The 9th of July 2016 marks one year since the most devastating crackdown on human rights defenders in China for decades began. On that day and in the weeks that followed around 300 human rights defenders, their families and colleagues were detained, interrogated or harassed. The legal community was especially targeted and despite Xi Jinping’s repeated emphasis on the rule of law, scores of human rights lawyers were detained or threatened or subjected to travel bans merely for defending their clients.
Colorful propaganda posters have accompanied almost every event or development that took place in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since its founding in 1949. These posters have been intended to mobilize, inform, congratulate, inspire, instruct, or appease the people. The accessibility of the poster message for the large number of those who couldn’t read in China was an important reason behind the production of posters. (see “Chinese Propaganda Posters” published by the International Institute of Social History)
Front Line Defenders worked with artist Johanna Zhang to develop alternative posters to highlight the contradiction between the public statements of President Xi Jinping in support of the rule of law and the reality of the mass arrests of human rights lawyers.
Artist statement: The first in the #709 Series references propaganda posters featuring Mao’s “supreme instructions” during the Cultural Revolution.
The Mao cult has its contemporary equivalent under Xi Jinping’s rule, where political power is highly concentrated to one man and one Party.
Disguised by the official slogan “rule of law” is the everlasting rule of the CCP, the supremacy of which is guaranteed by the Constitution, and which uses the law merely as an instrument to maintain its power.
Zhou Shifeng: Facing Subversion Charges
Zhou Shifeng is head of the Fengrui Law Firm, and a prominent human right lawyer. He is a key member of the ‘rights defense movement,’ which has tried to challenge state power through litigation and publicity.
He has taken on a number of ‘politically risky’ human rights cases since 2001. In 2008 he sued one of the largest dairy producers in China on behalf of a victim of the contaminated milk scandal, while in 2014 he represented Tie Liu, an 81 year old writer who was arrested following online criticism of the Chinese government. In 2015, Zhou publicly announced his intention to establish a “China Lawyers’ Rights Defense Fund” which would provide financial assistance to family members of detained lawyers.
Artist Statement: The second poster references Mao’s quote “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. This resonates with Xi’s emphasis that the CCP must hold the gun tightly in order to guarantee the rule of law.
Chinese authorities under President Xi have used the law as a weapon against human rights lawyers, effectively turning the law on its head.
A concerted effort was made to smash a countrywide network of rights defenders who used the law to advance their cases and push for internationally recognized rights. In doing so, they were simply fulfilling their duties as responsible citizens, attempting to bring the country further down the road of rule of law and taking the Chinese Communist Party’s diktats on the role of law at face value. The year that has passed since the beginning of the crackdown has starkly highlighted how the rule of law only extends insofar as it is useful in keeping the CCP in power.
Artist Statement: The image is based on a photo of lawyer Wang Yu standing outside Bobai Detention Center when she tried to visit detained feminist activist Ye Haiyan. It was not long before Wang Yu herself became a prisoner of the state during the massive arrests of human rights lawyers. As someone put it so accurately: “Even lawyer’s lawyer is looking for a lawyer.” Seen in this light, the importance of lawyers is more authentic than Xi’s rhetoric remark that “Lawyers constitute an important force in instituting the rule of law”.
Wang Yu: Facing Subversion Charge
Wang Yu is a commercial lawyer who began taking on human rights cases in 2011. In and out of the courtroom, Wang built a reputation as a fearless champion of the downtrodden and a perpetual thorn in the government’s side.
She defended feminist activists, members of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and Ilham Tothi, the respected Uighur academic who was jailed for life in 2014 for inciting separatism.
In 2013, Wang traveled to the southern island of Hainan to help the families of six schoolgirls who had allegedly been sexually assaulted by their headmaster. In 2014 she acted as lawyer for Cao Shunli, a grassroots human rights defender who died in detention following denial of adequate medical access by the Chinese authorities.
Artist Statement: The Chinese text on the left is a Xi quote, which reads “Ruling the country by law is the rigid method of maintaining social order”. The quote in English on the right is Chinese delegation’s response to the UN Committee Against Torture during China’s review in 2015, defending the country’s widespread use of the notorious torture chair.
The effort to delegitimize, defame and undermine the work of human rights lawyers has been damaging. Physical torture and attacks are complimented by defamation and humiliation. Televised confessions evoke the fear for public humiliation in Mao era. Furthermore, the clients who these lawyers represented have also suffered. Many of those were either other HRDs or poor and marginalized people seeking redress or protection from the courts.
Ten lawyers remain in detention, as do two legal assistants and nine other human rights defenders. Of those, ten have been hit with the extremely serious charges of ‘subverting state power’. Five others have been charged with ‘inciting subversion’ while four have been charged with ‘gathering a crowd to disrupt public order’, two with ‘picking quarrels and provoking troubles’ and one with ‘spying’. Representative of that group are the following five human rights defenders who have shown extraordinary courage in the face of daunting odds and have persisted in defending the rights of others knowing full well that each day longer they engaged in this work, the closer they were coming to feeling the full force of the CCP.
Artist Statement: The last design of the #709 Series is an attempt to propose an oppositional genre of poster against official propaganda. I would call this new genre “top-of-the-mountain poster”, which, in Chinese, makes a pun for “inciting subversion”. The design is inspired by a photo of wives of human rights lawyers protesting a few days ago outside the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. The curvy lines and colourful shapes of their dresses make such a contrast to the building behind them. This collective feminist action has expressed a quiet but determined subversion of their own.
Wang Quanzhang: Facing Subversion Charges
Wang Quanzhang has a history of taking on sensitive cases including defending Falun Gong practitioners, investigative journalists and democracy advocates. He has been harassed, intimidated and beaten as a result of his work.
Li Heping has a history of taking on sensitive cases including defending Falun Gong practitioners, investigative journalists and democracy advocates. He has been harassed, intimidated and beaten as a result of his work.
For more information on Chinese human rights defenders at risk: