Chinese police have detained more than 220 lawyers and human rights activists during the last three weeks, one of the widest suppressions of dissent since Xi Jinping came to power in late 2012.
Authorities have forced public confessions from some of those detained. State media have labeled several as “venal scam artists.” As of Friday, at least 22 detained lawyers and activists were still in custody or missing, according to an ongoing tabulation by Amnesty International.
As the detentions continue, veteran China watchers are debating what is behind this latest police action. Some say the Communist Party appears to feel increasingly vulnerable, and thus is jailing and intimidating even the mildest critics who might pose a threat to continued one-party rule.
Eva Pils, a law specialist at King’s College London who has been studying Chinese rights activists, sees it stemming from the very top in response to changes China has undergone in the last three decades.
During the early part of the last decade, the party seemed tolerant of certain human rights lawyers who drove reform. Now they are being jailed.
“Xi Jinping,” she said, referring to the country’s supreme leader, “seems to dislike the creeping liberalization that, from his perspective, must have set in like a sort of rot in the post-Mao era. I think he is trying to reverse that trend, and cracking down on the human rights lawyers is part of a wider campaign to achieve this.”
Others question whether Xi and China’s rulers are truly nervous or just feeling increasingly invincible, making them more willing to take actions that might spark condemnation abroad.
They are in control, and they are further consolidating their control.
Keith Hand, Chinese law expert
“We need to acknowledge the possibility of an alternative interpretation,” said Keith Hand, a specialist in Chinese legal reform at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. “It’s possible this is not a sign of fragility, but a sign that they feel very confident, both at home and on the international stage.”
Hand points to Beijing’s recent aggressive actions in the South China Sea as one sign of an emboldened regime. Despite international criticism, China has pushed ahead in building artificial islands and military facilities in these disputed waters.
Under Xi’s reign, he noted, party leaders have also enacted a new national security law, limits on foreign “non-governmental organizations” and further restrictions on the Internet.
71,000 number of Communist party officials punished last year for corruption or living too well, according to the state-run China Daily.
“They are in control, and they are further consolidating their control,” said Hand. “This is a party that systemically studies the past downfalls of communist regimes, particularly the fall of the Soviet Union, and learns lessons from them. That is something Xi Jinping has really emphasized since he came to power.”
Pils, however, says that are several signs of fragility within the party. Xi’s on-going anti-corruption crusade, while popular with the Chinese people, is taking on the signs of an internal “purge,” she said, and possibly creating some nervous party factions.
The anti-graft effort “clearly indicates a sense of vulnerability and at the same time, it has got to have the effect of increasing vulnerability,” Pils said in an email exchange.
In the first half of this year, 19,000 party officials were punished for breaking frugality rules or outright corruption. Last year, more than 71,000 were punished, according to a report Thursday in the state-run China Daily.
The crackdown on free expression and civil society is deeply distressing, but not necessarily a sign of weakness.
The Communist Party’s durability is a regular topic of discourse both inside and outside of China, but this year it has been more heated than normal.
In March, a well-known China analyst, David Shambaugh, published a commentary in the Wall Street Journal stating that “the endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun.” Shambaugh argued that signs of a crumbling regime included attacks on rights activists, a stalling economy and rich Chinese moving their wealth overseas.
Others disagreed. Arthur Kroeber, managing director of a global economics research firm, rebutted Shambaugh’s argument a few days later, noting a long history of failed prognostications about the party’s demise.
“The crackdown on free expression and civil society is deeply distressing, but not necessarily a sign of weakness,” Kroeber wrote on the ChinaFile site. “It could equally be seen as an assertion of confidence in the success of China's authoritarian-capitalist model.”
During the early part of the last decade, the party seemed relatively tolerant of certain human rights lawyers; state media even applauded those seen as helping to advance national goals. One of these lawyers was Xu Zhiyong, who represented migrants who’d been denied basic rights to health care and education. He also represented victims of tainted milk formula.
But early in 2014, Xu was put on trial for “gathering crowds to disturb public order,” and was later sentenced to four years in jail.
In May that year, police detained prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who had participated in a private meeting of activists to remember the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. Pu has since been in detention for “picking quarrels” and is almost certain to be jailed whenever his trial is held.
In the latest detentions, authorities have focused on the Fengrui law firm in Beijing, whose lawyers have represented Illham Tohti, a Uighur academic who was sentenced to life in prison last year. It also represented artist Ai Weiwei, who last week received his passport back after authorities barred him from foreign travel starting in 2011.
Police detained at least six members of the law firm, including its director, Zhou Shifeng, for “inciting disorder.” Just over a week ago, Chinese state media reported that Zhou had confessed publicly and issued a statement purported from him.
“It is beyond doubt that the law firm has had some breaches. Some specific behavior has been illegal and even criminal, the errors are serious,” the People’s Daily quoted Mr Zhou as saying.
Hand, the Hastings law professor, said groups of lawyers have helped enact several legal reforms the last four years, including a 2011 restriction on urban property seizures and a 2013 decision to dismantle China’s much-criticized practice of “reeducation through labor.” To do so, they used tools such as social media and petitioning.
Now, he said, lawyers will have to tread carefully in advancing rights in other areas, such as limits on the government seizing homes and cropland from farmers and rural residents.
“There is little space to operate now,” he said. “They will only tolerate judicial advocacy under strict limits – with no mobilization of public opinion.”
Stuart Leavenworth: @sleavenworth