The weekend saw a whirlwind of flying accusations in China, as close to 150 of the nation’s most prominent human rights lawyers, activists and social media presences were detained, called in for questioning, or simply went missing.
The nationwide sweep began on Thursday, July 9, when high-profile human rights lawyer Wang Yu went missing around 4:00 a.m., after sending a text message to friends describing how her electricity and internet had abruptly cut out. Another text followed shortly thereafter describing a break-in, and by the morning she was missing.
Wang Yu is an employee of the heavily targeted Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing, known for specializing in human rights cases. As of 11:00 a.m. on July 14, Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) still listed Wang Yu, along with six other Fengrui employees, as incommunicado since their detainment or disappearance. The others include Fengrui’s accountant and administrative assistant, as well as firm director Zhou Zhifeng, who represented recently released Chinese journalist Zhang Miao. Zhang was detained for nine months after reporting on Hong Kong’s mass democracy protest Occupy Central for a German magazine.
Over 20 people remain detained or missing. This group includes Li Heping, perhaps best known for defending Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer and activist known for his vocal stance against certain government policies and his dramatic escape from house arrest in 2012.
Another 124 people were temporarily detained and/or summoned for questioning during the crackdown netizens have nicknamed “Black Friday”, and have since been released.
On Sunday, amid protests in Hong Kong calling for the release of the lawyers, China media outlet People’s Daily published a report written by the Ministry of Public Security, which described the ordeal in its own words as: “a group suspected of disturbing public order and making profits by illegally hiring protesters in an attempt to influence court decisions has been broken up”. The report, entitled “The Dark Tricks of the ‘Rights’ Movement”, details the allegations against those taken into custody or for questioning.
More specifically, the “group” of human rights lawyers, media presences and activists, is accused of orchestrating over 40 incidents, including the controversial fatal shooting of a man who attacked a police officer in Heilongjiang’s Qing’an railway station in May. Xinhua describes the type of accusations China’s most eminent defenders of human rights will face in the context of the incident:
First, it was the lawyers’ job to hype up an incident, according to Zhai Yanmin, a major organizer of the group.
[…] Lawyers spread rumors that “Li opened fire at Xu under the order of an official because Xu was a petitioner.” They also raised placards at Qing’an Railway Station and kept pressuring local officials.
Then the job shifted to social media celebrities and petitioners. Wu Gan, known for “boldly” stirring controversial incidents, posted messages on his social media account, offering 100,000 yuan (16,106 U.S. dollars) for any video clips that have caught the “truth” of the incident.
Zhai then hired “petitioners” to shout slogans, sit quietly and raise defiant signs to support the lawyers.
[…] “They have been following the protocol in hyping up such incidents since 2013, when I first entered the business,” said Zhai, adding many of his peers were resentful of the Party and the government, taking pride in being detained by the police. By turning common matters into hot issues and controversial incidents into political ones and rallying the public, the suspects have taken what they each needed.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, Zhai Wu is a suspect who has chosen to confess. Zhai allegedly even detailed how the lawyers were able to communicate with each other, bringing another unlikely candidate under the knife. It is said Zhai pointed fingers at instant messaging app Telegram, and specifically its secret chat mode, to orchestrate attacks against the government. Telegram now features on the long list of blocked applications in China.
The US Department of State condemned the behavior of Chinese security forces on Sunday, causing the state-run Global Times to step in with their own article yesterday, entitled “US Sings Old Tune Over Radical Lawyers”:
The US tone is consistent with its past rebukes of China over human rights issues.
There is also a difference. When China was weak, US accusations were like a stick, but this has now changed. The latest US statement will have no real effects except making Chinese people feel slightly uncomfortable.
The detentions are China’s internal affairs. Specifically, taking away lawyers from Beijing Fengrui Law Firm should serve to increase understanding among Chinese lawyers and promote China’s rule of law as much as possible. This carries more significance than mulling about a response to a US rebuke.
[…] Besides the US State Department, opposing voices also came from radical groups in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Those voices are rather repellent to the Chinese mainland public. Actually, many in the mainland hold the view that if people receive support from external forces, it means they are not really decent.
[…] The crackdown of the criminal gang involving several rights lawyers is a step toward realizing China’s social stability, through which Chinese should acquire more confidence in the ideological contention between China and the West. It is more than a struggle for peace, but rather a struggle for hearts and minds.
Human rights activists, as well as individual groups and activists, have all shown deep concern over Xi Jinping’s unsympathetic attitude in the world of human rights violations. Hopes that China’s poor record of human rights abuses may change under new leadership have long-since turned somber, as an extensive list of rights abuses continues to lengthen, and the slightest dissent is met with unwavering punishment.
Perhaps an even greater source of concern is that the only voices with the dexterity to defend human rights in China are in the process of being targeted—and punished.
[Images via Americans.org // CNN]
By Giulia Sciota