On late Friday afternoon on July 15, the Second Branch Procuratorate of the Tianjin People’s Procuratorate announced on its official Weibo account that four of the several dozen lawyers and activists detained since July 2015, in what is known as the “709 Incident” or “709 Crackdown,” have been indicted. The message was quickly re-posted and reported by People’s Daily and other mouthpiece media:
On July 15, 2016, the Second Branch Procuratorate of the Tianjin People’s Procuratorate, upon review, has decided according to law to indict Zhou Shifeng, Hu Shigen, Zhai Yanmin, Gou Hongguo respectively in the Tianjin Second People’s Intermediate Court for the alleged crime of subversion of state power.
Zhou Shifeng is the director of Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, and over his legal career has represented many victims of social injustice and political persecution, including victims of contaminated milk powder in 2008 and, more recently, the 82-year-old writer Tie Liu who was arrested in 2014 for his writing. The other three are activists, among them Hu Shigen, who was a political prisoner for 16 years from 1992 to 2008, and a house church leader in Beijing.
A few hours later on Friday evening, Legal Daily, a state outlet, posted two commentaries similar in composition and views. They were quickly reposted by other media and the major internet portals. As state media have done over the past year on television, in print media, and online, the two articles repeated the same attacks on China’s human rights lawyers and activists.
Without the rule of law and press freedom, China’s rights defense movement early on developed a model of simultaneously using multiple instruments of pressure: lawyers worked together with liberal journalists, intellectuals, and activists to challenge injustice in court and publicize cases online, while citizen activists congregated on site to provide support. Social media has made this kind of networking much easier and more efficient. But the reality remains that right lawyers and social activists lose most cases, and win only a few.
But the government has not stopped at merely suppressing them – with the 709 crackdown, it has escalated its hostility to a new height.
In language reminiscent of Mao-style political purges, the article, titled “Zhou Shifeng and the others deserve to be indicted for endangering state security,” describes the legal fight for freedom of expression, religious freedom, social injustice, and even for issues like food safety and women and children’s rights, as “challenging state security and the fundamental political system.” These were called “criminal activities aimed at subverting state power.”
In any case, this defines, unequivocally, the government’s thinking and motivation behind the 709 crackdown.
The other article, titled “How Zhou Shifeng and others fell into an abyss, step by step,” describes the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm as “a premeditated, planned, organized clique that collides with foreign anti-China forces.”
Both articles direct their ultimate criticism at the “foreign subversive forces.” One of them says:
Inevitably, the contestation of global politics has always infiltrated, will always infiltrate, everywhere, and it has always been the strong suit of the West to criticize China’s ‘human rights’ issues. China has been accelerating its comprehensive reforms, and judicial construction and human rights protections are at the forefront. From government to society, countless forces have been working unceasingly, among them lawyers across the board, making efforts without much fanfare. Unable to find an opening [to exploit] anywhere, the West fastens its concern for human rights on a small number of dissidents and those so-called ‘opinion leaders,’ bankrolling them for their ‘confrontation.’ As a result, a small number of ‘rights lawyers’ have become the leverage the West uses for political contestation with China.
The other article gives examples of individuals and organizations that constitute “foreign anti-China forces.” They include:
- “Journalists with the Associated Press and the German public TV Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen that reported on the Fengrui Law Firm.” This assertion is based on photos posted on Fengrui’s website and by its Weibo account;
- “The famous anti-China American Congressman Chris Smith.” According to the article, Smith strongly condemned the arrest of rights lawyers, “but in a slip of the tongue acknowledged that he had met with some of the detained lawyers.” “Smith is a 100% anti-China old hand, and has appeared in many anti-China events in the U. S. from 2006 to 2014.”
- “The foreign ministries of the U. S., Germany, and Britain or their embassies in China issued statements respectively on July 9 that hyped the seriousness of the ‘709 incident’ and demanded the release of the lawyers involved. In doing so, they attempted in vain to pressure our political system with the pretext of ‘human rights issues.’”
- “Some Western legal groups and organizations issued open letters to pressure the Chinese government. The American Bar Association even awarded the ‘International Human Rights Award’ to the detained Wang Yu.”
The articles also lists supposed collusive activities with foreign forces: “going abroad to participate in training on subverting state power;” “receiving foreign funding;” and “posting news on overseas websites.”
According to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, 24 lawyers and activists are currently in custody, including the 24-year-old Zhao Wei, the assistant of lawyer Li Heping. The authorities say she’s been released, but she still appears to be in custody. None of the detained have had access to family-designated lawyers since their detention a year ago.
It’s increasingly clear that the Chinese communist government is treating the “709 incident” as a focus of international face-off for regime security. It is consistent with an assessment in 2012 by a think tank of the Chinese Ministry of National Security that names rights lawyers, underground religion, dissidents, internet opinion leaders, and disadvantaged social groups as internal conduits for western infiltration. When you laugh it all off and go about your business with China as usual, keep in mind that the “709 incident” exemplifies the political perspective through which Communist China sees itself and its relations with the rest of the world – nothing less.