After more than three and a half years of incommunicado detention, Wang Quanzhang has finally faced trial, but little is known of exactly what happened during the closed-door proceedings other than he fired his state-approved lawyer within minutes.

We had only first learned about his closed-door trial two days before, on Christmas Eve, along with his wife Li Wenzu, who on the morning of her husband’s trial was swarmed by state security officials who placed her under house arrest and forbade her to travel. Other supporters were likewise blocked from travelling for the closed-door trial, including Wang Qiaoling, wife of human rights lawyer Li Heping taken in the 709 crackdown and himself sentenced in a closed-door trial in April 2017.

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This file picture taken on December 17, 2018 shows Li Wenzu posing for the media before shaving her head to protest the detention of her husband and Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, detained during the 709 crackdown, in Beijing. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP.

Such treatment of friends and family is disgraceful and yet unsurprising.

It wouldn’t be the holiday season in China without the show trial of a high-profile dissident, and just as it did a year ago with the secretive trial of rights blogger Wu Gan, China has attempted to hide attention of Wang’s trial by scheduling it around Christmas. But we are not fooled by this vulgar holiday ritual.

What is really on trial is not Wang Quanzhang but Xi Jinping’s empty claims of governing according to the rule of law – yet not even China believes its own propaganda. Why else would it attempt to hide Wang Quanzhang’s trial behind Christmas, except because it knows it has something to hide?

An Affront to Justice

I first met Wang Quanzhang in 2008, and in 2009, along with Peter Dahlin and a few others, we founded the human rights organization China Action. There and later with Fengrui law firm, Wang devoted himself to building the capacity of the rights movement and defending the rights of those who few others dared to represent. In a just world Wang Quanzhang could have been a minister of justice, but in China there is little justice for courageous human rights defenders like him.

Wang Quanzhang was seized by police in early August 2015, three weeks after the launch of the “709 Crackdown” in which over 300 human rights defenders were detained and disappeared from around the country.

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Wang Quanzhang. Photo: RFA.

In January 2016, following months of secret detention under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), an enforced disappearance which is a grave crime under international law, he was arrested on “subversion of State power.” He was transferred to Tianjin No. 2 Detention Center, where he is believed to have been held since, although all attempts by his family to see him in detention have been refused.

Wang has been refused his right to a lawyer or forced to fire them against his will. Several of his lawyers themselves have even become victims of state abuses. The week Wang was arrested in 2016, one of his early lawyers, Wang Qiushi, was placed under RSDL for nearly a month. At the beginning of 2018, another, Yu Wensheng, was abducted while taking his son to school, and remains incommunicado and at risk of torture.

Following his indictment in February 2017, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, and Special Rapporteurs on torture and human rights defenders sent an urgent appeal to the Chinese Government on behalf of Wang Quanzhang and several others over concerns including arbitrary detention and torture.

The official state response claimed that its actions were in accordance with Chinese domestic law, absurd considering credible allegations Wang has been subjected to torture and electric shock. Despite China’s claims, Wang’s treatment has been a clear, ongoing human rights nightmare since he was taken.

In August, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion finding Wang’s detention to be arbitrary, and called for his immediate release and for compensation and remedy, including for appropriate measures to be taken against those responsible for the violation of his rights.

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An activist holds a sign calling for Wang Quanzhang’s release in Hong Kong. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

That Wang Quanzhang’s detention has been arbitrary, under international law, no criminal trial should have taken place at all.

The rule of law on trial

According to the indictment, issued in 2017, the charge for subverting state power rests on three main points. The first is Wang’s role in establishing an organization, of which I was among the co-founders, focused on capacity building for barefoot lawyers and pro bono legal aid to marginalized communities across China. The second is Wang’s legal activism at Jiansanjiang in 2014, which involved the arbitrary detention of several lawyers investigating torture at a black jail. The last is Wang acting as a lawyer for three Falun Gong practitioners.

Wang should never have been taken or faced a trial on such charges, and presumably the length of his detention is partly because of his resistance to a forced confession for these non-crimes. That he fired his state-approved lawyer at the start of his show-trial shows he has maintained his fighting spirit. Now with the trial over, we will watch for sentencing, not allowing China to hide behind New Year’s or the Spring Festival, but one thing is already abundantly clear.

This Christmas, it was not Wang Quanzhang but the Chinese legal system that stood trial.

The charge against Wang illustrates that China sees independent actors strengthening domestic law as tantamount to subverting state power, demonstrating yet again the party sees the law as merely a tool of state power, which is anathema to the rule of law.

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Michael Caster

Michael Caster is a human rights advocate, researcher and civil society consultant. He is the co-founder and former associate director of the Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, a Beijing-based legal aid NGO that operated from 2009 until 2016 when it was forcibly shut down by the Chinese Government. He holds masters degrees in international law and human rights from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the University of Utrecht.