ON JULY 9, 2015, China launched its war on lawyers. Over the course of a few weeks, some 300 lawyers, legal assistants and other advocates for the rule of law were rounded up. One of the most prominent, Wang Quanzhang, disappeared into secret detention on Aug. 3, 2015; after being held incommunicado for nearly 3½ years, he was the last to go on trial. On Monday, he was sentenced to 4½ years in prison on charges of subversion, putting a punctuation mark on one of the principal means of repression used by President Xi Jinping to consolidate power.
Since taking office six years ago, Mr. Xi has employed corruption investigations to purge rivals in the Communist Party; stepped up censorship of social media; and conducted a massive campaign against Muslims in the Xinjiang region, hundreds of thousands of whom have been confined to concentration camps and forced to undergo “reeducation.” Meanwhile, he has sought to stifle dissent by targeting the lawyers who defend human rights activists and religious believers or bring cases against local authorities for corruption.
Most of the lawyers and activists detained in what became known (for its July 9 date) as the 709 campaign were held for a few weeks; a number were later stripped of their licenses or driven out of business. But at least four besides Mr. Wang have been sentenced to prison. In August 2016, lawyer Zhou Shifeng and activist Hu Shigen were given terms of seven and 7½ years, respectively; in November 2017, lawyer Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years. The next month, human rights activist Wu Gan was handed an eight-year term.
Mr. Wang’s trial may have come last because of his refusal to buckle under pressure — including, according to his wife, physical torture. While some lawyers signed confessions or publicly confessed to plotting against the government, Mr. Wang resisted to the end. When his closed trial was held on Dec. 26, he threw a wrench into the proceedings by firing his government-appointed lawyer.
His wife, Li Wenzu, bravely advocated on his behalf, speaking out about his treatment and shaving her head in protest of judges’ refusal to uphold Mr. Wang’s rights under Chinese law. She was prevented from attending his trial and denied visitation rights, along with seven lawyers appointed by the family. One of those lawyers, Yu Wensheng, has himself been detained incommunicado for more than a year, according to the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders.
The crackdown on lawyers has attracted some international attention and protests; the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Mr. Wang was being held arbitrarily and called for his release. For the most part, the Trump administration has been silent, as it is on most human rights issues involving China. But the State Department issued a statement Tuesday calling for Mr. Wang’s release and expressing concern about “the deteriorating situation for the rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in China.” While that’s not likely to influence Mr. Xi, the United States should be heard on cases such as this. The courageous Chinese lawyers still attempting to enforce the rule of law deserve the support of the democratic world.