The cheer of America’s holiday season is typically lost on China. Over the past decade, Chinese officials have increasingly chosen to hold trials for detained political dissidents during Western holidays, when diplomats, journalists, and other observers are off duty or distracted.
Last week’s American Thanksgiving holiday was no exception. On Friday, the day after the US celebrated the holiday, the activists Yang Maodong and Sun Desheng faced an all-night trial in Guangzhou, with security stretching 3 kilometers (or about 2 miles) around the courthouse. The activists, who participated in protests against censorship last year, both pleaded not guilty to charges of gathering crowds to disrupt public order. The trial is currently in recess after Yang almost fainted from hunger—his requests for food had been denied, according to his lawyer.
“Both have been held for over 400 days, mistreated in detention, and after the first court hearing was postponed on Sep. 12, it has been seemingly cynically rescheduled to coincide with the American holiday season,” Frances Eve, a researcher for Chinese Human Rights Defenders told Quartz.
In the past, civil rights lawyers Ni Yulan, who campaigned against forced evictions, was tried four days after Christmas in 2011 and eventually sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. (Ni and her husband, also an activist, have recently been released but say they’ve been physically attacked by police.) That year, two writers were also sentenced to jail on Dec. 23 and Dec. 26. In 2007, AIDS activist and environmentalist Hu Jia was arrested on Dec. 27, and the year before that, human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was sentenced to three years in prison three days before Christmas. Most famously, writer and Nobel Peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced on Christmas Day to 11 years in prison for subversion in 2009.
This Christmas could bring the trials of human rights lawyers like Tang Jingling and Pu Zhiqiang, who were detained in the spring for participating in commemorations of the June 4th crackdown on democracy activists in 1989. According to Eve, their cases have moved closer to trial over the past few weeks, which means they could go to court in late December.
“While most embassies still send observers, and foreign correspondents expect these kinds of tactics, the real damage is that the general public may not be aware of these trials,” Eve said. “Trials around western holidays is one method of trying to hide the fact that China is criminalizing individuals who are exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.”