On December 25, 2009 Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment in China. His crime? “Inciting subversion to state power”.
A human rights activist devoted to non-violence – his weapons of choice being his talents as a writer and professor – Liu co-authored the Charter 08 document alongside other “well-known dissidents and intellectuals, but also middle-level officials and rural leaders”. The document not only calls for the government to uphold the amendment to its constitution that states it will “respect and protect human rights”, but also to make the “basic universal values” of freedom, human rights, equality, republicanism, democracy, and constitutional rule the way of a modern Chinese government that has moved away from authoritarianism.
Tried in Beijing, Liu’s sentence was handed down after “less than three hours”, with the defense allegedly only being able to speak for 14 minutes. Rebecca MacKinnon, who was at the time a fellow at the Open Society Institute and is a founder at Global Voices Online noted that the case, “certainly seems to reflect a high level of sensitivity and very low level of tolerance.”
During the trial Liu, who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, was allowed to make a final statement. Here are excerpts:
Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.
Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.
Does any of this sound familiar? Like the words Americans have chosen to resist the Trump administration?
“high level of sensitivity…low level of tolerance”
“To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”
While the likes of President Trump, Steve Bannon, and those advising the president are critical of China and the Communist Party, the parallels between what is being carried out in China and the path that America has been set upon, are chilling.
With Trump’s war on the media and his battle cry of “fake news”, is American freedom of speech in danger of following China’s brutal intolerance?
In less than a month of Trump’s presidency, we’ve seen a president who is obsessed with coverage of himself and panicked by criticism. In his unhinged attacks on media coverage that does not support his bans, roll backs, appointments, executive orders, strikes, etc. Trump demonstrates a volatile nature that aims to discredit or destroy any media outlet or individual who dares question him.
While the president cannot (at this juncture) quash freedom of speech, his attempt to pick and choose which media organizations have access to the White House according to how “nice” they are to him is disturbing and indicates more potentially perilous times ahead for journalists.
In early 2016 Trump famously said at a rally in Ft. Worth, Texas that he’d, “open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
Trump cannot quite “open up” such laws, but with the impending confirmation of Trump’s pick for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the president may suddenly have a leg to stand on in the Justice Department. During Sessions’ confirmation hearing, he responded he was “not sure” when asked by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) if he would make a “commitment not to put reporters in jail for doing their jobs”.
Considering Sessions’ past, in which he opposed “a federal reporter’s shield law and reforms to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)”, and “supported surveillance policies that threaten confidential reporter-source relationships”, the reality that Trump could use the Justice Department to enact his revenge on American journalists and writers who “betray” him, might not be that farfetched. If we have an Attorney General who questions the need for protection of the press and the public’s right to knowledge, there could be room for Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
None of this is news about Trump. A deep vein of distrust and “enemy mentality” runs through his administration. It is evident every time he Tweets, speaks, or sends Sean Spicer to the podium.
And no, America in no way shares the human rights issues plaguing people in China and Special Administrative Regions within the country. What is distressing is that the impetus for China’s treatment of dissidents springs from the same fears that fuel Trump’s hate of the press.
Consider Gao Yu. On April 17, 2015, the 71-year-old journalist was sentenced to seven years in prison for “leaking state secrets to foreign institutions”. Gao, a seasoned journalist who contributed to publications both in and out of China, is an outspoken critic of the Communist Party, “China’s elite-level politics”, and is also a freedom of expression/access to information activist.
The Communist Party accused Gao Yu of sending secret government documents denouncing “free press and independent civil society” to a Chinese website based in the United States.
Having been detained two prior times in her career: for being a pro-democracy protestor at Tiananmen Square in 1989; and in 1994 when she was also imprisoned for revealing “state secrets”.
“State secrets” in the Communist Party seem to be a convenient catch-all term for anything that the Chinese government does not want reported. According to Human Rights Watch, the state secret laws, enforced by the States Secrets Bureau, “apply far beyond the scope of national security to include economic, social, and political matters such as ‘secrets in national economic and social development,’ and other matters ‘affecting social stability.’” By that definition, nearly any challenge to the Communist Party and specifically President Xi Jinping’s authority, can be interpreted as an attack on the state and its secrets. It is not unusual for freedom of speech and human rights activists to be charged and convicted of crimes falling under such a far reaching umbrella.
