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Human rights in China

A credible judiciary is fundamental to a nation’s well-being

The outcome of the trials of civil rights lawyers and activists does little to enhance confidence in Beijing’s commitment to the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 12:26am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 August, 2016, 12:46am

The way China suppresses internal dissent has long been an issue of concern. A year after a massive crackdown on civil rights lawyers and activists, four accused of “subverting state power” were finally tried and sentenced over the past few days. The outcome – ranging from 7-1/2 years’ jail to a three-year suspended sentence – are regarded by some as lighter than expected; but it does little to enhance confidence in the country’s rule of law.

The charges against the four were wide-ranging, including participating in anti-China training and instigating public hatred against the government. Activist Hu Shigen received the longest jail term of 7-1/2 years. He was accused of using an underground church to “promote Western democracy” and “disseminate subversive thoughts”. Lawyer Zhou Shifeng was jailed for seven years for hyping up cases to “discredit judicial authorities” and to “incite confrontation against the state”.

The ways the trials were conducted have also raised concerns. Each hearing lasted no more than a few hours. All defendants pleaded guilty and accepted the sentence without appeal, fuelling suspicion that they were made to confess in return for less severe punishment. Adding to the oddity was the claim that they had requested barring family members from attending the trials. Only a few selected media organisations were allowed to attend the hearing, along with politicians and academics chosen by the authorities. The arrangements are far from satisfactory, though they may be considered as transparent on the mainland.

Activists in profile: four faces of the Chinese rights movement

The arrest of activists since July 9 last year – the so-called 709 crackdown – is the most sweeping since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Some 300 lawyers and activists have been harassed or detained, with some still facing charges of varying severity. The outcome of the first batch of trials no doubt has a chilling effect. But it also sends a wrong message about Beijing’s commitment to the rule of law.

Civil rights lawyers and activists have their own role to play. The thick layers of bureaucracy and fast development on the mainland means government policies and individual rights may not always be properly observed. By standing up for the aggrieved, the activists help channel social grievances.

A credible judiciary is fundamental to the well-being of a nation. The importance is also recognised by President Xi, who has pledged to uphold the rule of law. At stake is the perception of the Chinese judicial system. To maintain public confidence, justice needs to be done and manifestly seen to be done.