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China returns to show trials of 1950s and ’60s, legal experts say

Analysts say China is moving back to public trials aimed at shaming and intimidation

Not since the 1950s and ’60s — when denouncements of so-called counterrevolutionaries were a common sight in China’s stadiums and squares — has the People’s Republic seen anything like its recent slew of showy public trials, legal experts say. The trials are broadcast on TV and the Internet, even as calls have come from Beijing’s top prosecutor to reform the nation’s judicial system and stem “wrongful convictions.”

During his nearly two years in office so far, Chinese President Xi Jinping has launched campaigns to root out corruption in the public and private sectors and to quell violent unrest among predominantly Muslim ethnic Uighurs in the strategically important far-western region of Xinjiang. Many of the public trials have stemmed from these efforts.

Analysts say that during Xi’s tenure, the country’s legal system has started to resemble that of the 1950s and ’60s — when people were tried not in courts but in public, as a way of letting Chinese citizens know what kind of behavior was acceptable.

“It might seem like there have been more [public trials and confessions] under Xi Jinping,” Gao Wenqian, senior policy adviser with international nongovernmental organization Human Rights in China (HRIC), said Thursday. “This is actually a manifestation of Communist Party culture. This started under Mao Zedong.”

Amid the bombardment of Chinese nationals with images of the public trials, China’s top prosecutor Cao Jianming this week called for judicial reform to avoid what he called rampant wrongful convictions. In an article published by independent Chinese business magazine Caixin, he specifically mentioned confessions extracted under torture and how some legal authorities have demonstrably considered defendants guilty until proved innocent. Legal reform is set to take top billing at the Fourth Plenum, a meeting of China’s top officials, usually held in September.

Since Xi's inauguration, China’s television audiences in August 2013 witnessed the trial of fallen Communist Party up-and-comer Bo Xilai, whose father was publicly denounced during his own fall from grace with Mao’s administration in 1968. Other civil servants of all stripes also have been publicly purged or have made publicized confessions.

Images of Bo, flanked by court guards, harked back to images of his father paraded about by high-ranking party members during the Cultural Revolution.

“The Chinese government has increasingly invoked extralegal mechanisms taken out of the 1950s and ’60s, including televised public confessions by social media celebrities, foreign corporate investigators and Uighurs, rather than trials, to send messages to society at large,” said Charles Minzner, a Chinese law expert and professor at New York City’s Fordham University.

Minzner said that the recent rash of public trials is a departure from the 1990s and early 2000s, when Beijing emphasized rule of law and depended on court proceedings — although they were not transparent or independent from the Communist Party — to address perceived political foes such as corruption, dissidents and alleged separatists. 

In the recent rash of public trials, dissidents who use social media have also been targeted. Political reform advocate and blogger Charles Xue Manzi, a Chinese-American, confessed on TV to what some say were trumped-up charges of soliciting prostitutes. He is one of many Internet personalities who have made forced confessions, according to human rights groups, amid Beijing’s sweeping efforts to crack down on online dissent.

Uighurs have also borne much of the brunt of public trials and confessions, amid efforts to crack down on a series of violent attacks attributed to what Beijing calls Uighur armed groups. Xinjiang officials, for example, broadcast on TV the confession of a 19-year-old Uighur who allegedly killed a pro-Beijing imam at a prominent Xinjiang mosque.

China has also widely publicized the upcoming trial of economist and professor Ilham Tohti, an outspoken advocate for Uighur rights. Tohti is charged with separatism, punishable by death in China, even though he was an outspoken advocate for greater socioeconomic inclusion of Uighurs as part of Chinese society. A pretrial hearing will be held Sept. 7, Tohti’s Beijing-based lawyer Li Fangping confirmed.

Tohti’s daughter Juer Yilihamu, 20, currently a student at Indiana University, told Al Jazeera she hopes — but doubts — that legal reforms will keep her father from a trial in which he is used as an example for what the government perceives as Uighur rabble rousers.

“I hope that they will apply this kind of legal reform in my father’s case,” she said, explaining that authorities could easily use him to strike fear into the hearts of Uighur activists. “He’s very visible. Very few [Uighurs] have his academic background and are willing to speak out, and are still in China and haven’t left the country,” she said. 

But it is unlikely that any reforms would touch cases like Tohti’s, Fordham’s Minzner said.

“Those are the last cases you would expect to be affected by any reforms that might happen that are announced later this year” at the plenum, Minzner said. “Those case are signed off on and decided before they go to court by top level officials.”

HRIC’s Gao was even less optimistic about the overall prospect of legal reform in China.

“There’s nothing new about what Cao Jianming is saying. The Communist Party has been saying this on a daily basis,” Gao said. “If there isn’t a judiciary independent [from the party], then it’s all just empty talk.”

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