While many look forward to relaxing during the December holiday season, the CCP typically leverages foreign distraction during this period to crack down on Chinese human rights defenders. Among those targeted in a recent wave of persecutions are prominent lawyers, activists, and journalists who have been arbitrarily detained, barred from leaving or entering China, or prosecuted in closed-door trials. PEN America described how the Chinese government has a history of locking up dissidents during December in order to evade international scrutiny:
Expert commentators have long warned that Chinese authorities tend to pursue criminal trials against prominent dissidents in late December, when many members of the international community—such as diplomats, journalists, NGO workers, and human rights activists—are out-of-office or otherwise distracted with Christmas and New Year’s. Among the human rights community, this repressive tactic from Chinese authorities is so common it is referred to as a “Christmas surprise.”
In 2009, prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, was tried on charges of inciting subversion on December 23, 2009, and sentenced to eleven years imprisonment on December 25 (Christmas). In 2017, human rights activist Wu Gan was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on Christmas, and that same day, human rights lawyer Xie Yang was declared guilty of inciting subversion. In 2018, human rights lawyer was tried for subversion on December 26. In 2020, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who was arrested for critically reporting on the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, was sentenced to four years imprisonment on December 28, 2020, and two days after, on December 30, ten Hong Kong activists who had been arrested when trying to flee to Taiwan were given prison sentences ranging from seven months to two years. [Source]
🇨🇳 Chinese authorities have become accustomed to seizing, disappearing, and convicting human rights defenders over Christmas, while international attention decreases.
This is what happened two years ago during the #1226crackdown: activists are still detained.
Read more👇 https://t.co/7pxdJhyqsH
— Raphaël Viana (@vdraphael) December 26, 2021
Two notable figures likely facing imminent trials are Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi, members of the New Citizens Movement that authorities began hunting down in December of 2019. The two have been denied permission to meet with their families or lawyers and have reportedly been tortured during their two years in detention, leading to significant deterioration in their health. Their family members have expressed concern that the government may detain them indefinitely. China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) described the history and reasons behind the government’s prosecution of the pair:
Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi are human rights lawyers and leading figures in the “New Citizens Movement”, a civil society movement which has attempted to popularize a new form of civic engagement within China. In early December 2019, both men met with colleagues at an informal gathering of civil society advocates in the coastal city of Xiamen; in the days and months after the meeting, Chinese security forces apprehended many of the attendees. Ding Jiaxi was apprehended December 26, 2019 and Xu Zhiyong was apprehended in February 2020. Both Ding and Xu spent long periods of time incommunicado before being formally arrested; neither man had access to a lawyer until January 2021. Both men have alleged that they have been tortured while in custody.
The indictments against Ding and Xu accuse them of forming the “Citizens Movement,” creating a Telegram group chat, and organizing the December 2019 Xiamen meeting. The indictments also point to both men’s writing—such as essays and articles—as “evidence” of their crimes. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has issued opinions deeming the detentions of Xu and Ding to be arbitrary under international law, and has called for their immediate release. [Source]
“Chinese authorities may use the lull around the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to subject [two] prominent human rights defenders to unfair trials while much of the international community is distracted” — Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi. @CHRDnet https://t.co/LKjv4Z6XK7 pic.twitter.com/xR3SDCZzKv
— Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth) December 21, 2021
Journalists and others should find it immediately useful, for example in assessing the impending “trial” of human rights lawyers and law reformers Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi. @SafeguardDefend 2/2
— Jerome Cohen 孔傑榮(柯恩) (@jeromeacohen) December 16, 2021
I wrote to the Chinese govt about their detention & allegations of mistreatment and torture, but govt responses did not address these allegations. Detaining or sentencing HRDs at end of year, as 🇨🇳 govt often does, does not make these violations invisible. 2/3
— Mary Lawlor UN Special Rapporteur HRDs (@MaryLawlorhrds) December 26, 2021
On 12.26.2019 and the weeks following, 🇨🇳China authorities took away 20+ citizens and lawyers after a private gathering, incl #XuZhiyong #DingJiaxi #ChangWeiping, as well as #LiQiaochu who publicly called for Xu Zhiyong’s release.
Today we mark 2⃣ years since #1226crackdown 🧵👇 https://t.co/fpcR0IPVGL
— ISHR (@ISHRglobal) December 26, 2021
China: Arbitrary detention/torture of rights lawyers #DingJiaxi & #XuZhiyong: @the29principles. @LRWCanada, @L4L_INT & @hrn_friends urge #China to ensure fair trials & end all arbitrary detention & torture. https://t.co/hM2N6d1z3Z https://t.co/hM2N6d1z3Z
— Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada (@LRWCanada) December 24, 2021
On International Human Rights Day, December 10, Chinese police prevented numerous human rights activists and lawyers from leaving their homes by physically locking them inside. That same day, the EU delegation to China held an event to discuss human rights in the country, and Chinese authorities reportedly shut down an entire road on which EU diplomats were expected to pick up one activist for the event. Tang Jitian was one rights attorney prevented from attending the event, and many fear that he has now been detained, as his whereabouts are currently unknown.
Two activists who tried to attend were effectively locked inside their homes by police using their bodies to pin their front doors closed.
Near my office, police shut down an entire embassy street because several activists planned to be picked up there by EU diplomats. https://t.co/wuuwkbzC1P
— Emily Feng 冯哲芸 (@EmilyZFeng) December 11, 2021
— 余文生律师妻子许艳 (@xuyan709) December 9, 2021
EU Mission in Beijing has yet to speak out for lawyer #TangJitian 唐吉田 who disappeared in Liangmaqiao area on Dec 8 on his way to attend EU International #HumanRightsDay event.
