In China, a Christmas Crackdown on Dissent

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Chinese dissident Chen Xi is seen in this undated handout photo released by his family on December 26, 2011. A court in China sentenced Chen Xi, to 10 years in jail for subversion on Monday.

Christmas means different things around the world, but in China one of the things it’s come to stand for crackdown. In recent years Chinese courts have chosen the holiday season as the time to hand down the harshest sentences to political dissenters, possibly in the belief that their rulings will received the least attention abroad. On Dec. 26 a court in the southwestern city of Guiyang sentenced longtime dissident Chen Xi to 10 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power,” Reuters reported.

Chen was active in the 1989 protest movement, organizing a pro-democracy group in Guiyang and later serving 13 years in prison after the government crushed the Tiananmen demonstrations. Chen Xi, who is also known as Chen Youcai, was arrested on Nov. 29, a week before the Guizhou Human Rights Forum, a group to which he belonged, was declared illegal, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, an activist group.

Chen’s wife, Zhang Qunxuan, told Reuters he was convicted over the content of 36 essays that he had published on overseas websites that were critical of China’s ruling Communist Party. “To subvert you – can he do that?” Zhang said, according to Reuters. “Does he have any army? Does he have a police force? Does he have courts? With a piece of paper and a pen, can he subvert you? Are you so fragile?” His conviction came just three days after a court in Sichuan province sentenced another veteran activist, Chen Wei, to nine years in prison, also on a charge of inciting subversion.

Chen Wei is not related to Chen Xi, but he has a similar story, becoming politically active in 1989 and spending six years in prison afterwards. The evidence cited against Chen Wei was also essays published online, with title such as  “The Disease of the System and the Medicine of Constitutional Democracy” and “The Key to China’s Democratization is the Growth of a Civil Opposition,” CHRD reported. One of his lawyers, Liang Xiaojun, denounced the conviction in an interview with the rights group. “The verdict was predetermined, the trial was unlawful,” Liang told CHRD. “I’m speechless, I really have no words to describe it.”

Chen Wei was detained on Feb. 20, part of a broad crackdown on dissent that was launched in response to annonymous online calls for a Tunisian-style “jasmine revolution” in China. The calls lead to no significant protests in China, but they touched off a huge security response and dozens of arrests. The most prominent was Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who was held for 81 days the spring and summer and later charged with income tax violations.

This Christmas marks the second anniversary of the sentencing of longtime activist Liu Xiaobo, who was given an 11-year prison term for subversion for his role in writing Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto, and other essays distributed online. If the purpose of his holiday conviction was to prevent widespread publicity of his case, it ultimately failed. One year later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.