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A dark week for China's lawyers

Bilsky Philipp Kommentarbild App
Philipp Bilsky
August 5, 2016

The first sentences have started to fall after one of China's biggest waves of arrests in years. The Chinese government is trying to silence liberal spirits. And the plan is unfortunately working, says Philipp Bilsky.

Drei Jahre Haft für Menschenrechtsaktivisten Zhai Yanmin
Human rights activist Zhai Yanmin was sentenced to three years in prison on TuesdayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/CCTV via AP Video

It was a dark week for Chinese human rights lawyers and activists. Four of their representatives were found guilty in the past four days by a court in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin. The accusation: "subverting the government." The sentences range from three years of probation to seven-and-a-half years in prison. These were the first judgments since the so-called "709 crackdown," the biggest wave of arrests to sweep China in years.

Lawyers and activists under pressure

Last July, Chinese authorities began arresting what amounted to around 300 lawyers, paralegals, activists and their family members. The message was clear: those speaking about human rights violations should shut their mouths. Many of those arrested were set free in the weeks that followed. But about two dozen remained imprisoned, including the four that were sentenced this week.

The Chinese government has increasingly strengthened its control over society in recent years. It has tightened Internet censorship and silenced liberal media outlets, such as the reform-oriented magazine "Yanhuang Chunqiu" just a few weeks ago. The latest sentences only continue the trend. Still, many China analysts are in disbelief. Only a few among them could have a few years ago believed that the era under the previous government led by Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao could one day appear almost liberal.

Bilsky Philipp Kommentarbild App
DW's Philipp BilskyImage: DW

Deep uncertainty in China

And, unfortunately, Xi Jingping's policy of intimidation is working. The uncertainty in China's human rights circles is massive, as DW too has learned over the past days in interviews with lawyers there. German reporters in China have painted a similar picture: It's becoming harder and harder for them to find interview partners who are willing to represent an opinion independent of the government. There was a running gag at a conference of Beijing-based correspondents held a few weeks ago in Germany: "Now we have to come to Germany to be able to hold interviews on developments in China."

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