Swede’s Crime Confession on China TV Rattles Foreign Groups

BEIJING—The detention and televised confession of political crimes by a Swedish activist in China has sent chills through communities of foreigners that engage in civic issues in the country.

Beijing’s public shaming of Peter Dahlin is a sign that China’s leaders may now be trying to muzzle international critics with the same tactics they’ve deployed against local dissidents, say activists, lawyers and academics.

In footage that was played repeatedly by state broadcaster China Central Television on Wednesday, Mr. Dahlin is shown admitting to having broken Chinese laws through a small legal-aid nonprofit he co-founded in 2009.

“I have caused harm to the Chinese government, I have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” Mr. Dahlin says in the video. “I apologize sincerely for this and am very sorry that this ever happened.”

State media reports accused the Swede of endangering state security—a serious crime that carries a potential life-sentence—by funding Chinese human-rights lawyers and compiling reports on China’s rights record. They also alleged that hostile foreign forces planted Mr. Dahlin in China.

In a statement on Thursday, a spokesman for Mr. Dahlin’s nonprofit, called the China Urgent Action Working Group, dismissed the allegations as baseless and suggested his confession had been coerced. The charges show “the authorities consider the promotion of human rights through public interest litigation to be a criminal activity,” said Michael Caster, the spokesman.

The Swedish Embassy in Beijing noted the media reports about Mr. Dahlin but declined to comment further. Swedish officials “continue to work intensively” on Mr. Dahlin’s detention, an embassy spokeswoman said.

China’s Foreign Ministry has said it is respecting Mr. Dahlin’s legal rights, including granting consular officials access to him.

Televised confessions are increasingly common in China, but rare for foreigners and even more so for political crimes. In 2013, Charles Xue, a Chinese-American businessman who criticized the government online, confessed on TV to soliciting prostitutes. The same year, Peter Humphrey, a British investigator involved in a business dispute, confessed on TV to illegally obtaining personal information on Chinese citizens for profit. Both men were detained and then released, Mr. Humphrey after nearly two years.


This image from Chinese TV shows Peter Dahlin, the Swedish co-founder of a nonprofit in China, confessing to political crimes that his advocates say was coerced. PHOTO: CCTV VIA AP VIDEO

Mr. Dahlin’s disappearance in early January and subsequent reappearance on television two weeks later has stoked anxiety among other foreigners working on Chinese civil society issues, including in areas previously seen as less sensitive, such as anti-discrimination.

“This is a red alert. It’s super red,” said one former country director of a foreign nonprofit in China.

The portrayal of Mr. Dahlin as an instrument of hostile foreign forces comes amid a resurgence in Maoist ideological rhetoric and heightened concern in China over the influence of foreign ideas.

Much of Beijing’s attention has focused on the influence of foreign civic groups, which Beijing fears could be trying to foment unrest of the sort that toppled regimes in the former Soviet Union and more recently in the Middle East. Foreign media coverage, textbooks and scholarship have also come under attack in state media.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, an expert in modern Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said the treatment of Mr. Dahlin illustrates the growing difficulty of determining where Beijing’s political red lines are—and the harsher punishments meted out for crossing them.

“There are many cases where things that seemed relatively unproblematic to do a few years ago or even 12 months ago have gotten people into trouble,” he said. “The system has always been far from purely rational and predictable, but now it is even more so.”

One key source of concern in Mr. Dahlin’s case, some foreigners say, is state media’s depiction of reports he wrote on China’s human-rights situation as being a part of his criminal activity. CCTV said reports Mr. Dahlin sent to foreign groups were based on data he collected online and hadn’t personally witnessed, raising questions over their accuracy.

Legal experts say these were likely standard memos that are required by nearly all major nonprofit donors.

“They make it seem like it’s some sinister foreign intelligence report when in fact it’s the most natural of observations about how money is being spent to improve human rights in China.” said Jerome Cohen, a veteran China legal scholar at New York University.

The segment also showed an interview with a member of China Urgent Action Working Group identified only by his surname, Wang, who said Mr. Dahlin twisted or fabricated facts in the reports. “In fact, the aim was to create a disturbance, to wait for the right moment to try to subvert our nation’s sovereignty and the leadership of the party,” the man said. Chinese activists identified the man as Wang Qiushi, a human-rights lawyer who was detained by police this month.

The criminalizing of negative reports about China could potentially curb the activities of not just activists, but academics, analysts, journalists and others involved in collecting and publishing information about China, legal experts said.

“One could well imagine that reports regarding health or other subjects like that which might be considered injurious, given the very broad definition China has of its national security, could also be subject to prosecution,” said Lester Ross, a lawyer with many years’ experience working in China.

Some in China have advocated using the country’s criminal laws to more aggressively counter international criticism of the country. In December, a website belonging to the Communist Youth League quoted legal scholar Zhu Wei arguing that a German citizen who had compared Mao Zedong to Hitler in a controversial YouTube video could be punished under Chinese law—even though he lives abroad.

Mr. Wasserstrom said a rising tide of official criticism might make it riskier to conduct some research in China and lead to self-censorship by younger scholars eager to maintain research access in the country.

Please follow this link if you wish to write to the author, Josh Chin.  

Please click this link to view the original Wall Street Journal article, "Swede’s Crime Confession on China TV Rattles Foreign Groups." 

Please click this link to read more about China's crack down on local political dissidents. 

Please click this link for more information on Charles Xue's arrest and release. 

Please click this link for Peter Humphrey's personal narrative of his life inside Chinese jail. 

Please click this link to read more about the Chinese government's hostile attitude towards foreign non-profits. 

