertheless, Chinese officials appeared to have little sympathy for Zhou’s crime, which they describe as “[encouraging] lawyers to highlight sensitive cases and [hiring] protesters to disturb the judicial system.”
The Fengrui law firm has represented clients such as artist and democratic activist Ai Weiwei, who is known for his sharp critiques of the Chinese government. The firm also represented adherents to the Falun Gong spiritual practice, which has been banned in China since 1999. But the firm’s most high-profile case was the 2008 tainted baby milk scandal, in which they went to court against one of the country’s top dairy producers.
Zhou’s case has two points of contention. The first is the prosecution’s claim that Zhou organized demonstrations in favor of his defendants, and the second is the allegation that he misrepresented incidents involving Chinese authorities, including last year’s shooting of Xu Chunhe in Harbin. The Chinese government accused the Fengrui Law Firm of manipulating public opinion surrounding this case by spreading a rumor that Xu was shot because he was protesting. The Fengrui Law Firm is now closed following a raid of its offices last July, which resulted in the detention of Zhou and many of the firm’s lawyers.
In order to secure her release, one of Fengrui’s former lawyers, Wang Yu, published a “confession” video, denouncing her previous work for the firm and challenging Zhou’s credibility. Many question the veracity of her statements, particularly her claim that “foreign forces” were behind many of the firms supposed acts of subversion. Social media users widely believe that the Wang filmed her confession under duress. Her testimony continues a recent trend of filmed confession videos, in which high-profile figures admit to crimes and wrongdoing, often before heading to a trial. Politicians, lawyers, activists, and even celebrities have had their confessions aired on state-run television channels and are often criticized for appearing unnatural or scripted. These televised confessions have come under increased scrutiny on Chinese social media platforms, such as Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook.
The sentencing of Mr. Zhou, along with many other lawyers and activists, indicates a dramatic shift under the presidency of Xi Jinping towards the suppression of liberal, Western influences and political dissent. With rising questions about the long-term viability of China’s economic growth, and increasing concerns about political stability, the Chinese government has taken a more drastic and authoritative stance against perceived threats, such as the Fengrui law firm. Xi, hoping to consolidate his own power and that of the Communist Party, actively pushes against the narratives of Western democracy and human rights, casting them as foreign ideals which seek to undermine the country’s independent strength. In dealing with Zhou, the Chinese government relied on a variety of propagandistic tools to levy their case against him, including a character assassination via televised confession. In July 2015, a third Fengrui lawyer, Huang Liqun, filmed a confession video accusing Zhou of fabricating protests in order to sway public opinion in his favor and influence the outcome of his cases. But Huang’s accusations went much farther than improper conduct. He also slammed his colleague for corruption, claiming Zhou “made money out of it” and describing the firm’s finances as “abnormal.” Huang even claimed that Zhou was “lecherous” and had “messy sexual relationships.” These accusations went beyond the content of the case. Rather, they publicly discredited and shamed Zhou before he had a chance to go on trial. With his credibility evaporated, it came as no surprise that Zhou was found guilty and sentenced on the day the trial began.
The Chinese crackdown on political dissent is not limited to human rights legal activism, but extends to the interpretation of historical events. Since June, many online writers have faced charges of libel for raising questions about how certain events which are central to the Communist Party’s conception of history, such as the story of the “Five Heroes of Langya Mountain,” actually played out. In the story, five Chinese soldiers surrounded by Japanese troops jump off of Langya Mountain to avoid surrender. Writers have disputed whether the men actually jumped from a lower peak, whether it could have been an accident, and the true number of casualties. In an attempt to defend the party, Xi’s administration has decried the skepticism of these writers as “historical nihilism” and have attributed it to Western influence.
The rise of China’s political suppression has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The non-profit organization Reporters without Borders, dedicated to freedom of information and freedom of the press worldwide, ranked China 176 out of 180 in their World Press Freedom Index. Their report on China references a “Great Firewall to monitor and control blogs and social networks,” and states that journalists are often “harassed and jailed.” In 2014, the Human Rights Watch World Report stated that the “[u]se of torture to extract confessions is prevalent, and miscarriages of justice are frequent due to weak courts and tight limits on the rights of the defense.” China has signed International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but has not ratified it.
In March 2016, the United States led a joint statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council about China’s rising authoritarianism. In the statement, the United States, along with 11 other countries, voiced concerns about China’s “deteriorating human rights record.” More notably, the countries called for the “release all rights activists, civil society leaders, and lawyers detained for peacefully exercising their freedom of expression or for lawfully practicing their profession.” The statement was a bold move in comparison to the softer tone the Obama administration usually takes regarding China’s suppression of political dissent, a tone that has brought Obama criticism from both politicians and human rights advocates. But Zhou Shifen’s harsh sentence indicates that China has no plans to shift its current stance. Despite reprimand from the international community, the Chinese government has declined to soften its crackdown against legal activism and other perceived threats to Communist Party rule. Unless much more significant repercussions are imposed on China, its political prisoners have two choices: remain behind bars or, with no other options in sight, agree to film public confessions.