China: The rise of rule by fear

February 15, 2016


Written by Eva Pils.

In the course of my research on Chinese human rights lawyers over the past several years, I got to hear a lot about the techniques the government allegedly uses to control them. I came to refer to them as ‘fear techniques.’ They included tracking and following; soft detention; ‘being travelled;’ being asked in for ‘chats;’ criminal, administrative, and judicial detention; violent attacks; forced disappearance; torture and — in one or two particularly disturbing instances – brief spells of medically unmotivated,forced psychiatric detention (被精神病). Some of these techniques made some reference to legal rules, but in their actual use of these rules against human rights lawyers, the authorities invariably, and quite often egregiously, broke the law.

Those forcibly ‘disappeared,’ for example, were, in addition to being locked up, reportedly pressured to ‘confess’ and ‘repent.’ They usually also had to promise – in writing as well as in front of a camera recording their statements — that they would stop their work as human rights defenders: stop taking on certain kinds of cases, stop meeting each other, and so on. It did not matter that there were no crimes to confess to and that promises made under duress were not binding. As one lawyer commented in 2011, ‘Not only did they want to make you say that black was white, you also had to explain why black was white.’ The point, he thought, was to show who was master and show that no law — not even that of elementary logic — constrained the power he had tried to resist. The authorities using these fear techniques were intent on stopping the lawyers’ efforts to represent their clients and to challenge power abuses, while dreaming of (if not actually building) a better system.

As the language of reform – according to a dictionary definition, ‘improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory’ – which was so long considered axiomatic for discussions of the Chinese legal system, is now being questioned more widely, I would suggest that rule by fear should be considered as a centrally important element of the ‘new normal’ under Xi Jinping’s party leadership.


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