When Zhou Xiangyang and Li Shanshan, both practitioners of Falun Gong persecuted for their beliefs, were last time in court on December 2015, the judge barred their lawyers from representing them, and refused to let the married Chinese couple make their own defense. Court bailiffs forcibly pinned Zhou down when he protested the treatment.
International human rights organizations have documented the persecution of Zhou and Li, a particularly severe yet touching saga that spans nearly 13 years. For refusing to give up their faith, the two were arrested and detained on numerous occasions, and were hauled before kangaroo courts and sentenced on trumped up charges.
The couple’s most recent court hearing on Sept. 13, however, appeared to deviate from script.
Inside Dongli People’s Court in the port city of Tianjin, the same judge that blocked legal proceedings last year allowed—although seemingly begrudgingly—the lawyers of Zhou and Li to present their case in its entirety. The lawyers pleaded the innocence of their clients, and then embarked on an unprecedented defense of Falun Gong itself, and its core teachings of truthfulness, compassion, tolerance.
That Chinese lawyers could defend high-profile victims of the Falun Gong persecution, and the spiritual discipline’s teachings, in a court in Tianjin without facing immediate reprisal is in itself a remarkable incident. Tianjin is an epicenter of the persecution of Falun Gong, as well as the location where several human rights lawyers and activists who were arrested last year in a mass crackdown are being held and tried.
The unusual court hearing follows a series of other gestures, both subtle and surprising, by Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, which may hint that the regime is rethinking the persecution of Falun Gong, a brutal political campaign ordered by former regime chief Jiang Zemin.
Zhou Xiangyang and Li Shanshan were represented by four defense lawyers—Nanjing’s Southeast University law lecturer and attorney Zhang Zanning, Beijing human rights lawyer Yu Wensheng, lawyer Chang Boyang, and lawyer Zhang Keke.
In a defense statement titled, “Safeguarding legal justice and the universal values of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, ” the lawyers argued that their clients are not guilty because the Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of belief and speech. The lawyers also went on to defend the principles of Falun Gong.
“Truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance are the most fundamental of traditional virtues, and are widely accepted universal values,” read the statement.
“If Falun Gong practitioners genuinely adhere to the values of truthfulness, compassion, and tolerance, then the suppression of Falun Gong is a suppression of these values, and a crime against humanity.”
According to Xia Yiyang, senior director of Research and Policy at the Human Rights Law Foundation, “even though there were mentions of the principles followed by Falun Gong practitioners in previous trials, this might be the first time a defense statement clearly identifies and defends the principles as universal values.”
The significance of the statement is that the “persecution of Falun Gong not only violated the law, but more importantly, is against values cherished by humanity,” Xia said.
Typically, human rights lawyers make a “not guilty” plea for practitioners on grounds that the persecution is unconstitutional. The first well-reported “not guilty” defense occurred in 2006, and “many rights lawyers lose their license to practice law, and face arrest, detention, and even torture just for doing that,” said Xia.
Not Business as Usual
The court hearing of Zhou Xiangyang and Li Shanshan on Sept. 13 initially appeared to be another closely controlled show trial.
According to an attendee at the hearing, there was a strong police presence outside Tianjin Dongli People’s Court, and the atmosphere was tense. “It wasn’t just court police; there appeared to be agents from the Internal Security Bureau and other security agencies,” said the attendee, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Judge Zhang Yaling, who presided over the hearing last December, continued to adjudicate. During the morning session, Zhang kept on interrupting the four defense lawyers, especially when they mentioned the words “Falun Gong,” according to the attendee.
When the court broke for a 10-minute recess, Wang Shaoping, the 70-year-old mother of Zhou Xiangyang, stood up and chastised judge Zhang for failing to “impartially administer the law” by blocking the lawyers from stating their case, the attendee said. Wang had also cried out Falun Gong slogans, but wasn’t arrested or hauled out of the courtroom, unlike in earlier Falun Gong court trials.
After Wang’s outburst, Judge Zhang stopped interrupting the defense lawyers for the rest of the afternoon session. According to the attendee, Zhang started looking restless, and with furrowed brows, shifted his gaze from lawyer to lawyer as they spoke in turn.
Judge Zhang Yaling’s sudden reticence could be inspired by a new ruling from higher ups and his exercising of “common sense,” according to Xia at the Human Rights Law Foundation.
In early September, the Communist Party’s General Office, the Party’s nerve center for key documents, issued a classified document to local authorities with updated instructions on handling Falun Gong, according to Minghui.org, a clearinghouse for firsthand information about the persecution of Falun Gong.
The General Office document recognized that practitioners had been “treated unjustly” over the past 17 years, and would be relieved of the pressure if they renounce Falun Gong.
Analysts say that Chinese officials will likely be more hesitant to persecute practitioners after the release of the document because they could be implicated for “unjustly treating” practitioners should the persecution campaign be called off.
“An unfair trial can be considered unjust treatment,” said Xia. “The judge might be considering his personal responsibility in the trial in deciding to stop interrupting the defense lawyers.”
Earlier this year, Xi Jinping also appeared to make a number of coded gestures near the anniversary of key persecution dates that suggest that he is thinking of shifting the regime’s stance on Falun Gong.
However, Xia thinks that the jury is still out on Judge Zhang Yaling’s behavior, because he hasn’t announced his verdict on Zhou and Li.
Tianjin: Ground Zero
Tianjin is the site of several key incidents related to the persecution of Falun Gong.
Former Party leader Jiang Zemin used the so-called April 25 incident to claim the group posed an existential threat to the Chinese regime. Ten thousand practitioners had gathered in Beijing to ask for the release of over 40 fellow adherents who had been illegally arrested and assaulted in Tianjin three days prior. Tianjin officials had told the practitioners they needed to go to Beijing if they wanted to appeal for the release of those detained.
Tianjin is also a prominent node in the regime’s organ harvesting network. An earlier investigative report by Epoch Times found that Tianjin First Central Hospital had carried out substantially more transplants that it claims it did, and that the hospital likely sourced its organs from prisoners of conscience, the bulk of whom are Falun Gong practitioners.
This June, in a report that surveyed 700 hospitals in China, researchers estimated that the regime had in each year from 2000-2015 carried out between 60,000 and 100,000 transplants using the organs of prisoners of conscience. The United States House of Representatives and the European Parliament have both passed resolutions condemning the Chinese regime for this practice.
Last July, Chinese security forces conducted a mass crackdown on Chinese human rights lawyers and activists, and some of the more prominent lawyers were detained in Tianjin. A number of these rights lawyers were helping Falun Gong practitioners with filing legal complaints against Jiang Zemin, or directly representing practitioners in court, before they were arrested.
Luo Ya contributed to this report.