Who gets punished?: Sons and daughters of rights lawyers - Collective punishment in China

by Jerome Cohen

Wang Yu and her son Bao Zhuoxuan, Photo courtesy of Bao Zhuoxuan

Wang Yu and her son Bao Zhuoxuan, Photo courtesy of Bao Zhuoxuan

Wang Yu, a leading rights lawyer detained in July during a large-scale crackdown on lawyers, must be under greater pressures than ever. Not only is she detained, but also her teenage son Bao Zhuoxuan has been prevented from leaving China to study abroad. When the boy tried to escape China days ago, he was caught in Myanmar and brought back to the country. Chinese media now claim that this is “a plot by external forces, who forcibly drew a minor into the vortex of politics and used the case to vilify China's rule of law.” Wang Yu, detained for more than three months now, appeared on state TV to condemn the supposed smuggling of her son (See Verna Yu’s report here). Meanwhile a son of another prominent rights lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan, has also been denied permission to leave China to pursue an overseas education.

There is no doubt that in fact, not in formal law, the Chinese Government has been resorting to collective punishment of the family members of those it regards as political offenders. Indeed, the People’s Republic has been doing this for a long time in order to punish people it deems to be dissidents and to force them to “confess” to alleged crimes they have not committed.

Such formal collective punishment was abolished over a century ago in China as part of reformers’ efforts to bring Qing dynasty justice up to the standards of the Western imperial powers and end the incubus of “extraterritorial” foreign jurisdiction. Yet it persisted in practice under China’s post-imperial, pre-Communist regimes. Chiang Kai-shek’s government continued to secretly mete out collective family punishment on Taiwan. Many still recall how Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) police even killed the children and mother of a distinguished Taiwan independence advocate while he was in prison.

Is collective punishment happening more often in the PRC today than in the past? It’s impossible for outside observers to know. Surely the Internet and social media keep us better informed than in the past.

The authorities evidently think it is an effective tool, since it can transform even the most courageous dissident into the Communist Party’s compliant victim.

This vicious practice may soon backfire, however, since knowledge of its use is increasingly widespread and leaves in tatters any further attempt by the Xi Jinping regime to resort to “soft power”. I am glad Xi’s daughter had the opportunity for a Harvard education. It is a disgrace that he so often denies this opportunity to the children of so many worthy citizens.