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Wang Quanzhang

The prominent Chinese rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang has just been sentenced to four and a half years in prison for “subversion of state power.” His crime was defending political activists, victims of land seizures, and members of Falun Gong (or, as the Chinese courts prefer to call them, “evil religious groups.”)

In 2015 Wang gave an interview in which he described the trial of 7 Falun Gong members that he represented as a sham trial in which the defendants were silenced. When it ended, he said, he was dragged out of court on the judge’s direction and savagely beaten by the court bailiffs on the floor above. Once he was bloodied and swollen, the judges appeared and told him: “the court is a place where criminals are smashed—that’s the principle and doctrine of the criminal procedure of law.” Within a few weeks he was himself arrested, along with over 200 other lawyers. The rest are now tried and sentenced, many alleging they faced torture during questioning, including being electrocuted, shackled, stress-positioned and force-fed drugs. Wang, however, remained ‘disappeared’ for over three years, his wife not even sure he was still alive. His trial, on Boxing Day 2018 was closed, despite representatives from the US, UK Switzerland and Germany embassies waiting outside. His wife attempted to attend but unidentified officials gathered in a crowd outside her flat and obstructed her every attempt to leave.

What were they trying to hide? Evidence suggests that such trials are recorded and shown publicly, but only after extensive pre-trial rehearsals ensuring defendants stick to script. Witnessed deviation would rather spoil the intended effect, since show trials are not about demonstrating justice but power. The audience isn’t external but internal. The home audience is shown the strength and forgiveness of the state, offering a lenient sentence to the (sometimes zombie-like) accused, in return for a penitent confession that their ‘subversion’ was caused by the evil manipulation of the capitalist west.

China doesn’t care what we think, since we have demonstrated how insipid we are when it comes to prioritising human rights over trade. It’s a year since Mrs May visited China to talk trade and stay silent on everything else, delighting the Chinese press who saw her as having ‘wisely sidestepped’ those pesky human rights issues. “Nothing can stop China-UK cooperation,” they chirped, dismissing outrage at tortured and drugged human rights lawyers, crushed and silenced Uyghurs, and disappeared and executed Falun Gong practitioners as “noise and nagging (that) will be carried away by the wind.”

China may well not care about Western criticism, but our silent cooperation shows its 1.4 billion people how little the world is really prepared to defend the kind of individual freedoms of religion, thought and expression that the lawyers, the Uyghurs and the Falun Gong are giving up their freedom and, sometimes, their lives for. It seems likely, too, that the more we decide we don’t need Europe or America, the more will need China, and the less we will want to say.

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