Please click this link for more information on the release of the Chinese women's-rights activist group Feminist Five. 

Ling Li's Article Cited in WSJ's China Real Time Report

This article was originally published on August 1, 2013 in the Wall Street Journal's China Real Time Report. In this article, Stanley Lubman cites USALI Research Scholar Ling Li's investigation into corruption in China's judiciary. 

The Gaping Hole in China’s Corruption Fight

By Stanley Lubman

The ongoing campaign against corruption that forms the backbone of new Chinese president Xi Jinping’s reform platform is not nearly as robust as Communist Party media would have us believe. It is directed more at symptoms than causes and is limited in scope due to fears of citizen agitation on broader issues such as press freedom and transparency. It also suffers from a glaring and an important omission: The judicial system, although it should be the appropriate institution for exposure and punishment of offenders, is itself infected by corruption that up to now has gone unmentioned.

An ongoing Chinese government investigation into drug maker GlaxoSmithKline for allegedly using a travel agency to channel some 3 billion yuan in bribes highlights the depth of China’s corruption problem. Even in the country’s hospital system, where lives hang in the balance, doctors and other medical staff routinely take kickbacks from pharmaceutical firms and sellers of medical equipment.

Xi Jinping rightly recognizes that corruption is so deeply embedded in Chinese political life that it threatens the very life of the Communist Party. But going after foreign companies is relatively easy. The question is whether Xi and the rest of the party leadership are willing or able to confront more fundamental abuses at the heart of the political system.

The credibility of China’s current anti-corruption campaign has plummeted following a crackdown on activists calling for greater governmental transparency. More than a dozen have been taken into custody in recent months, including well-known human rights advocate, law lecturer Xu Zhiyong, who was detained by Chinese police in July because he had “gathered crowds to disrupt public order.” In May, Xu, together with others, issued an open letter that urged release of 10 activists who had been arrested for publicly demonstrating against corruption and who had called on officials to disclose their financial assets.

By detaining Xu, Chinese authorities have silenced one of the country’s more prominent advocates of legal reform. In doing so, they have lessened pressure on themselves to confront the corruption infecting the country’s courts.

To be sure, in recent years judicial professionalism in China has increased, and the number of court personnel investigated for violations of discipline has fallen, from 712 in 2008 to 519 in 2011. Yet many who work in the system continue to describe it as severely impaired. Not long ago, a lawyer in a large Chinese law firm told me that he avoids litigation as much as possible because of rampant corruption in the courts.

The problems of the courts have been well-documented. Available sources summarized here suggest that the wide extent of corruption is facilitated by the way the courts are organized and supervised. The courts are not independent because they are bureaucratic organs in the political system, no different than other government agencies. As Hong Kong-based political scientist Gong Ting wrote in The China Review, the finances of the courts are determined by the local government. Senior judges are nominated by the local CPC Committee and endorsed by the local People’s Congress, meaning judges whose decisions are seen to violate Party policy may be discharged or otherwise punished. The courts are subject to the extra-legal authority of the Political-Legal Secretary of the local Party Committee, which deals with difficult and important cases referred to it.

The courts are not publicly accountable because decision-making is dominated by their Adjudication Committees, composed of senior judges who are also members of the Party leadership within the court. The Adjudication Committee is supposed to review “significant” or “complicated” cases—although neither term is legislatively defined and judicial discretion is very broad.

Xin He of City University of Hong Kong studied one court in which the committee reviewed most criminal cases, often increasing criminal fines, likely because the court was seeking increased revenue. Civil cases were reviewed because “the committee is a good shelter for avoiding risk.” The adjudicating judge, who originally heard the case, is relieved of responsibility if any solution turns out badly– because the committee decides cases collectively. Last but not least, the committee is a “safety device to protect the adjudicating judges and the committee members from being accused of corruption.” It can also “accommodate ….extra-legal interferences,” such as judicial accession to easily hidden outside political demands.

Another study, by Li Ling from the Northwest University of Political Science and Law, relies on media reports and press releases related to charges of corruption against 388 judges between 2005 and 2008. The author argues that judicial corruption is not the “deviant behavior of a few black sheep eluding prescribed judicial conduct” but “an institutionalized activity” at the center of the judicial system, embedded in courts’ decision-making process. She also found that corruption isn’t limited to higher-level judges; it frequently involves lower-level judges, whether collaborating with superiors or acting on their own.

The power of the Party leaders embedded in the courts is comprehensive. Without participating in court proceedings they can instruct leaders of the court by sending internal instructions to their subordinates that merely dictate the desired result in the case and do not have to be supported by any reasoning, nor referenced in the final decision. Moreover, the Party leader who issues the instruction “is not responsible for the legitimacy of his acts,” even if procedural or substantive laws are violated or misapplied. The leaders can control the outcomes of many cases without ”rational legal interpretation and adjudication” even though they do not participate in the entire process of adjudication– a perversion of the judicial function as it is understood in systems based on the rule of law.

The issue of corruption in the courts has not been raised in the current anti-corruption drive, probably because judicial reform of any kind would affect the basic roots of CPC power. One American scholar, Elizabeth Economy, observes that there is “no institutional change to ensure that that roots of corruption are addressed” and none seem likely in the near future.

A number of foreign observers seem to agree that the Party-state’s concern to maintain “social stability” is the reason limiting the reach of the campaign. As Beijing-based political scientist Russell Leigh Moses put it in a column for China Real Time last month, “the issue is how much information and oversight do you give people without undermining party rule.”

Failing to hold the legal system accountable for its own corruption may be hypocritical, but it’s a hypocrisy the Party likely believes it must live with at the moment, even if it will came back to haunt them later.