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Chinese government targets elites, intellectuals in recent free expression cases

A placard in support of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (R) and 'cyber-dissident' Huang Qi (L) is seen during a protest in Hong Kong, 29 January 2019
A placard in support of jailed Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang (R) and 'cyber-dissident' Huang Qi (L) is seen during a protest in Hong Kong, 29 January 2019

ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on freedomhouse.org.

Although victims of Chinese Communist Party repression come from all social backgrounds, a spate of disappearances, arrests, and prison sentences reported over the past two months have targeted highly educated elites and professionals. Among those detained or imprisoned are lawyers, university professors, prominent scholars, and students from the country's top universities. The rash of cases may add to pressure on foreign universities or professional groups like bar associations to reexamine their relationships with their Chinese counterparts, particularly because in at least two instances, allegations of receiving foreign funding were used to justify prison sentences.

Environmentalist: Lawyer and environmental activist Chen Wuquan was sentenced to five years in prison by a Guangdong Province court on January 9 for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble." Five codefendants received terms ranging from one year to 18 months. Chen and the others were detained over a year ago for aiding in a protest against a land reclamation project on Donghai Island in the city of Zhanjiang.

Prominent rights lawyer: On January 28, high-profile human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison by a Tianjin court after being held in incommunicado detention for over three years. Wang's trial was held on December 26, 2018, and the lawyer became the last of the "Black Friday" detainees rounded up in 2015 to face trial or be released. A leaked censorship directive from days before the sentencing, translated by China Digital Times, ordered all news websites to refrain from reporting on the sentence.

Civil society organizer: Liu Feiyue, founder of the well-known Civil Rights and Livelihood Watch documentation website, was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of over RMB 1 million ($150,000) by a Hubei Province court on January 29 for "inciting subversion." Liu's mother claimed that the court broke a promise to give her son a suspended sentence in exchange for her agreement to undergo "ideological work."

Professor: Zeng Hao, a 45-year-old business professor at Tianhe College, part of Guangdong Province's Polytechnical Normal University, was sentenced to 3.5 years in prison and fined RMB 10,000 ($1,500) on January 29. He had been detained in August 2017 after posting several images related to the Falun Gong spiritual group on Tencent's QQ platform. Zeng was sentenced without his lawyer or family present.

Australian writer: Writer and blogger Yang Hengjun, a 53-year-old Australian citizen with a PhD from the University of Technology, Sydney, was revealed to have been detained in China for "criminal activities endangering national security" days after he went missing upon arrival at a Guangzhou airport on January 19. Yang, a former Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs employee who later became a spy novelist, has been critical of the Chinese Communist Party in his writings, though not in recent times. In 2011, Yang was briefly detained while on a trip to China, but later called the incident a "misunderstanding."

Marxist university students: Seven Marxist students from the elite Peking University and Renmin University were detained on January 21. They were just the latest to be detained as part of a crackdown in recent months on Marxist students and graduates of top universities who became active in the labor movement.

Uighur intellectuals: Amid an ongoing assault on Uighur culture in Xinjiang, a January 28 report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project details the cases of 388 intellectuals who have been detained since April 2017. They include 61 university professors and 57 media professionals.

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