China Releases Swedish Human Rights Activist After Televised Confession

Expert: Compelling public admission from foreigner a consequence of Xi’s crackdown

Peter Dahlin
Still from Peter Dahlin's confession via YouTube

After three weeks of detention and a forced, televised confession of his "crimes," the Chinese government released Swedish activist Peter Dahlin last week. Dahlin’s detention was the latest of a series of human rights abuses.

Dahlin is the co-founder of the China Urgent Action Working Group, a human rights organization that provides Chinese citizens with legal aid, engages in public advocacy, and supports pro-bono ‘barefoot’ lawyers. Dahlin was detained in early January in a secret location by the Chinese government on accusations of "endangering state security." Soon after, he was forced to provide a scripted apology that aired on state-sponsored media.

Dahlin’s case exemplifies the rapid escalation of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on civil society. More than 280 activists have been detained or disappeared inside China since July. Dr. Carsten Vala, a professor of political science at Loyola University Maryland and an expert on Chinese human rights issues, said that Dahlin’s case is especially shocking because he is a foreigner.

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"Although we had seen forced confessions before this, [Dahlin’s case] was the first time that we had seen someone without an ethnic Chinese connection working for an NGO," Vala said. "This is the first example of a foreign citizen who is not involved with publishing high level political insider stories. [It’s] someone working with grassroots organizations … within the system."

While prisoners were tortured into making public confessions in the past, most notably under Mao Zedong, the Party’s attempt to drown out any unapproved narratives through televised confessions is a new step. These confessions are an attempt to intimidate the Chinese people and thwart the effectiveness of legal activists, said Vala.

"The Chinese have a saying that you kill the chicken to scare the monkey, and the idea is … to make an example of someone," Vala said. "Now everyone is going to be thinking twice, and maybe self-censoring, maybe sort of holding back, because who knows who’s going to be next."

The Party has intensified its use of "black jails," or indefinite "residential surveillance at a designated place." Those held captive are often denied their own legal representation. Their family members have also been accused of corroboration and have been barred from leaving the country.

"This is kind of a new version of black jails because there’s no accountability for what’s going on there," Vala said. "Family and lawyers can’t get access to the people, and often don’t even know where they are."

The government has also widened the scope of its persecution. The Party now targets an array of individuals, including human rights lawyers, NGO activists, Christians, and church officials. They have also taken to abducting and detaining not only Chinese citizens inside the country’s borders, but foreign critics both inside and outside China.

In the years before Xi’s rule, the Chinese government placated its people with a tenuous but viable space for rights activism. However, under Xi’s chokehold on dissent, this fragile space has become much smaller. Vala said that Xi is striving to eliminate the legal "grey zone," within which activists such as Dahlin have worked in order to gradually reform the system.

"Xi has emphasized an increasing legal mechanism for ordering society. For many years, there’s been a grey zone, and it’s been in those grey zones that much progressive work has been done to improve the system. But what he is doing is rendering the grey black-and-white again," Vala said.

Xi’s determination to silence opposition intensified last summer, just as China’s economy took a turn for the worse. Vala said that the president’s crackdown on dissent could be part of an attempt to maintain stability in response to China’s economic turmoil.

"China is trying to move up from being the factory of the world to being a middle-income country. But to go from low-profit assembly to higher-profit research and development, that means you have to upgrade your technology," Vala said.

The rapid pace of the transition, he said, could result in a volatile and dissatisfied society, which is what the Chinese government is trying to prevent.

"To make that shift means you probably have to throw out of work a lot of people, because you have all these workers who don’t have the advanced technical skills. And in the West, we did that process over decades. But China’s trying to do it in a much shorter time frame," Vala said.

The transition is hitting China hard. Officials announced this month that China’s 2015 economic growth rate has slowed to 6.9 percent—the weakest it has been in 25 years. The effects of the transition are troubling for the Communist Party, which, since the 1980s, has staked its legitimacy on economic success. Some predict that China’s reforms will affect segments of society ranging from lower class factory and migrant workers to middle-class government officials and college graduates.

Rather than acting as a stabilizing force, however, the Party’s tight grip on civil society is having unintended consequences. One poll revealed that over three-fourths of American companies feel less welcome in China than in past years. The combination of a crackdown and economic restructuring foretell some financial trouble for China, Vala said.

"Because of fears about the crackdown, there’s a lot of money leaving China. And this means that either companies or individuals who are very wealthy in China … are moving their assets overseas," he said.