Two prominent Chinese human rights lawyers have been sentenced to more than a decade in prison, Human Rights Watch said Monday, the latest in a crackdown by the ruling Communist Party on its critics.
The rights group said Xu Zhiyong, 50, was sentenced to 14 years and Ding Jiaxi, 55, was given 12 years in prison under the vague charge of “subversion of state power.” Such proceedings are conducted under intense secrecy.
“The cruelly farcical convictions and sentences meted out to Xu Zhiyong and Ding Jiaxi show President Xi Jinping’s unstinting hostility towards peaceful activism,” Yaqiu Wang, the group’s senior China researcher, was quoted as saying in a news release.
The court in Shandong province, south of the capital Beijing, did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation.
Xu and Ding are among a generation of Chinese who held out hope that the ruling party would adopt a more liberal approach to governance after the political chaos of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution and the bloody crackdown on student-led pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Current party leader and head of state Xi Jinping has quashed such beliefs with a renewed emphasis on strict party control over civil society and free speech. He and the loyal members he chose for the Politburo Standing Committee justify their monopoly on political power by citing China’s success as the world’s second-largest economy, with its tightly enforced social stability and rising global influence.
Both Xu and Ding had served multiple years in prison for their dissident stances and promotion of those deprived of a voice within the country’s authoritarian political system.
Xu was among those honored by the literary and human rights organization PEN America in 2020, including artists, activists and a former United States president.
The pair are representative of a wider crackdown on any challenge to party power.
Shortly after becoming party leader and head of state, Xi in 2015 ordered the arrests of around 200 lawyers and legal activists. Most were released with warnings after monthslong detentions that some said included torture and forced confessions. Legal representation was often scant or forced on them by the party without the option to refuse.
China’s best-known prisoner of conscience, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, was serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” when he died of liver cancer in 2017. He co-authored a manifesto calling for political and economic liberalization, underscoring the regime’s fear of dissident voices, even online and without posing any physical threats to its overwhelming hold on power.
In 2018, Xi eliminated presidential term limits, clearing the way for an unprecedented third term and the potential to rule indefinitely.