This week, Chinese authorities handed down the latest convictions and prison sentences in its ongoing “709 crackdown” against human rights lawyers, citizen journalists, and democratic opposition activists.
Wu Gan, known online as “Super Vulgar Butcher,” was sentenced to eight years imprisonment for “subversion of state power”—the same charge for which the outspoken human rights activist and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo was incarcerated until he developed terminal cancer.
Xie Yang, a human rights lawyer, was found guilty of a lesser charge (merely “inciting subversion of state power”), but was not sentenced. Both men were detained in July 2015.
Xie escaped serious punishment as a result of a series of false confessions made before the court and on live television. Impartial observers pointed out that Xie was clearly being coerced. In January 2016, Tom Phillips of The Guardian reported that Xie was being severely tortured. “’I’m going to torment you until you go insane,’ another captor allegedly bragged [to Xie]. ‘Don’t even imagine that you’ll be able to walk out of here and continue being a lawyer. You’re going to be a cripple.’”
In testimony obtained and translated by China Change, Xie said he was savagely beaten, forced to inhale smoke, and made to sit in a “dangling chair” for up to twenty hours at a time. State security agents also threatened his wife and child. “The exact words were: ‘Your wife and children need to pay attention to traffic safety when they’re out in the car,’” said Xie. “’There are a lot of traffic accidents these days.’”
Wu, however, would not plead guilty nor confess.
Like many activists caught up in China’s “709 crackdown,” Wu used his online platform to advocate for social justice and fair treatment of the Chinese people by their own government. He first came to prominence in 2009, publicly defending a would-be rape victim named Deng Yujiao, who fought off and killed her attacker—a government official.
Later, he spoke out in defense of a man shot and killed by a transit police officer in the county of Qing’an. Wu and other activists accused state authorities of covering up the officer’s culpability in the slaying and called for an independent investigation of the incident. He is also known for his daring protests in front of Chinese courthouses.
The campaign of police repression and human rights violation labeled by activists as the “709 crackdown” has been underway since July 9, 2015. Wu Gan, Xie Yang, and more than two hundred other activists and human rights lawyers have been swept up by Chinese state security so far.
This wave of persecution is only the vanguard of the Chinese Communist Party’s crescendoing assault on the rule of law in China, aimed at destroying the small but indefatigable community of human rights lawyers in the communist country. Such voices for justice and accountability are unacceptable to a regime that is implementing digital surveillance networks now vast beyond imagining, punitive campaigns against Tibetans, Uyghurs, and other ethnoreligious minorities that have been likened to “cultural genocide,” and a bizarre “social credit rating” system slated to be monitoring all Chinese citizens’ behavior—and loyalty to the regime—within three years.
If nothing is done by the international community to intercede on behalf of the political activists being systematically persecuted and purged throughout China, the CCP may well get away with all of it.
Nevertheless, brave opposition voices like Wu remain uncowed.
“I thank the [Chinese] Communist Party for conferring me this high honor,” Wu said on the stand at his sentencing—referring to his conviction. “I will not forget my original aspiration, and will roll up my sleeves and work harder.”
After the hearing, Wu Gan’s lawyers released a statement on his behalf:
“For those living under a dictatorship, being given the honorable label of one who ‘subverts state power’ is the highest form of affirmation for a citizen. It’s proof that the citizen wasn’t an accomplice or a slave, and that at the very least he went out and defended, and fought for, human rights. Liang Qichao [a famous Chinese intellectual and reformer] said that he and dictatorship were two forces inextricably opposed; I say: If I don’t oppose dictatorship, am I still a man?”