Policemen stand around Lin Ru, the wife of civil rights lawyer Xia Lin, near the Beijing Number 2 People’s Intermediate Court after her husband was sentenced to 12 years in prison on fraud charges in Beijing on Sept. 22. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

AS CHINA’S economy mushroomed in recent decades, outsiders often pointed out the need to establish rule of law, giving investors and business executives, both at home and abroad, a reliable set of rules upon which to make decisions. In a democratic system, rule of law also provides a guarantee that no one, not even the highest officials, are above the law. China does have a system of courts and judges, but it was shown last week, once again, that it does not have rule of law, and in some ways rule of law is slipping further away under President Xi Jinping.

The most recent example was the sentencing Sept. 22 of a human rights lawyer, Xia Lin, on trumped-up charges. Human rights lawyers are at the tip of the spear in the battle over rule of law — they often defend people who are wronged or hurt by the state. Now, they are being systematically persecuted and silenced. Mr. Xia, a 46-year-old lawyer whose clients have included dissident artist Ai Weiwei and free-speech champion Pu Zhiqiang, was convicted of fraud and given 12 years in prison, the harshest sentence to date in the crackdown on lawyers. His supporters denounced the conviction and sentence as a blatant political effort to punish him for his professional activities and send a message to others who dare champion human rights and challenge the Communist Party's monopoly on power.

Mr. Xia was detained Nov. 8, 2014, after working to defend an advocate of democracy in Hong Kong. He was charged with fraud more than a year later, accused of swindling people out of money and using it to pay gambling debts, which he vigorously denied. According to his lawyers, the supposed victims of the "fraud" never complained, nor was evidence of gambling debts presented in court. This is how it works in China's authoritarian system — justice is dictated from above.

After a surge of arrests of activists and lawyers last summer, more than a dozen remain behind bars. As The Post's Simon Denyer reported, a first batch of four went on trial last month and were given sentences ranging from 7½ years to a suspended three-year prison term, all shown on television making humiliating public confessions, renouncing their own actions and warning against "hostile foreign forces" and subversive ideas, such as "human rights" and "democracy." Another prominent lawyer, Wang Yu, had been held for more than a year on subversion charges and remains under tight surveillance similar to house arrest, according to Radio Free Asia.

Since Mao’s time, China has treated dissent with brute force and dissenters without mercy. Those who believed that economic modernization might bring China closer to rule of law had reason to hope — but those expectations look increasingly misplaced under Mr. Xi. He is charting an intolerant and illiberal course, forcing the news media to become ever more obedient to the party, straitjacketing independent nongovernmental organizations and preferring rule by the few over rule of law.

Read more:

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Chen Guangcheng: How to understand China’s confession videos

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