What China’s state-run media calls a rule-of-law campaign, some are calling a blatant injustice that is paving the way for the country’s biggest attack on free thinking in decades.
Civil rights lawyers, activists and journalists have in recent years been detained for speaking out against the government’s policies and challenging its tactics.
Their punishments have included confinement in “black jails” which operate outside the official scope of the Chinese prison system and mental hospitals where dissidents are often held in terrible conditions. Chinese authorities can also hold people under “residential surveillance in a designated place” for up to six months without charge or visits from lawyers to family members. International human-rights groups claim detention under this policy usually doesn’t take place in a person’s home, and that it often involves torture.
Offenses that can land a Chinese citizen in such places include “picking quarrels and inviting trouble” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.”
Legal advocate and writer Guo Feixiong (the pen name of Yang Maodong) was found guilty of those charges in November and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. His charges stemmed from a protest against press censorship, which he carried out in 2013 along with two others who received lesser prison terms.
Amnesty International claims all three were tortured, and two were banned from spending time outside for more than 800 days.
“These three activists were simply exercising their human rights and making legitimate calls for Chinese citizens to have a greater say in their country’s future,” said Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, in an interview with TIME magazine. “The chilling answer from the authorities is, yet again, anyone perceived to be challenging the government will be severely punished.”
Pu Zhiqiang, who once was named lawyer of the year by a respected Chinese magazine, in 2014 was detained after being accused of “picking quarrels and provoking incidents” and “inciting racial hatred.” This month, a court in Beijing ordered an extension to his pretrial detention.
Pu once represented a man named Ren Jianyu who had spent time in China’s now-abolished gulags, where he underwent “re-education through labor.”
He spent 15 months assembling cardboard for boxes while living with 11 people in one room within a compound that housed more than 1,000 inmates. A local justice board helped him get out early in 2012 after successfully arguing his case was improperly handled.
“After experiencing so many things all these years, Ren told TIME magazine. “I am not afraid anymore.”
It was perhaps this fearlessness mixed with experiences of the injustice he faced that inspired him to pursue a career in law. Late last month, he received his scores for China’s National Judicatory Committee exam. He scored well above what he needed to pass China’s bar.
Still, the young lawyer knows that defending the rule-of-law will be difficult in a country that seems to lack it.