SOON after hearing about the June massacre in Beijing, Chen Zhixiang stepped out on a Guangzhou street with paint and a brush and slapped slogans on a wall denouncing China's leaders. Mr. Chen called for the overthrow of the Communist Party in dazi (big characters) across a swath of brick 20 yards long. The young teacher could just as well have been writing his own jail sentence.
Since violently suppressing liberal protests last spring, China's leadership has revoked any measure of independence for criminal courts with an order to severely punish ``counterrevolutionary crimes.'' Judges in recent months have mechanically imposed harsh sentences against scores of Chinese who defied the party, say Chinese sources within China's legal system.
Appropriately, Chen's sentencing last month appeared to follow a simple, Draconian equation: a year in jail for every two yards of calligraphy or 10 years behind bars. Chen's case exemplifies how the leadership has yanked China's criminal legal system back 30 years to restrictive, cut-and-dried Stalinism. Thousands of Chinese like Chen have suffered under the party's ``lawful'' repression.
More than 10,000 suspected dissidents have been detained in Beijing alone, says a Chinese source, quoting a high ministerial official. A United States State Department report, scheduled for release Feb. 21, documents numerous cases of police raids and the torture and beating of liberal activists while in police custody.
Abuse of the legal system was just one of many severe and pervasive human rights violations last year in Tibet and China proper, according to the report. Since the June massacre, the leadership has crushed a fledgling human rights organization, imposed strict ideological controls on students and intellectuals, and tightened political restrictions on trade unions and journalists. It has also severely restricted the travel of Chinese citizens, the report says.
``At year's end, the crackdown was still continuing,'' according to the report, an annual review of human rights in China.
The police and courts have subjected dissidents to secret tribunals, pretrial convictions, and lengthy detentions without recourse to legal counsel or contact with people outside, say Chinese observers.
In Beijing, the municipal party committee has ordered the courts to try dissidents ``quickly, severely, and with harsh sentences,'' says a Chinese source within the judicial apparatus.
``What we're witnessing here is a very grave setback, ... a big step backward for the relationship between the party and the courts,'' says Jerome Cohen, a United States attorney and an authority on China's legal system, who is a former director of East Asian Legal Studies at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass.
While most gains from a decade of legal reform remain, the party has reversed the efforts by ousted party leader Zhao Ziyang to curb its interference in the most sensitive areas of criminal law, says Dr. Cohen.
``What is really happening is the restoration of the 1950s model, where the party control of the courts is consistent with the most militant discipline, with the greatest stability of a superficial nature, with the greatest control,'' Cohen said in an interview in Beijing. He is an attorney with the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison and is based primarily in Hong Kong.
Most importantly, the party is reviving the political-legal committees through which it directs the police, state prosecutors, and the courts at virtually all levels of the legal system, according to legal experts. Mr. Zhao had dismembered many of these committees before he was purged in June for opposing the crackdown on student activists.
The party has also reinforced the committees with China's powerful secret police, the Ministry of State Security, says Cohen. The committees apparently defy articles 3 and 5 of the criminal procedure law mandating the autonomy of the legal system and discrete roles for the police, state prosecutors, and courts.
In a clear sign of how the party is bringing the courts to heel, the head of the judiciary said last month that ``various levels of the people's courts must self-consciously accept party leadership.''
``It is a mistake to think that, because there is the law, justice can be executed without the guidance of the [party's] policies,'' said Ren Jianxin, president of the Supreme People's Court.
Zhang Mao, a supreme court judge, denies the accounts of mass detentions, covert trials, torture, and other abuses. But he agrees that ``the court should follow party policy and party leadership.'' Indeed, it is difficult for the criminal justice system to act independently of the party on issues involving major party concerns, like the punishment of top party officials for corruption, Mr. Zhang says.
The party has defended its paramount concern - political power - by using the courts to enforce a ``porous and flexible'' law against ``counterrevolutionary crimes,'' Cohen says. The criminal code defines such offenses as acts ``with the goal of overthrowing the political power of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist system.''
Under sufficient political pressure, courts apply the law to even the most harmless acts, say legal experts. For instance, a youth in East Beijing was recently labeled a ``counterrevolutionary vandal'' and sentenced to eight years in jail for tossing a brick through a window soon after the massacre, according to the Chinese source.
The few cases of heavy-handed justice that have been officially disclosed reveal Beijing's effort to intimidate and silence witnesses to its abusive law enforcement and criminal procedures.
Last summer, a court sentenced an art student to a nine-year prison term for spreading ``counter-revolutionary propaganda.'' The student, Zhang Weiping, allegedly told the Voice of America about pro-democracy protests in Hangzhou last June.
Also, an office worker from Dalian was sentenced to 10 years in jail for telling ABC News that troops killed 20,000 people in the Beijing massacre. He was convicted of ``counter-revolutionary rumor-mongering.''
The party further subverts justice by coercing counterrevolutionary suspects to yield to the will of legal officials, say the analysts. Police and prosecutors, exploiting the traditional Chinese respect for authority, compel suspects not to exercise their right to an adequate legal defense.
``A lot of the rights that people have are maintained in principle and theory but social pressure and other pressures mobilized against them have prevented people from exercising them,'' Cohen says.
The party can entirely skirt the restrictions of the criminal justice system by jailing activists for up to four years in ``reform-through-labor centers.'' Under Chinese law, the police have the administrative power to send dissidents to forced labor camps without turning the prisoners over to the courts.
Despite the setback in criminal justice, China has upheld many reforms in civil law, according to the legal specialists.
Cohen says that just days after troops shot their way into Tiananmen Square he presented a case before an arbitration panel above the roar of martial law soldiers drilling in an adjoining courtyard. That the panel held a fair hearing, he says, is a tribute to the immense reforms since 1979 when China lacked even an adequate legal vocabulary.