Wang Yu 'confession' – China's bid to counter critics of its crackdown?

On the eve a major trial of Chinese human rights lawyers and activists, a video emerges of a prominent associate blaming 'foreign groups' for defaming Beijing.   

Mark Schiefelbein/AP/File
Accused human rights lawyer Wang Yu, shown here in a 2015 file photo, emerged Aug. 1 in a news video criticizing a key human rights lawyer.

The Chinese government is fighting off global condemnation of its crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists by accusing them of conspiring with sinister foreign forces that are meddling in China’s affairs.

The latest twist: A prominent associate of the defendants, Wang Yu, emerged from detention Monday for the first time in a year to blame “foreign groups” for instilling ideas of democracy among her legal colleagues. The statement comes on the eve of a major subversion trial. 

“I am Chinese and I only accept the leadership of the Chinese government,” Ms. Wang is seen saying in a videotaped interview aired on ONTV, a website affiliated with Oriental Daily, a Hong Kong newspaper She is also seen denouncing Zhou Shifeng, director of the prominent Fengrui law firm, which has been a key target of Beijing’s assault on rights advocates. 

A coerced confession?

Human rights groups immediately raised questions about possible pressure exerted on Wang, noting the numerous occasions since 2015 when China has freed activists after they appeared in televised “confessions” of their crimes, often without prior access to their lawyers.

Patrick Poon, a researcher for Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said he found many things about her statement suspicious. “It is strange to see a Hong Kong media being allowed to do such an interview while even Wang Yu’s lawyers and friends still can’t reach her,” he wrote in an email.

“While we don’t have evidence to say that she was coerced into making the statement,” he added, “her lawyers and friends find it strange and difficult to understand why this video interview is released now.” 

Relatives of four other detained lawyers, including Mr. Zhou, have reported on social media that their trials will start on Tuesday in Tianjin, 60 miles southeast of Beijing. Wang’s statement may have been timed to sway Chinese public opinion on the eve of the trial, Mr. Poon said.

Hundreds of rights lawyers and activists have been swept up in China’s crackdown on dissent since it intensified in mid-2015. 
Before she was taken away by police a year ago to be charged with state subversion, Wang was a tireless rights lawyer with the Fengrui law firm, known for defending the disenfranchised. She represented feminist activists, members of the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, and Ilham Tohti – a Uighur academic who was last year jailed for life after advocating for his fellow Muslims in the far western province of Xinjiang. 

Foreign connections

In her videotaped interview, Wang did not confess to the charges of subversion that she faces. But she was shown saying that she regretted what she did as a lawyer and said she believes Chinese authorities "will deal with it fairly." She also accused Zhou of trying to garner publicity by representing controversial clients and said the law firm had participated in legal training sessions in Britain, Switzerland, and Thailand organized by foreign interests to “defame the Chinese government.”

That latter comment might be an attempt to link the Fengrui law firm to training sessions purportedly led by Peter Dahlin, a Swedish national detained in January in China, and later deported after he gave a televised confession. Wang, however, did not mention Mr. Dahlin by name.  

In the video, Wang also lashed out at foreign interests for roping her son, Bao Zhuoxuan, into the controversy surrounding her law firm. Bao, a teenager, was caught by security agents last October in Myanmar as friends tried to smuggle him to Thailand. 
She also denounced a prestigious international lawyers’ award – the Ludovic Trarieux International Human Rights Prize – that she won this year. She said she did not “admit, recognize, or accept” this award – the same wording Beijing used recently in rejecting an international tribunal ruling against China’s island-building in the South China Sea. 

China’s latest moves appear to send the message – at home and abroad – that it is justified in prosecuting legal advocates who receive foreign aid and advice. The government appears to hope that Wang’s interview will help it counter criticism by rights groups who say the televised confessions may be the end product of months of torture or family intimidation. 

Wang’s statement first gained attention when reported by ONTV, part of a Hong Kong media conglomerate, which said it interviewed Wang, who was in police custody, in a Tianjin restaurant. Contacted Monday, a spokesman for the company who declined to give his name said it was “inconvenient to reveal” how ONTV got the interview or when it was conducted.  

Last month, another Hong Kong media outlet, the South China Morning Post, came under fire for publishing a confessional interview with a detained law firm assistant, Zhao Wei. The paper refused to disclose how it managed to get the “exclusive” interview. 

– Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report.

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