欧盟驻北京使团还没有就 #唐吉田 律师在前往出席欧盟使团国际人权日活动途中失踪发出声音。
— Yaxue Cao (@YaxueCao) December 20, 2021
As usual, ALL human rights defenders invited to attend #HumanRightsDay at EU Mission in Beijing were blocked home by police.
— Raphaël Viana (@vdraphael) December 11, 2021
Other prominent human rights defenders have recently been detained. In Hong Kong, Cambridge-educated barrister and journalist Dr. Margaret Ng, a recipient of the International Bar Association’s award for outstanding contributions to human rights, was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly conspiring to distribute seditious materials, along with journalists at Stand News. RSF Press Freedom laureate Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist sentenced to four years in prison for reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, marked the one-year anniversary of her sentencing on Tuesday. After years in pretrial detention, human rights lawyers Li Yuhan, Qin Yongpei, and Hao Jinsong potentially face new criminal trials for defending other lawyers and speaking out against corruption and abuses in Hong Kong. Veteran attorneys Lin Qilei and Liang Xiaojun have also had their legal licenses suspended and revoked, respectively, for their defense of Hong Kong democracy protesters and other activists.
It’s been one year today since citizen journalist #ZhangZhan was sentenced, after exposing uncfortable truths about #Covid in China.@SafeguardDefend analyzed the farce that was her trial, still relevant today.https://t.co/mvsnONOpPB
— Peter Dahlin (@Peterinexile) December 28, 2021
As expected, #China likes to make its moves during Christmas when the world’s attention is the other way. https://t.co/AVGQldUKvx
— Safeguard Defenders (保护卫士) (@SafeguardDefend) December 29, 2021
To mark the 2021 Human Rights Day, TCHRD will release the Tibetan Political Prisoners Database (TPPD) to highlight the situation of political detainees tortured and imprisoned for exercising human rights. #StandUp4HumanRights #HumanRightsDay #TPPD https://t.co/ILS3B8e9qo
— Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (@tchrd_) December 10, 2021
Information blackout on #ZhangZhan‘s health conditions:
Her lawyer @wuhanzhangkeke has been waiting to be allowed to meet with her since mid-Oct.
Her brother @Jeffreychang81 has stopped tweeting.
Her mum is silent on WeChat.
Friends can’t visit the family. https://t.co/lq2frT5H3g
— Jane Wang 王剑虹 #FreeZhangZhan #释放张展 (@changchengwai) December 18, 2021
#FreeZhangZhan petition drive is still open for signatures until 12/28.
— CHRD人权捍卫者 (@CHRDnet) December 24, 2021
Border controls are another arbitrary way for the CCP to punish activists. Wang Dan, a prominent leader of the 1989 democracy movement now living in exile in the U.S., was prevented from visiting his dying mother in China due to an entry ban imposed by the CCP. His mother, Wang Lingyun, passed away on Monday, alone in a Beijing hospital. Wang Dan shared his grief online, writing that “her greatest wish was that I would be able to come back to Beijing to be with her.” Exit bans impose similarly cruel restrictions. Zhang Qing, the wife of human rights activist Yang Maodong (also known as Guo Feixiong), appealed to Chinese authorities on Monday to let her husband leave China to visit her in the U.S. before she passes away from terminal cancer. In her open letter, she wrote, “Never could I imagine the Chinese authorities were capable of such inhumane cruelty – to keep him locked up when my life is coming to an end, it’s very shocking to me.”
— 王丹 (@wangdan1989) December 28, 2021
Chinese activist Guo Feixiong lost contact with the outside world again after he tried to gain #Beijing‘s permission to leave #China and visit his wife Zhang Qing, who is reportedly ill from bowel cancer in the US. My latest for @dw_chinese (Eng ver): https://t.co/FGA7B3vCod
— William Yang (@WilliamYang120) December 21, 2021
— Peter Dahlin (@Peterinexile) December 25, 2021
Human rights lawyer Tang Jitian has been disappeared for 10 days now. He has been banned from leaving China to visit his daughter, who is on life support, in Japan. This is the kind of cruelty the Chinese government exerts on its critics. https://t.co/c5xJCbwEbE
— Yaqiu Wang 王亚秋 (@Yaqiu) December 18, 2021
Enabling some of these prosecutions is China’s opaque system of extralegal forced disappearance, Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), which has been heavily documented by Safeguard Defenders. Erin Hale at Al Jazeera reflected on the Chinese government’s increasing use of RSDL over the past decade:
Following changes to Chinese criminal law in 2012, police now have had the right to detain anyone – foreign or Chinese – for up to six months at a designated location without disclosing their whereabouts. Spain-based rights group Safeguard Defenders say that as many as 27,208 to 56,963 people have gone through China’s RSDL system since 2013, citing data from the Supreme People’s Court and the testimony of survivors and lawyers.
[…] [Co-founder of Safeguard Defenders Michael] Caster estimated that in 2020 between 10,000 to 15,000 went through the system, up from just 500 in 2013.
[…] William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator at China Human Rights Defenders, said since RSDL was first employed almost a decade ago, use of the extrajudicial detention system has changed from an exception in its early days to a more widely used tool.
“Before, when Ai Wei Wei was taken away, they had to make an excuse that it was really about his business, or a tax issue or something like that. So there’s this trend, a decade or two ago, where they would use a pretence to detain someone when the real reason was their public participation or their political views,” said Nee. “There was a fear that [RSDL] was going to make it more routine ‘legal,’ given a veneer of legality and legitimacy to it. And I think that’s been well borne out.” [Source]
Thousands upon thousands of #RSDL verdicts are being scrubbed from “China Judgment Online”, one of the few positive developments about transparency in China’s judiciary for many years. Like in many areas, it is now going in reverse. https://t.co/4QdcmyEFwW
— Peter Dahlin (@Peterinexile) December 22, 2021