As public discontent runs high, China is once more embracing totalitarianism and rejecting governing in accordance with law
March 31, 2011
China’s human rights lawyers are currently experiencing unprecedented persecution. Over the past 40 days, six lawyers have been taken away by the police and disappeared. Dozens of other rights defenders, activists and dissidents have also been taken away; and one of the lawyers has resurfaced under circumstances suggesting that he was badly tortured. He was described as “looking like a mummy”. Such cases used to be very rare. Lawyer Gao Zhisheng, disappeared three times since 2007, reappeared twice to tell stories of horrible torture.
It is not as though China lacks laws prohibiting torture, or as though it could not put its political critics through an ordinary – if not a fair – criminal process, which among other things would require them having access to lawyers. But rather than being punished for what they have done, these lawyers and their colleagues are being terrorised for what they might yet do.
In a society in which discontent runs high, and in which there have been anonymous calls for a Chinese “jasmine revolution”, the party-state fears lawyers and activists exposing its wrongs, helping people affected by injustices ranging from illegal land-grabs and demolitions to political or religious persecution. The authorities have long relied on abuses to control certain groups, such as petitioners, but had until recently treated the professionals who gave a voice to their grievances with a little more respect. “Now they’re getting so nervous, they’ve started really hating us,” one of the lawyers told me about a month before vanishing.
In part, it has to be admitted, the current wave of terror seems unprecedented because there were no human rights lawyers when Tiananmen Square, the cultural revolution, and other brutal and destructive crackdowns and movements occurred. Forty years ago, few Chinese people would have thought of legally challenging rights infringements because there were hardly any legal institutions to speak of. The legal system has only over the past two decades begun to accommodate the use of law against human rights violations – a kind of work that always also involves changing the system gradually and nonviolently from within.
Now, the system that has been trying to seek legitimacy from legality has become afraid of people taking the idea of law too seriously. Perhaps the Communist party leadership could not anticipate that rights would become so popular. And who could have predicted the rise of the internet with its increased opportunities for activism, allowing lawyers to take their advocacy outside China’s controlled courtrooms? It is becoming increasingly apparent that the leadership has decided to change course politically, away from “governing in accordance with law” and back to a more totalitarian system.
Human rights lawyers keep a sort of mental list of persons likely to be targeted next, depending on how active they have recently been. Lawyers Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong and Teng Biao in Beijing, Liu Shihui and Tang Jingling in Guangzhou, and Li Tiantian in Shanghai were high up on that list before the police took them away.
From the authorities’ point of view, the trick is to manage these lists. They “need” to disappear those at the top and frighten those lower down; to allow just enough information out to instil fear, but not enough information for anyone to hold them responsible. They need to prevent any potentially hard-hitting accounts and images that would damage them (think of Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo Bay), through intimidation and control extending to the remotest village, if need be. I could go into a little more detail, if it weren’t for the fact that I, too, had to be afraid of the consequences for my friends.
This is how terror works itself into the consciousness of everyone, even those supposedly shielded from it. A child whose father is among the disappeared recently said to her mother: “We mustn’t think too much about Dad, because you say that this will make a person sneeze (the Chinese equivalent of “making someone’s ears burn”). If he is badly wounded, sneezing will make him hurt even worse.”
Anyone would be reluctant to report when this would put an informant at risk: one cannot entirely escape this logic of terror. But there is at least one thing foreign governments and publics can do, which is to ask the Chinese government where the disappeared rights defenders are, why they have been taken away, and how they are being treated. We must ask these questions, not only privately but also in public, to avoid becoming complicit in what is done to them.