Published at the Guardian on 23 September 2016, co-authored with Peter Dahlin.
Last July, the Chinese government launched its most widespread crackdown on rule of law advocates in decades, detaining some 300 rights defenders. Some have been held incommunicado since, with lawyers and family members trying to visit them in detention being told to look elsewhere.
Meanwhile, state media has been given exclusive access to parade many activists as criminals on television before their trial.
One of the key targets of the crackdown is lawyer Wang Quanzhang.
Wang has drawn the ire of the government many times for his defence of villagers against corrupt local officials, Falun Gong practitioners and fellow rights activists such as Ni Yulan whose treatment in police custody in 2010 left her confined to a wheelchair.
In 2013, Wang was detained during trial for refusing a judge’s illegal demand. This was perhaps the first instance of a rights lawyer being held under a process called judicial detention. Hauling away a lawyer in the middle of defending his client aptly illustrates the barriers to legal aid in China.
Following his release, Wang characteristically treated the incident as a learning opportunity and wrote a legal manual on judicial detention for rights defenders. Wang often devoted as much time to assisting other lawyers as he did defending the rights of those who few others dared to represent.
For this he has suffered in secret detention for over a year and now faces a show trial on charges of subverting state power.
Having known Wang for many years and worked together at China Action until early 2014, we can say he is one of the bravest people we will ever meet. His commitment to the rule of law is unimpeachable. The charges are baseless.
State security has explained that Wang’s crime was defending ‘evil cult’ Falun Gong practitioners and using social media to highlight abuses against his clients. It didn’t seem to matter that these actions aren’t illegal, that Wang has broken no laws.
The lack of actual evidence has been highlighted several times since January. Beginning in March, police and state security have tried to pressure Wang’s wife, Li Wenzu, his parents, and even a fellow lawyer to record video accusations against him. They failed.
The authorities tried coercing responses through threats and promises of lightening his sentence, while the detention centre denied his lawyers and tearful family any contact on the pretext of having no record of him.
Li Wenzu has not been spared. She has been harassed and on several occasions detained, a tactic of political violence designed to scare her into betraying her husband or to intimidate Wang into cooperating.
Such lawlessness and abuse of power only reinforces the hollowness of his impending trial.
In early August, the court claimed Wang had given up his right to counsel and preferred a court appointed lawyer, an absurdity for anyone who knows him. Since 2012, Wang has arranged with a trusted colleague to represent him if detained or arrested, a sad necessity in China that most rights lawyers eventually need their own defence lawyers.
Wang has told us many times since 2010 that under no circumstances would he ever accept a court appointed lawyer. It seems no sham trial is complete without a sham lawyer.
At trial, imaginary “hostile foreign forces” will likely be blamed for Wang’s equally imaginary crimes, as we have seen with recent show trials and a slew of anti-Western propaganda videos.
Wang’s work with China Action has been used against him, despite our not having worked together since 2014. It seems irrelevant that our work focused on strengthening Chinese law, because the “crimes” for which he stands accused are meaningless unless the implementation of Chinese law itself is seen as subverting state power.
If the government is serious about there being room for the rule of law in China, it must immediately release Wang Quanzhang and dismiss all charges against him. We hope it is. For rights defenders like Wang and his colleagues – who any nation should be proud to have as citizens – a conviction will reaffirm that it is not.