For five days last week, the confessions poured forth from Chinese human rights activists and attorneys rounded up last summer and held incommunicado for a year. Four men, facing trial for subversion, cowered before a court where they were represented by lawyers they didn’t choose.
A fifth person, knowing her husband was detained and teenage son under surveillance, declared her wrongs in a videotaped interview.
China is in the midst of what many overseas scholars say is its harshest crackdown on human rights and civil society in decades. Since Xi Jinping came to power nearly four years ago, hundreds of activists, lawyers, writers, publishers and employees of nongovernmental groups have been rounded up. Many more have been threatened and intimidated. Internet news sites have been ordered to stop publishing reports from sources that aren’t sanctioned by the state.
Even as China has been touting its efforts to boost the “rule of law,” some critics of the government have vanished under mysterious circumstances in places like Thailand and Hong Kong, only to surface months later in Chinese custody, claiming rather unbelievably they had turned themselves in voluntarily. Many of those detained have appeared on state-run TV confessing to crimes before they have had a day in court.
“As an old timer who’s been studying China since the Mao era, I have to say it’s the worst I’ve seen since then,” said Susan L. Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Program at UC San Diego. “It’s very discouraging.”
The activists and lawyer prosecuted last week confessed to having illegally organized protests and drawn attention to sensitive cases at the behest of “foreign forces” in order to “smear the [Communist] party and attack the Chinese government.” They had erred in accepting interviews with international journalists, they added, and traveled abroad to participate in interfaith conferences and law seminars infiltrated by separatists and funded by enemies of China.
“I want to remind everybody to wipe their eyes and clearly see the ugly faces of hostile forces overseas,” one of the defendants, Zhai Yanmin, said, according to China’s main state-run news agency. “Never be fooled by their ideas of ‘democracy,’ ‘human rights’ and ‘benefiting the public.’”
The verdicts, if not justice, came swiftly — all four men were found guilty within hours, with two receiving terms of at least seven years. Officials said the woman, Wang Yu, was released, though family and friends say they have not seen or heard from her. Relatives and colleagues of all five said their statements appeared to have been coerced.
The current crackdown, Shirk said, represents a turnabout from what appeared to be relatively steady gains in individual freedom in China.
“It’s not been a smooth straight line, and it’s true that this process has been slower than many people anticipated,” she said. “But we didn’t anticipate what looks like a U-turn back to the bad old days of a highly repressive police state.”
For much of the outside world, grasping the extent of the campaign has not been easy, given a constant flood of headlines that seem to showcase ever-deeper diplomatic and commercial connections between China and the West.
Last fall, then-British Prime Minister David Cameron said ties with Beijing were entering a “golden era.” In Paris in December, Xi won praise for helping broker a global climate change pact. And next month, China will host President Obama and other leaders at the G-20 summit in Hangzhou.
Meanwhile, Chinese companies are buying European soccer teams. Chinese directors are shooting films for Hollywood studios and Disney has just opened a $5.5-billion theme park in Shanghai. Record numbers of Chinese students are studying at U.S. high schools and colleges.
“There hasn’t been that much of a cost, so far at least, for Xi Jinping. He literally got the royal treatment when he went to England. He wasn’t being treated like someone who deserved to be kept at arm’s length,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a China historian at UC Irvine. “After 1989, China and the Communist Party had an interest in shedding the stigma of being seen as a pariah state to international investors and others. I don’t think there’s that kind of pressure now.”
Just as the intensity of the crackdown may be underestimated by those outside of China, so too is the extent to which China’s propaganda apparatus has worked to paint those with even mundane grievances as the stooges of foreign enemies.
“The government has tried to deflect attention away from the clear violations of the defendants’ basic due process rights and right to a fair trial by painting them as part of a foreign plot,” said Frances Eve, a researcher with the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a group that has been advocating on behalf of detained lawyers and activists. “However, it’s absurd and insulting to insinuate that lawyers defending China's most downtrodden and left-behind citizens are working on behalf of a foreign government.”
In the past, noted Wasserstrom, the Communist Party had numerous ways to besmirch those it considered its opponents. Aside from labeling enemies “hostile foreign forces,” it could brand them as capitalist roaders, for example. Or it could call them adherents of backward, traditional thinking rather than modern, socialist ideals.
But now that the party has embraced consumerism as well as traditional figures such as Confucius, it has fewer options.
“If you are in a China of Confucian temples and mega-malls, you are kind of left with foreign forces,” he said.
China’s ominous warnings about “hostile foreign forces,” however, are not limited to dissidents and activists. They are part of a wider web of rhetoric that sees threats and meddling from abroad all around, while downplaying the possible domestic origins of conflicts and problems.
Communist Party leaders have, for example, pointed to the fact that some organizers of the 2014 Hong Kong democracy protests met with representatives of the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit group that receives an annual appropriation from Congress, as proof that the demonstrations were a U.S. plot. China recently warned citizens to be careful about dating foreigners, lest they turn out to be spies.
Commentaries in the state-run press have criticized “hostile foreign forces” for causing China’s 2015 stock market gyrations, though China’s markets are largely closed to overseas investors. This year, legislation was passed putting foreign nonprofit organizations under police supervision and requiring them to find official government sponsors — or get out of China.
“This tactic plays into domestic nationalist sentiment and the Chinese Communist Party's narrative that the only way for the country to be stable is for the [party] to lead China as a one-party authoritarian dictatorship,” said Eve.
Willy Lam, a scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and author of a 2015 book about politics in the Xi era, said whipping up popular sentiment against “hostile foreign forces” is a convenient way for Xi to deflect attention from problems such as the slowing economy or the widening rich-poor gap. “There is a sizable public audience which really buys the crude, anti-foreign propaganda,” he noted.
Rebukes from overseas, meanwhile, seem to matter little to Xi, Lam added.
“Xi likes to thumb his nose at international opinion. In the days of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, when China was not yet a quasi-superpower, the leadership still cared about public opinion in the West,” he said. “Xi likes to underscore his status as the new Mao Tse-tung by not giving a damn about what the major Western leaders, authors or media are saying about China.”
Steve Tsang, professor of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, agreed that “Xi is just a very confident leader who feels morally righteous about his ideas and is determined to push as hard as he can. Anyone or any state that challenges the views of the Chinese party-state is therefore an enemy of China and should be dealt with accordingly.”
But that assertive approach, said Tsang, is causing increasing concern among China’s neighbors. “If the current trajectory is not changed, Beijing's sense that it is right to be assertive is likely to put it on a course that will see confrontation with other countries, and a further deterioration of human rights conditions in China,” he predicted.
While China’s crackdown on domestic dissent has yet to cause major international discord, that could change soon, predicted Shirk. The Chinese and the West, she said, may find themselves in a “global contest of ideologies” just like the Americans and Soviets once did.
“What Xi Jinping is doing is, he’s really stirring up a Cold War mentality…. You’re either with China or against China — and Western values, universal values, are against China,” she said.
Times staff writer Jonathan Kaiman contributed to this report.