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Rights defense activists sentenced, ‘confess’ to China and Hong Kong media

Over 300 rights defense lawyers and activists were detained on and around July 9, 2015. One year later, 19 remained in custody, with the majority facing political charges of “subversion” or “inciting subversion,” including several connected to the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, the focus of last year’s crackdown. Fengrui director Zhou Shifeng and three other activists were tried and sentenced in Tianjin during the first week of August. All four pleaded guilty, though outside observers believe they were coerced. Portions of their confessions in court were broadcast on state television, but some segments, including statements praising China’s legal system that may have included an undercurrent of sarcasm, were removed from published transcripts. 
Alongside Chinese state media coverage, some of the most prominent “709” detainees have given confession-style interviews to Hong Kong broadcasters and newspapers. Coming just months after four of five detained Hong Kong booksellers “confessed” on Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, the trend highlights Beijing’s increased influence on media outlets in the special autonomous region. Hong Kong’s English-language South China Morning Post published an interview with female legal assistant Zhao Wei on July 11 in which she told the paper that she “regretted her civil rights activism” and “truly wanted to repent.” The Postwas acquired by the mainland internet mogul Jack Ma in April.
On August 1, Wang Yu, a female attorney connected to Fengrui, gave an “exclusive” interview to another Hong Kong paper, the Oriental Daily. She condemned “Western values and notions of democracy” and the rights defense work on which she had built her career, and stated that she “won’t acknowledge, won’t recognize, and won’t accept” an international human rights award. (Wang was recently honored by both the International Association of Lawyers and the American Bar Association.) Wang also appeared on Phoenix TV, where she blamed “foreign forces” for using Fengrui to undermine the Chinese government. After the Oriental Daily interview was published, intellectual Mo Zhixu announced on Twitter that he would stop contributing articles to the paper, explaining, “Their article supports the party-state, acting as a tool.” Reinforcing suspicions that the media denunciations were coerced, Zhang Kai, a human rights lawyer who had made comments critical of the lawyers and activists sentenced in early August during media interviews, including with Phoenix TV, later issued a statementwithdrawing his remarks and saying he had made them against his will.
Other propaganda initiatives have sought to bolster the Chinese government’s case against the “709” lawyers. During the trials in Tianjin at the beginning of August, Beijing Dujia Media released a video montage warning that activists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland have received financial backing from the United States to start “color revolutions” in China. Lei Xiying, a doctoral candidate at Australia National University, spearheaded the project. He toldAustralia’s Fairfax Media that the “709” detainees had infuriated ordinary Chinese people. “The trials exposed them receiving training from overseas forces, accepting funds from foreign forces, and maliciously spreading rumours,” he said. The Chinese Supreme People’s Court shared the video, which was viewed over 10 million times within 24 hours of its release.

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