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Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.
Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator Frank Ching.

Frank Ching

Plus ça change in Liu Xiaobo's China Add to ...

Last week's trial and imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, a scholar and human-rights activist, was eerily reminiscent of another trial 72 years ago: that of Shen Junru, a legal scholar who went on to become the first president of the Supreme People's Court of the People's Republic of China.

Mr. Shen was tried on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. Mr. Liu was charged with "inciting subversion of state power."

Mr. Shen co-authored documents that were considered subversive, including "A Number of Essential Conditions and Minimum Demands for a United Resistance to Invasion," published in July of 1936, a year before his trial, calling for the Kuomintang to end the civil war with the Communists and form a united front against the Japanese.

Mr. Liu was the co-author of "Charter 08," a document released on the Internet a year before his trial, calling for an end to one-party rule and its replacement with a system based on human rights and democracy.

Before Mr. Shen and his associates were arrested in what became known as the Seven Gentlemen case, they were put under "surveillance" for 250 days, first at the Shanghai municipal police station and then at the detention house of the higher court at Suzhou.

Before Mr. Liu was formally arrested, he was put under "house arrest" for half a year, not in his own house but a facility chosen by the state.

During the 1937 trial, a number of leading political activists, including Soong Ching-ling, the widow of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, offered to join the accused in prison. These supporters reasoned that if Mr. Shen was guilty, they were guilty of the same offence.

Last week, Mr. Liu's supporters asked to be charged because they, like many others, had signed Charter 08 before it was expunged from the Internet.

"I am a part of this case. If Liu Xiaobo is to be tried, then I should be tried as well," said Bao Tong, who was an aide to former premier Zhao Ziyang. "If Liu Xiaobo is found guilty," he added, "it will mean that the freedom of speech and freedom of expression guaranteed in the constitution are fake."

The trial does raise questions about the rights guaranteed in China's constitution. In fact, looking at the trial of Shen Junru in 1937 (in which my father, Qin Liankui, represented Mr. Shen) and that of Liu Xiaobo in 2009, one inevitably has to make comparisons between the Kuomintang government of the time and the Communist government of today.

In 1937, the Kuomintang feared a demonstration in the courtroom and announced that no observers would be allowed in. Eventually, it allowed relatives of the accused, plus the press.

In 2009, the government announced it was holding an open trial but would not allow any independent observers to attend because "all permits" had been given out.

While Mr. Liu's brother was allowed to observe the trial, his wife, Liu Xia, was prevented from attending by policemen posted outside her apartment. They would not let her leave her home or receive visitors during the trial.

No doubt, many more people would have shown up at the courthouse to show support for Mr. Liu, but they were prevented from doing this by being kept at home or detained.

Another difference between the trials: Mr. Shen was freed on bail and never sentenced, while Mr. Liu got an 11-year sentence on Christmas Day.

In some ways, it seems the more things change, the more they remain the same. It is highly unlikely, however, that the Communists will elevate Liu Xiaobo to any position of honour, like Shen Junru's presidency of the Supreme People's Court.

But, as Mr. Liu has said, he will be satisfied if he is the last person in China to go to prison for exercising the right to freedom of speech. Spoken like a true gentleman.

Frank Ching is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.

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