Gao’s trial was swift and behind closed doors. She was denied contact with her legal counsel while in holding, her counsel was denied the proper access to evidence, and after Gao confessed to her alleged wrong doings on state television, she later revealed to her lawyers that it was made “under duress”.
Unfortunately it was Gao’s forced confession (authorities threatened to arrest her son) that brought about her conviction.
In November of 2015, Gao was released on parole due to her failing health. She had served five of her seven-year sentence.
The number of dissenters imprisoned, exiled, tried, harassed – or worse – are too numerous to count in modern China. But to talk about activists and dissenters being “reprimanded” by the government, it is impossible not to at least touch on the disappearance of Hong Kong’s booksellers.
A Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong enjoys an autonomy from China through a “one country, two systems” government. Hong Kong controls its internal government, while Beijing controls foreign affairs. While Hong Kong has a democratic government in comparison to mainland China, the power of the people to directly elect officials and representatives is limited – and largely influenced by Beijing.
Hong Kong does, theoretically, have the right to freedom of speech. However, when it comes to anti-Beijing or anti-Xi Jinping dissent, Hong Kongers beware.
Starting in October of 2015, the first of five men affiliated with Causeway Bay Books bookstore and Mighty Current publishing house (owner of the bookstore) disappeared.
Lui Por, the general manager at Causeway Bay Books and co-owner of Mighty Current, disappeared while in mainland China. Following his disappearance, Cheung Chi-ping and Lam Wing-kee, business manager of Causeway Bay Books and manager/former owner of Causeway Bay Books respectively, also vanished while on the mainland. Mighty Current co-owner Gui Minhai went missing in Thailand, and on December 30th, manager of Causeway Bay Books and husband to Mighty Current co-owner Sophie Choi Ka-ping, Lee Bo, disappeared from Hong Kong.
All were Hong Kong residents and Chinese citizens, with the exception of Lee Bo who also holds British citizenship in addition to his Chinese citizenship and Hong Kong residency, and Gui Minhai who is solely a Swedish citizen.
It is strongly believed that all five men were abducted by officials acting on behalf of the Chinese government, the intention being to silence dissenters and thwart criticism.
Causeway Bay Books and Mighty Current publishing house had long been associated with peddling books banned in mainland China. The bookstore not only carried books criticizing Xi Jinping and the Communist Party, but also uncensored histories and news. Books ranged from manifestos and calls to arms, to gossipy tell-alls about corruption.
Mighty Current published books at lightening speed, feeding the public’s appetite for dirt on Chinese government officials and scandals, as well as criticism of the government and insider information on the goings-on of the Communist Party.
The disappearances of the booksellers went mysteriously unexplained, despite public outcry, until the men appeared on television in January and February of 2016 publicly confessing to the crimes of “illegal book trading” and “distributing unlicensed books on the mainland, selling unauthorized books in China via an online platform, and evading customs inspections to deliver about 4,000 books to 380 customers since October 2014,” among other crimes.
All of the confessions seemed scripted and coerced, with Gui’s shirt even changing color mid taping. Later, Lam published an account of his abduction including how his confession was scripted and even had a director.
All the men, except for Gui, were granted conditional release by March 2016 and by June the men have all returned to Hong Kong. Gui remains in detention, at the time of this writing, the Swedish government having been granted few and limited meetings with him.
All of this because the authority of the government and the orders of its highest ranking official were called into question.
While the American media is nowhere near the level of danger Chinese journalists and activists face, I can’t help but notice similar rhetoric and adversarial speech coming from the Trump administration. I don’t think the American president is going to kidnap the journalists he has a beef with, but an obsession with extreme control and a “you’d better watch out” mentality is not just prevalent, but is intrinsic to Trump’s public persona.
So perhaps China’s treatment of dissenters is a warning: though we live in a democracy, we have an authoritarian-leaning president who has made threats against the freedom and safety of the press. Though it is doubtful that the media will face the same retribution as Chinese dissidents, there is still cause for alarm. If Senator Sessions is confirmed, if the Justice Department is “loyal” to him, what will be the headline that breaks Donald Trump’s back and sends him into an actual legal war with the media?
With Trump filling his administration with officials who will support his battles with well, anyone who opposes him, America may discover its own brand of punishment in accordance with violating “state secrets law”.
Photo credit: Alexander Mueller/Creative Commons