TV trials a 'new phase in China's anti-liberal drive'

Legal experts also say undercurrent of fear behind public denunciations of activism

BEIJING • Chinese lawyers and rights activists appeared in televised trials throughout last week in what seemed to be a new, more public phase of President Xi Jinping's campaign to cleanse the country of liberal ideas and activism.

Legal experts and supporters of four defendants denounced the hearings, held on consecutive days in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, as grotesque show trials.

All four men - Zhou Shifeng, Gou Hongguo, Hu Shigen and Zhai Yanmin - were shown meekly renouncing their activist past and urging people to guard against sinister forces threatening the Communist Party, before they were convicted and sentenced.

But for the government, the trials served a broader political purpose.

By airing the confessions and claims of a sweeping anti-party coalition, President Xi's administration was "putting civil society in all its forms on trial, and vilifying them as an anti-China plot", Ms Maya Wang, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said.

"The trials thus serve two purposes - to punish the activists, but also to use them to bolster President Xi's claims," she said.

Subversion trials are not new in China, but the intense publicity around these latest cases signified a shift. Chinese state-managed newspapers, television programmes and websites used the trials to offer a daily torrent of damning words against Western influence and liberal political ideas.

The legal proceedings and the drumbeat of propaganda appeared better meshed than ever, said Ms Eva Pils, a legal scholar at King's College London, who has long studied human rights lawyers in China.

"It's a trial process that serves the purpose of projecting the power of the state and casting human rights advocates as enemies," she said.

The trials build on the increasing use of televised confessions, including after the four defendants were arrested during a widespread crackdown in July last year.

Generally, coverage in the Chinese news media of previous subversion trials was relatively muted, Ms Pils said. That has been changing under President Xi. "It is a very different approach to handling political trials that we can see now."

Last week's proceedings in Tianjin bore the hallmarks of old-school propaganda, as the defendants, who once vigorously challenged the government to expand human rights, delivered well-rehearsed confessions adopting the preferred lexicon of the Communist Party.

They bowed their heads, denounced themselves and their friends as tools of anti-Communists abroad, and thanked the party for rescuing them from deluded liberal democratic ideas.

Taken together, the prosecutorial claims of anti-government plotting included virtually every cause that President Xi and his subordinates in the security services have identified as a threat: "die-hard" rights lawyers, activists adept at igniting online controversy, underground churches that defy government controls, disgruntled workers, separatists from Tibet and Xinjiang, and foreign groups supporting legal advocacy in China.

And then there are shadowy forces abroad accused of engineering discontent to overthrow the party.

Running beneath the display of legal force, experts said, was an undercurrent of fear.

Jitters about the economy as growth slows and debt grows, international friction over China's territorial claims and Mr Xi's general antipathy to Western influence have reinforced the party's fears that public ire over corruption and official abuses could one day spring into outright rebellion with backing from abroad.

Preparations for a national leadership shake-up late next year - always a tense process - could amplify those worries, some argue.

"This is generally a symptom of the extreme stress the Chinese political system is under," said Fordham University's law professor Carl Minzner, who studies politics and law in China.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2016, with the headline 'TV trials a 'new phase in China's anti-liberal drive''. Print Edition | Subscribe