For Families of Political Prisoners, a Shadow Hangs over Chinese New Year

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by Sarah Cook

A version of this article was published by the Wall Street Journal Asia on February 4, 2016.

During the Lunar New Year that begins next week—the biggest holiday of the Chinese calendar—over a billion people will gather with relatives to enjoy dumplings, lion dances, and sweet red-bean soup. But in recent weeks, as the authorities announced a series of especially harsh charges and sentences against more than a dozen lawyers and activists, the families of some of China’s leading human rights defenders came to realize that they would be spending this New Year—and likely many future holidays—without their loved ones.

Beyond the personal tragedies they entail, the charges and sentences represent a further escalation in the Communist Party’s efforts under President Xi Jinping to criminalize and punish not only calls for outright political change, but also common forms of legal and internet activism aimed at ensuring fairer enforcement of China’s laws.

Starting on January 9, the six-month legal limit for “residential surveillance in a police-designated location” (a form of detention without formal charges) ended for those detained in a government crackdown launched in July 2015. Within days, the families of six lawyers, paralegals, and administrative assistants received notice that their husbands, mothers, sons, and daughters face charges of “subversion”—a grave political crime that can carry a sentence of life in prison.

Four others were charged with “inciting subversion,” a lesser offense that can draw a 15-year sentence and is routinely used to punish acts like posting criticism of the government online. The families of at least 17 detainees received no news and have been left to imagine what the authorities have in store.

Relatives, friends, colleagues, and foreign observers expressed shock and dismay at the unusually severe charges, the likelihood of long prison sentences, and the implications for human rights, rule of law, and free expression in China. You Minglei, the husband of 24-year-old paralegal Zhao Wei, who has not seen his wife since she was detained last summer, simply said, “That is too big a charge to put on such a little girl.”

Less than a week later, on January 15, a Han Chinese activist from Xinjiang was sentenced to a whopping 19 years in prison. Zhang Haitao was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and “illegally supplying intelligence abroad.” In addition to criticizing government policies in online articles, he had given interviews to U.S.-based radio stations, relaying observations of events in a restive region that is mostly off limits to foreign journalists. Zhang’s wife will now be raising their one-month-old son without his father.

The latest blow came on January 29. A Guangzhou court released the verdict for three men—a lawyer, a writer, and a teacher—who had been involved in human rights and prodemocracy activities over the past decade. Tang Jingling, Yuan Chaoyang, and Wang Qingying were sentenced to five, three and a half, and two and a half years in prison, respectively, after already spending 20 months in custody.

These families are among tens of thousands—and maybe more—that have been forcibly separated from loved ones accused of political or religious “crimes.”

The January cases also highlight two important aspects of the party’s authoritarian tactics. First, the regime is reviving its use of crimes like “subversion” to punish activists after a shift to less overtly political charges in the first years of Xi’s leadership. Second, authorities are extensively using Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law to hold activists in incommunicado “residential surveillance” for six months, realizing fears that rights groups expressed when the provision was adopted in 2012. These trends give some indication of how newer legal restrictions enacted in 2015 could be used to punish peaceful dissent and activism.

But even at such a dark time, many of these remarkable individuals and their families remain committed to the cause of freedom and optimistic about China’s future.

“Dear Father and Mother … no matter how horrible the environment is, you must hang on and live,” wrote Wang Quanzhang, one of the lawyers charged with “subversion,” in a letter he left to be shared should he be detained. “Wait for the day when the clouds will disperse and the sun will come out.”

In the same spirit, when the Year of the Monkey begins on February 8, friends and distant supporters can express solidarity by sending messages, care packages—and even tweets—for the families of China’s human rights defenders (try #HappyCNY to #ChineseHRD).

Even such small gestures can be meaningful, showing that their plight, their loved ones, and the worthwhile cause for which they are sacrificing have not been forgotten.

Sarah Cook is a Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House and director of its China Media Bulletin.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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