The Debate | Opinion

Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Chinese Persecution of Critics Hasn’t Stopped – It Has Worsened

While the world struggles with the coronavirus, China makes moves to extend its persecution well outside its borders.

By James Tager for
Amid Coronavirus Pandemic, Chinese Persecution of Critics Hasn’t Stopped – It Has Worsened
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz.

While the world is rightly focused on the coronavirus pandemic, China is exploiting the opportunity to extend its global reach to detain, torture, and punish its critics – even if they are foreign citizens. It’s a disturbing sign that China’s all-out war on international law is intensifying.

China recently moved to indict writer and academic Yang Hengjun on politically-motivated espionage charges. Yang was originally arrested in January 2019 while visiting family in China. Yang may be originally from China, but he has been an Australian citizen since 2002.

Gui Minhai wasn’t even in China when he was picked up in 2015. A Swedish national, Gui was kidnapped by Chinese agents from his vacation home in Thailand and forcibly flown back to mainland China. Last month, in a secret trial, he was sentenced to 10 years on politically-motivated charges.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly gone out of its way to deny or restrict both men’s access to consular officials, and has declared that the Swedish and Australian governments’ attempts to advocate for their citizens represent “meddling in China’s internal affairs.” China’s actions in both cases are flagrant violations of international law and the global order.

It appears the Party believes that if you were born in China, then China alone gets to decide what rights you have forever. The CCP’s one-sided war against its critics — including writers, lawyers, and citizen journalists — has been intensifying for years under the direction of Chinese “president for life” Xi Jinping. But the cases of Gui Minhai and Yang Hengjun are especially important, as examples of China’s willingness to flagrantly disregard some of the most bedrock foundations of international law.

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Yang is a writer known for his spy thrillers, as well as a former visiting scholar at Columbia University. Though he previously worked for the Chinese state, he has long been a critical commentator of the Party, through essays that government censors laboriously worked to scrub from the Chinese internet. Yang once described himself as a “democracy peddler,” but friends agree that he had tamped down his public criticism in recent years.

That didn’t stop the Party from accusing him of “espionage,” a charge they apparently feel no need to support with evidence. Yang has been in detention for more than a year, without access to his lawyers, and with only a handful of half-hour consular visits. For the last three months, Yang has had zero contact with the outside world. On March 24, Yang’s case was transferred to the Beijing People’s Procuratorate — essentially its prosecutor’s office — which will make the final decision whether to charge Yang with espionage. Espionage can carry the death penalty in China, and China has a conviction rate of above 99 percent.

Meanwhile, Yang has been tortured in detention, subjected to long interrogation sessions, sustained sleep deprivation, and stress positions. He has lost more than 20 pounds, suffered from serious memory loss and dizziness, and had difficulty walking. Within the country, despite an official ban, torture as a means to obtain a confession remains widespread — particularly among political cases.

When Australian officials try to intervene on Yang’s behalf, as they are entitled under international law, Party officials act aggrieved. One Chinese government spokesman had the audacity to say Australia “should earnestly respect China’s judicial sovereignty and must not … interfere with a Chinese case.” Apparently advocating for one’s own citizens constitutes “interference” in the Party’s eyes. Beijing also claims that Yang is in good health, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Gui Minhai, a Swedish publisher kidnapped from Thailand, was picked up as part of a campaign against a number of Hong Kong booksellers disappeared for selling books critiquing China’s most powerful people. Officials paraded Gui and his colleagues through a series of clearly-staged “confessions.” Gui, in an obvious lie, said that he returned to China of his own free will. Then they left him to languish in detention, with little-to-no contact with the outside world, for years.

And yet the humiliation and blatant disregard for international norms didn’t end after that charade. In 2018, when Gui was traveling for a medical checkup accompanied by Swedish diplomats, Chinese authorities physically seized him. When Sweden protested, Beijing forced Gui to perform another staged video in which he declared that he wanted Sweden to stop “hyping up” his case. And when PEN Sweden, a literary group, awarded Gui their Tucholsky Prize late last year, China responded by threatening PEN Sweden and attempting to browbeat the Swedish government into submission.

In February, in a secret one-day trial, Gui was convicted of “illegally providing intelligence.” The accusation stemmed from Gui, again under the protections of international law, giving status updates to Swedish diplomats — his own consular officials. Proving that the Party fully understood just how far across the line they’d come, the court then claimed Gui had conveniently relinquished his Swedish citizenship while in state custody.

Since then, he has been incommunicado.

The cases of Gui Minhai and Yang Hengjun are travesties of justice, human rights debacles in which the rule of law has been systematically ignored. But they are also serious threats to international law.

The Chinese Communist Party has decided that it alone gets to decide who is subject to its “justice” and who is not. It can even kidnap you from another country. And once you are in China, you are part of the country’s “internal affairs.” It doesn’t matter if you are a citizen of another country. Your passport is just a piece of paper.

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The Party knows full well that attentions are turned elsewhere. And as these two cases show, they will stop at nothing to assert their disregard for rights and international law.

James Tager is deputy director of free expression research and policy at the literary and free expression group PEN America.