10 January 2012

Heavy Punishment and the Ongoing Crackdown in China

Earlier today, the Committee to Protect Journalists issued a news alert on the recent conviction of veteran Chinese democracy activist Chen Xi, who was sentenced late last month to 10 years in prison for "inciting subversion."

In the alert, Bob Dietz, CPJ's program coordinator for Asia, is quoted as saying: "The severe sentence given to Chen Xi for online writing indicates that Chinese authorities are tightening their control of dissent. Penalties against government critics appear to be growing harsher."

As evidence for this trend of harshness, CPJ points to the sentences handed down last year to Liu Xianbin, Chen Wei, and Chen Xi, all in the range of 9-10 years, and rightly contrasts that to the sentences of up to five years normally handed down for that offense. By contrast, they cite earlier sentences given to Hu Jia, Chen Daojun, and Du Daobin, all of whom served less than four years.

I don't disagree that the recent sentences are heavy. I'm less convinced, however, that the sentences themselves are clear evidence of a crackdown on dissent in China. This is because the length of the sentences in each of these cases can be attributed in large part to mandated penalty-intensification under Chinese law.

According to Articles 65 and 66 of the Criminal Law of the PRC, heavier punishment is indicated for offenders who commit a second crime under the category of "endangering state security" after having served a prison sentence for a previous offense under the same category (including "counterrevolutionary" crimes under the 1979 criminal code. There is no time limit for state security offenses, meaning that heavier punishment is automatically mandated for a second conviction.

Let's look at the records of these recent cases:

Liu Xianbin (10 years): sentenced to 2-1/2 years' imprisonment for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement" in 1992; sentenced to 13 years' imprisonment for subversion in 1999.

Chen Wei (9 years): sentenced to 4 years' imprisonment for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement" in 1994.

Chen Xi (10 years): sentenced to 3 years' imprisonment for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement" in 1990; sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for "organizing and leading a counterrevolutionary group" in 1996.

By contrast, recidivism did not appear to be a factor in sentencing Liu Xiaobo (11 years in 2009), who, though detained for "counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement" after June Fourth was ultimately exempted from criminal punishment. The harshness of that sentence can thus properly be seen as a direct response to Liu's alleged crimes. Likewise for the sentencing of He Depu (8 years in 2003.

The heavy sentences given to Wang Xiaoning (10 years in 2003) and Zheng Yichun (7 years in 2005) were the result of a different type of mandated intensification. Their state-security crimes were determined to have been committed in league with "overseas entities" and thus subject to heavier punishment under Article 106 of the Criminal Law.

Note that I'm not saying that there is no crackdown underway or that the punishments that were handed down are justified. I believe that China's use of criminal sanctions against "inciting subversion" is a clear violation of international human rights law protecting free expression.

What I am saying is simply that Liu Xianbin, Chen Wei, and Chen Xi were given heavy punishments not simply because of any ongoing crackdown but more because of their persistent and long-standing political activism, for which each of them has spent a considerable amount of the past two decades behind bars. I think it gives us a better understanding of how the government cracks down on dissent to recognize that it's precisely these kinds of veteran activists whom the authorities want "off the grid" and that the legal system is designed to enable them to do so.

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