Why Christmas time in China means jail for human rights activists

The Guardian, 26 December 2016

2039ufiwov2By Benjamin Haas  As people celebrate around the world, a new Christmas tradition is increasingly popular in China: jailing political prisoners, hoping the distraction of the holiday season will lead to less attention.

This year is no different. Three human rights activists will come to trial in the next few days when many foreign diplomats, journalists and NGO observers are away from their desks.

“When the most prominent human rights activists are put on trial during the Christmas period, that’s definitely deliberate,” said William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International. “The government doesn’t want international attention and they don’t want foreign observers, so they go to extreme lengths to avoid international scrutiny of these show trials.”

Chen Yunfei will be tried on Boxing Day, after already languishing in police detention for the past 21 months. Charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, Chen organised a memorial for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre during the holiday in which Chinese traditionally pay respects to the dead.

On the Friday 23 December police confirmed they were investigating prominent Christian rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. He had been missing since November 21 and his family still does not know where he is being held.

Jiang’s wife, Jin Bianling, said the couple had been unable to celebrate Christmas since 2012 because of harassment from the police. Jin moved to the United States three years ago, but this is the first Christmas she has not been able to speak to her husband.

“He used to call and send photos every year and tell me how much he missed me, he didn’t want me to feel alone on Christmas,” Jin said, choking back tears. “But this year we don’t even know where he is, and we fear he may spend Christmas being tortured.”

A United Nations human rights panel shared her fears in a statement earlier this month: “We fear that Jiang’s disappearance may be directly linked to his advocacy and he may be at risk of torture.”

On 21 December it emerged that Xie Yang, another rights lawyer, had his case transferred to the prosecutor’s office in preparation for him to be tried on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” and “disrupting court order”.

Xie has been held since July 2015, part of a nationwide sweep that saw more than 300 lawyers and activist detained in what some have called a “war on law”.

In the most famous case, Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009. Last year, free speech champion Pu Zhiqiang was given a three year suspended sentence on December 22 and Yang Maodong and Sun Desheng were both convicted during an all-night trial at the time of the American Thanksgiving holiday in November 2015.

“The Chinese government tries to give the impression that they don’t care about the world’s opinion,” Nee said. “In fact the government is very concerned about international public opinion and how people see the rule of law in China developing.”

President Xi Jinping has made strengthening the “rule of law” a hallmark of his regime since coming to power in 2012. But experts say that for politically sensitive cases, the law is used as a tool to jail rights lawyers and activists with legal procedures often ignored.

In a sign that Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned about public opinion, both at home and abroad, a series of propaganda videos have circulated on social media.

One video titled “A Notice to Foreign Forces: We’ve Captured Jiang Tianyong!” was posted by the Communist youth league central committee just days before police officially announced they were investigating him.

The video uses cartoons, photos and even a scene from a Mr Bean film, describing Jiang as a “malefactor” who colluded and received money from unnamed “foreign forces”. Jiang’s detention may be a reprisal for meeting with United Nations experts, according to Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

“These videos are very significant because they are aggressively sending a message to the rights defense and human rights lawyers community,” Nee said. “It’s to frighten these people and say ‘If you stand up for Jiang Tianyong and sign petitions on his behalf, you could be next.’”