Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Pool/Reuters)

CHINESE PRESIDENT Xi Jinping offered 14 "fundamental principles" behind the new doctrine of "Xi Jinping Thought" unveiled at the recent 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. Among them, according to the official Xinhua news service, was "ensuring every dimension of governance is law-based." In a democratic society, rule of law is essential and means no one is above the law. In the Chinese approach, rule of law means the Communist Party holds the upper hand and crushes individuals who dare to question its monopoly on power.

On Nov. 21, Jiang Tianyong, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist became the latest individual to be crushed under the Chinese steamroller of surveillance, coercion and repression. Mr. Jiang was convicted in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province, of subversion of state power, a charge often used to silence critics of the party. He was sentenced to two years in prison. The court's indictment said he had "speculated" on politically sensitive cases, "incited others to illegally gather in public places" and "stirred up" public opinion, as well as "seriously harmed state security and social stability" by "attacking and slandering the current political system, and attempting to overthrow the socialist system." Mr. Jiang's crimes were no more than words, but in today's China, words can be trouble. His friends and family say he published articles, gave interviews to foreign journalists and criticized the government. He also generously defended human rights activists, including Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer-advocate who was punished for helping his fellow citizens fight for their rights.

Mr. Jiang was known for being careful, cognizant of the limits and navigating within them. However, over the past two years, the authorities have waged a relentless and dirty campaign — known as the 709 crackdown, for the date it began in 2015 — against more than 200 human rights lawyers. They have been detained, tortured, coerced into confessions, subjected to show trials, convicted and incarcerated.

To not just round up dissidents but stalk their lawyers, too, is a harsh tactic, to be sure. But it has failed to squelch dissent; even as they grow more single-minded, China's leaders can't or won't grasp the simple fact that dissent is not a passing whim to be eradicated by more police and arrests. It is a profound and enduring response to tyranny. Mr. Jiang was described as the "soul of the 709 rescue effort" by Chinese rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, and there will be more souls to follow in his footsteps.

Mr. Xi declared in his report at the party congress that China would "take center stage in the world." He may shoulder his way onto that stage. But as long as he practices rule by fear and force, he will earn little respect in the spotlight.