“Rule by Law” & “Television Trials”:
a Double Strategy to Mute the Civil Society
In the past, the Chinese Government took a low-profile approach to conduct its political repression. Yet, the trend has changed. Extensive media coverage and television trials have been recently adopted to crack down human rights activists. Despite international community’s condemnations, repression grows in China. Between September 2016 and January 2017, China passed three laws, namely: Cyber Security Law, Charity Law and Law on the Administration of Activities of Overseas Non-Governmental Organizations within the Territory of China (hereafter: Foreign NGOs Law), using legislations as a weapon to further restrict the growth of civil society and freedom of expression.
Photo Credits: BBC’s Chinese Website
In 2016, many human rights lawyers, labour activists, environmentalists, religious rights activists were arrested or sentenced. Quite some trials were “put under the spotlight” of China Central Television or Xinhua Net, the state media channels. In recent years, activists are often forced to make video confessions, including Zhou Shifeng and Zhai Yanmin from Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, five booksellers from Causeway Bay Books, labour activist Zeng Feiyang, Wukan Village’s elected village leader Lin Zulian; Christian activist and lawyer Zhang Kai and Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin. These media confessions are used as an example to silent other civil rights activists and dissidents. Lam Wing-kee, one of the victims of these media confessions, described his video confession as “well-staged with scripts and a director” in a press conference after he returned to Hong Kong, “Offenders” were told to read out their confessions in front of the camera, according to Lam. Such confessions are not only a severe violation of the detainees’ fundamental human rights, but jeopardising the independence of the judiciary. By forcing them to confess, the Chinese Government hopes to turn the “offenders’ own words” against themselves, to rationalize the illegitimacy of its repression and arrests.
At the same time, in order to weaken the civil society and the call for reform, Chinese authorities have been busy in revising laws to tighten its control. Foreign NGOs Law and Charity Law are implemented to control the finance of NGOs, restricting their independence and their ability to organize. Cyber Security Law tightens constraints on freedom of expression of netizens. These three laws could be interpreted as the Xi Jinping administration's determination to build a system of “rule by law”, namely, to restrict civil rights through legislations and maintain stability.
The recent crackdowns show that the Chinese Government no longer constrained by foreign governments’ and media’s criticisms. The growing international status of China means that the Chinese Government could ignore pressure from the international community and openly punish activists. It is foreseeable that in future, the Chinese authorities would continue to silent the civil society through “rule by law” and “television confessions”, to adopt new laws to enhance the creditability of its forced confessions, and to discredit the image of civil society through “television confessions”.