China: Better to Die for One’s Words Than Survive on Silence: A New Year Statement by The China Human Rights Lawyers Group


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The year of 2020 has seen a coronavirus pandemic rage across the globe, infecting 78 million and causing 1.75 million deaths by year’s end. The pandemic, spawned in Wuhan, is in fact an inevitable consequence of the long-running deterioration of human rights in China. The harsher suppression of free speech and press freedom over the last ten or more years meant that in the early days of the pandemic, expert views and whistleblower warnings were dismissed and slandered as rumormongering, allowing authorities to obscure the real situation. One can be sure that, if the authorities had been open to the public from the beginning, the epidemic would not have spread so far and the effects would not have been so devastating.

Once the coronavirus had spread widely and ordinary measures were no longer enough to handle it, local governments across the country employed drastic measures, using the pandemic as a rationale to lock down whole communities, restrict citizens’ movements, crack down on citizen journalists, forcibly enter private homes, disregard personal privacy, and generally show no regard for citizens’ fundamental dignity. In so many ways, it feels like a poisonous return of the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, as the human rights situation worsens.         

Nonetheless, at the heart of the outbreak in Wuhan, ordinary citizens like Zhang Zhan (张展), Chen Qiushi (陈秋实), Fang Bin (方斌), and Li Zehua (李泽华) resolved to exercise their freedom of speech, becoming heroes who truthfully reported the situation there. As usual, the authorities worked to suppress them, either “disappearing” them or forcing them into silence. In the case of Zhang Zhan, a lawyer practicing in Shanghai, the city’s police rushed to faraway Wuhan to illegally detain her, then later indicted her on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a “blanket charge” that is applied gratuitously to silence dissent. The truth is, it was not Zhang Zhan, citizen and lawyer, who “provoked trouble,” but the authorities that have resorted to cruel and unusual punishment, thus provoking trouble against Zhang Zhan, and put her on trial and sentenced her to four years in prison on December 28.


In 2020, the movement by judicial authorities to further suppress lawyers and law firms has not abated: Attorney Yu Wensheng (余文生) was sentenced to four years imprisonment, Li Yuhan (李昱函), a lawyer in her 60’s, was detained for a prolonged period, detained lawyer Chen Jiahong (陈家鸿) was forced to dismiss lawyers of his own choosing, Qin Yongpei (覃永沛) was stripped of the right to file suit, and both Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜) and Chang Weiping (常玮平) were subjected to inhuman torture. Reliable sources state that Ding Jiaxi fainted multiple times while held in “residential surveillance at a designated location.” The illegal disbarring of Xie Yang (谢阳), Wang Yu (王宇), and Peng Yonghe (彭永和) further confirms the untrustworthy nature of the authorities and their penchant for retroactive punishment. Even more ridiculous is that an ordinary gathering in Xiamen caused many lawyers from across the country to be issued summons by the Guobao (国保, China’s domestic security police). The straits that lawyers face is plain for all to see, and it’s no exaggeration to say that they have been among the primary targets of China’s crusade against human rights.


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