For China, Christmas is the best time of year to put human-rights activists on trial

Holiday cheer.
Holiday cheer.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Not only is China is not a big fan of Christmas, but the holiday season appears to be the perfect time for authorities to put human-rights activists on trial.

Yesterday (Dec. 26), a Chinese court sentenced activist Wu Gan to eight years in prison on charges of subverting state power. Better known by his online alias of “Super Vulgar Butcher,” Wu routinely campaigned on sensitive issues relating to government abuse of power, both online and offline through eye-catching street protests. The same day, rights lawyer Xie Yang was also tried, but not punished, after he earlier pleaded guilty to subversion charges.

Both Wu and Xie were arrested months before an unprecedented crackdown on human-rights lawyers and defenders in 2015 that saw hundreds of people questioned or detained nationwide over a few weeks.

Scheduling the trials during the holiday season wasn’t a coincidence. “China has a history of engaging in politically motivated actions against well-known activists during the Christmas holidays,” Amnesty International’s China researcher Patrick Poon said in a statement condemning Wu and Xie’s trials. ”Carrying out unfair trials and politicised sentencing of human rights defenders at the very time when diplomats, journalists, international observers and the general public are less likely to be able to respond reeks of a cynical political calculation.”

Below is a list of some of the activists China has tried or arrested around the Christmas period in the past:

  • 2016: On Dec. 26, rights activist Chen Yunfei was tried on the charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” after he was arrested for organizing a memorial service for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. In March, Chen was sentenced to four years in prison.
  • 2015: On Dec. 22, prominent human-rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was handed a three-year suspended sentence for making comments critical of the Communist Party. The evidence used against Pu—who defended artist Ai Weiwei—was seven of his messages on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
  • 2011: On Dec. 26, dissident writer Chen Xi was sentenced to 10 years in jail on subversion charges after publishing online articles critical of the Communist Party. Three days earlier, fellow writer Chen Wei was also sentenced to jail on similar charges.
  • 2009: On Christmas Day, late Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail on subversion charges, after being detained the previous year for co-authoring a political manifesto calling for a fundamental political transformation in China.
  • 2007: On Dec. 27, AIDS activist and environmentalist Hu Jia was arrested and eventually sentenced to three-and-a-half years in jail on subversion charges. He still lives under tight surveillance in Beijing.
  • 2006: On Dec. 22, human-rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, known for defending the rights of Falun Gong members and farmers, was handed a three-year sentence in jail on charges of subverting state power.