‘This is not justice’: Chinese activists held for two years await trial

As millions of Chinese families gather this week to celebrate the arrival of the year of the tiger, Luo Shengchun is awaiting news of the fate of her husband, Ding Jiaxi, a human rights lawyer.

“It’s the third year that our family hasn’t celebrated the Chinese new year. I don’t know what celebrating new year means now,” said Luo, who now lives in self-imposed exile in New York. “It’s beyond devastating for my family. My husband has not done anything illegal. Why did they deprive us of a normal life?”

Ding was detained on 26 December 2019 and charged with subversion of state power on 20 January last year. Last February, Amnesty International raised the alarm over reports of torture.

Before Christmas, Luo was told that her husband and another activist, Xu Zhiyong, who was arrested in 15 February 2020 after two months on the run, might finally be sentenced sometime between Christmas and the new year, a tactic often deployed by the authorities. It didn’t happen.

This week Luo was told that the expected harsh sentence may not be handed down until May, two months after the conclusion of the Winter Olympics which start on Friday.

Analysts say both activists are expected to be charged with involvement in a covert meeting of 20 rights activists in the southern city of Xiamen in December 2019. More than 10 people linked to the meeting have been charged or detained.

Before being treated as a dissident, Xu was a high-profile legal scholar who founded the New Citizens’ Movement in 2010, a loose network of activists advocating for better government transparency to combat corruption. And Ding was a core member of the movement.

In 2013, both men were detained after signing a high-profile open letter urging China’s leaders to disclose their wealth for public scrutiny. The following year, Xu was given a prison sentence of four years and Ding three and a half years.

In recent months, the two activists’ case has been a subject of discussion in Chinese human rights circles. Analysts say a harsh sentence would show China’s increasing intolerance of any sign of dissent.

“While we don’t know what Xu and Ding and others exactly discussed during their meetings, it looks like what they discussed touched the nerves of the Chinese government, probably Xi Jinping himself,” said Patrick Poon, an adviser to The 29 Principles, a UK-based NGO supporting oppressed human rights lawyers.

“The government’s purpose is to silence prominent dissidents like them so as to scare off other dissidents,” Poon said, adding that the potential sentencing would no doubt send a chilling message to other Chinese activists. “Some dissidents would now need to rethink what they should say online and offline before making any politically sensitive comments.”

One of Xu’s lawyers, Liang Xiaojun, had his legal licence revoked on 16 December. In a Twitter post on 21 December, Liang said the authorities had accused him of publishing speeches on social media – including Twitter, which is blocked in China – that endanger national security.

William Nee, a research and advocacy coordinator for Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the trials would be a “farcical sham”. “It is crystal clear that the government’s case against Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi is based on their political views, namely a conception of a new form of democratic citizenship in China,” he said. “China has claimed to be a ‘whole-process democracy’ in recent months, but the prosecution of Ding and Xu will highlight how absurd that claim to being a democracy actually is.”

Luo said while her husband’s fate was hanging in the balance, the uncertainty of the last few years had turned her into an advocate herself. “I will continue to voice my concern and campaign. Over the past decade, the authorities have become more and more bottomless. This is not justice. Not even a smidgen of it.”

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