China, which recently basked in the glow of an international summit, will end this week in the spotlight for its treatment of at least three prominent human rights advocates.
On Thursday, the lawyer representing Pu Zhiqiang, an attorney who has advocated on behalf of China’s disenfranchised, said authorities have told him Pu faces upgraded charges that could land him in prison for decades.
On Friday, a Beijing court is scheduled to begin the trial against Gao Yu, a journalist accused of leaking a government document that, among other things, sought to expand censorship. She faces a possible life sentence if convicted.
Also on Friday, a court in far-west Xinjiang province is expected to announce its decision in an appeal filed by Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar who was sentenced to life in prison in September for “separatism.” Supporters say he is being punished for criticizing government treatment of Uighurs, Muslims who call Xinjiang their homeland.
Human rights groups say the three actions, along with others, signal that Chinese President Xi Jinping will continue to apply a hard line at home, even as he acts as a gracious international host.
“It is very worrying,” said William Nee, a China researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong. “We are now seeing more cases (of Chinese dissidents) being accused of ‘splitism’ and subversion simply for voicing their opinions.”
The accusations are doubly troubling, said Nee and other advocates, because all three activists are known in their communities for being loyal Chinese citizens, trying to work within the system for social change.
In Pu’s case, the lawyer once seemed to be in good standing with China’s Communist Party and was quoted prominently in state media as part of a successful campaign to end forced-labor camps.
In May, however, Pu gathered at a private home with a dozen other Beijing intellectuals to commemorate the 1989 military assault on protesters at Tiananmen Square. As they had done five years ago, those in attendance posed for a photo that was posted on the Internet.
Authorities detained Pu and at least four others after the meeting, charging him with “picking quarrels and causing trouble.” On Thursday, Pu’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, said that authorities have told him Pu could face two far more serious charges – “inciting ethnic hatred” and “separatism” – should they decide to prosecute.
Mo said the public security department has concluded its investigation and has provided the materials to the “procuratorate,” the agency that decides on prosecutions in China. In an interview with McClatchy, Mo said it could take a month and half to know if a prosecution could occur.
As first reported by Reuters, the charge of inciting ethnic hatred stems from a blog post Pu wrote about a March 1 knife attack in southwest China that killed 29 people and injured many others. China blamed the attack on terrorists from Xinjiang, an assertion that suggested they were Uighurs, who’ve long resented Chinese rule.
In his post, Pu said that the government tends to report violence attributed to Uighurs without acknowledging any responsibility for the cruelty inflicted on them. “I am not satisfied with that,” Pu reportedly wrote in his March 2 blog post.
Chinese policies in Xinjiang are also behind the charge of separatism that was leveled against Tohti, who once wrote a blog critical of government actions in Xinjiang while making clear he was not an advocate of Uighur independence. Human rights group say his trial was a farce, with lawyers unable to present witnesses in his defense. They say his health has worsened while in a Xinjiang prison as he tries to appeal his life sentence.
“The authorities have refused to allow Ilham Tohti’s family to attend his appeal,” Amnesty said in a statement this week. “According to his lawyers, Tohti was denied food for 10 days and had his feet shackled for more than 20 days while in detention ahead of his initial trial in September.”
The case against Gao is only the latest of several run-ins the investigative reporter has had with the Communist Party, in part because of her deep connections inside the party. She faced a 14-month detention in 1989 after a Hong Kong newspaper published a story she wrote in support of the protests in Tiananmen Square. In the 1990s, she served six years in prison, accused of leaking government documents she’d obtained.
In the most recent case, authorities invoked China’s broad “state secrets” law in May to detain Gao, 70. They accused her of distributing a protected government document to a foreign website.
The government hasn’t named the document Gao allegedly leaked, but there was once wide speculation that it was “Document No. 9,” which laid out the government’s plans for maintaining ideological controls in China. The document gained international attention in August 2013 when the Hong Kong-based Mingjing Monthly published it.
Since then, the magazine’s publisher has denied that Gao was the source of Document No. 9, adding to uncertainty about what she’s accused of leaking.
Rights group say the case illustrates how Chinese journalists enjoy hardly any of the liberties taken for granted elsewhere, even though China’s constitution guarantees freedom of the press.
“Gao Yu’s case is a frontal assault on the freedom of expression and access to information,” Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “China should drop the charges immediately or face widespread international condemnation.”
Nee noted there have been many other cases recently in which authorities detained and arrested Chinese citizens for using the Internet to express opinions. Recently, authorities have detained several people nationwide for using microblogs to support the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The backlash comes as China this week hosts a World Internet Conference in Wuzhen, near Shanghai, that seeks to elevate its standing in the cybersphere.
Last month, a top committee of China’s Communist Party held a widely publicized plenum aimed at modernizing the nation’s legal apparatus.
“There has been so much talk lately about the importance of the rule of law,” said Nee. “But authorities continue to pick and choose when to apply it.”
McClatchy special correspondent Tiantian Zhang contributed to this report.