A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Nightmare

by    /  July 31, 2013  / No comments

While the rule of law is far from perfect in Russia, in China it remains a foreign concept.


Human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong and Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Photos via Wikipedia and Facebook.

It seems that all authoritarian governments like to use similar accusations to thwart their opponents. For starters, there was the oil oligarch Mikhail Hodorkovsky, one of the richest and most influential figures in Russian society: Charged with economic crimes, he was arrested in 2003 and sentenced to nine years in prison, until that sentence was extended another five years to 2017. His long imprisonment has leveled President Vladimir Putin’s road to the presidency.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Now Putin has another “economic criminal” in Alexei Navalny. The 37-year-old lawyer and blogger is a Russian opposition leader and one of the most important street protesters and anti-corruption advocates in the country. After calling Putin a “toad” and the ruling United Russia party “a party of crooks and thieves” Navalny received a heavy punishment: Five years in prison.

The official accusation against him was embezzlement. Before the charges, Navalny had intended to challenge the incumbent mayor of Moscow, Sergey Sobjanin-Putin’s confidante—by running in the mayoral election in September. If he went to jail, he’d be out of the running. However, before Navalny could be sent to prison, a miracle occurred: One day after his July 18 conviction, he was released unexpectedly. Subsequently, he was celebrated as a hero and will be a candidate in the election on September 9. Is this a political midsummer night’s dream? Is it evidence that there is rule of law in this post-socialist country?

China’s similar, though more authoritarian, government also prefers to accuse dissidents of economic missteps. Government officials accuse them, for example, of tax fraud, such as we’ve seen in the cases of the artist Ai Weiwei, the journalist Du Bin, and many others.

Yet this practice serves only to turn these victims into heroes and highly honored recipients of international awards. In 2008, the Chinese government threw Hu Jia into jail for three years, and in the same year he won the European Union’s Sakarov prize for Freedom of Thought. The government also persecuted Tsering Woeser in 2008 and forbade her from leaving the country. Nevertheless, she received the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State in March, 2013. In another illustrious example, the government sentenced Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison in 2010—a fate that lifted him to the level of Nobel Prize laureate.

Other dissidents, like Wei Jingsheng, Xu Wenli, and the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng are also celebrated internationally as heroes. The most recent case is that of the lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who founded the NGO Gongmeng (Citizens Union) in 2005. His NGO aims to offer legal support to underprivileged people. To put an end to this work, the police took Xu from his home on July 16. The police also confiscated his electronic devices. Since then he has been charged with “assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” and with tax evasion.

In the Chinese legal field Xu Zhiyong could be compared to Robin Hood. If there is unfairness or injustice, he is there. Considering what he has done in the past, it isn’t any wonder that he’s long been a thorn in the regime’s paw. Xu investigated the 2003 death of the university student Sun Zhigang, who died in a detention center as a result of the so-called “custody and repatriation” regulation, which allowed police to check and detain anyone without a residence permit. Thanks to Xu and his colleagues’ efforts, the government has terminated this regulation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Custody_and_repatriation

In the same year, Xu also supported the peasant entrepreneur Sun Dawu. The wealth and influence Sun enjoyed as the result of his cleverness and hard work was destroyed by the authorities in 2003. Convicted of illegally accepting $1.6m in deposits from local residents, Sun’s brilliant career ended when he was sentenced to three years in prison.

Through his NGO, Gongmeng, Xu began helping death row inmates, the left-behind children of peasant workers, and the victims of poisonous baby formula. He worked with people illegally detained in so-called “black prisons” and was the savior of many victims of the one-child policy. He promoted reforming the State Compensation Law, cared for underprivileged Tibetan people, and tried to decipher the socio-economic background of the uprising of March 14, 2008. He initiated the citizen movement and endorsed the appeal for economic transparency of government officials.

In short, Xu has worked to safeguard social justice in an ill society. Moderate and non-violent, his principle is peace.

When the news spread this month that Xu was being kept in the Beijing Detention Center, many admirers and people whom he has helped came to the center to bring him money and food to show their solidarity.

On July 18, about 30 to 40 people gathered in front of the detention center. The alarmed police cordoned off the gate and took more than 20 people into custody. Even Xu’s lawyer, Liu Weiguo, was not allowed to see his client. This is obviously against the law. Lawyer Liu posted on his Twitter account that the authority had asked him to drop the case, but Liu insists that he is Xu’s defense counsel. Liu told the authorities: “As long as you don’t arrest me, I will not retreat. Should I face any obstacle from your side, I will go public. Besides, I am prepared to be put into jail as well. I have selected my lawyer already.”

Even though Xu’s case has reluctantly involved a whole stream of sympathizers and become quite dramatic, the government keeps adding fuel to the fire. Two days after Xu’s arrest, the authorities also shut down the Transition Institute (TI), also known as the Transition on Socio-Economic Consultants Co. Ltd., in Beijing’s Haidian district—an NGO with which Xu Zhiyong works closely. The research company was founded in 2007 by Guo Yushan, a social scientist and human rights defender himself. Its mission is to research “all phenomena and issues related to freedom and justice during China’s transition period, including tax reform, business regulation and reform, citizen involvement, and civil society.”

The police informed Mr. Guo that the institute must not use its existing name. After demanding this, they confiscated all of the institute’s printed materials—about 600 to 700 books, files, and documents.

Practicing law can sometimes be a nightmare in China. Will Xu Zhiyong be as lucky as Navalny? Neither of these two freedom fighters and human rights advocates should have been arrested, let alone sentenced. Yet Navalny is free again after the farce that was his trial, so he can participate in the mayoral election as a candidate. On the other hand, while Xu is still facing trial, he cannot see his lawyer. No matter what kind of conviction he will get, we can be sure that it won’t be a fair trial and that there will be no pardon; he will stay in jail and serve the sentence. Maybe it’s true that the “rule of law” is far from perfect in Russia, but in China it remains a foreign concept. Today many believe that the Xi Jinping era will bring no change.

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