"We can have no hair, but you can’t have no law,” shouted four women who had gathered in the central park of a Beijing residential compound and were taking turns shaving each other’s heads. In Mandarin, “no hair” and “no law” are homophones.

In front of neighbours, foreign journalists and secret plain-clothes police, the women put their hair in a transparent plastic box along with pictures of them and their husbands. This all took place in December last year.

The women are wives of four of China’s most prominent human-rights lawyers, who have been arrested and jailed since the “709 crackdown” in which about 300 lawyers and activists were detained throughout China. The purge, which started on 9 July 2015, targeted lawyers who defended political dissidents, victims of illegal land seizures and people who were jailed for practising religion without the state’s approval. When they were found guilty, their crimes were stated as being “subverting state power”.

A few weeks later, when lawyer Wang Quanzhang was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, his wife Li Wenzu, one of those who shaved their heads, tweeted: “Wang Quanzhang is not guilty, the public prosecution law is guilty!”

Since the day her husband was detained, Li has been on a long, hard journey of constant petitions to the supreme judicial court, meeting international media and calling for leniency and justice. However, no one with any power in China will speak out to help her, and there is little hope that the verdict on her husband will change. This is a country where executive, judicial and legislative powers are all under the control of the Chinese Communist Party, which sees activism and defending political reform, human rights, and separation of the three powers as threats to social stability and its rule.

Although China’s constitution says that the People’s Court has the right to adjudicate independently, it also formally says the CCP’s leadership is the “most essential characteristic” of China’s current political system, which means the party is above the constitution.

In Chinese law, there isn’t any punishment for CCP officials interfering in judicial work. Besides, local governments and CCP committees control the personal and financial arrangements of the local courts, so it’s impossible for Chinese courts to be independent.

CCP organisations even decide some “major and complex” cases, such as those which involve ethnic relationships, religion and political dissidents.

There has been a wave of calls for changes to the judiciary since China’s economic reform (known in China as “Reform and Opening Up”). As the country invited foreign business and embraced the development of the private economy, it needed more educated and professional people in the judicial sector as the reforms created more business disputes.

Once the reformers tried to touch the core problems–issues regarding organs of state power violating human rights, freedom of speech, and high-ranking party officials’ corruption–the reform could not continue.

What’s more, as China opened up to the West, Chinese legal professionals called for a separation of the judiciary from the control of the administration.

“At that time [the 2000s and early 2010s], many Chinese law experts openly talked about the importance of judiciary reform, and the supreme judicial court even organised meetings for drafting reform proposals,” said law scholar and writer Zhao Guojun.

People have gained more freedom and rights compared with the time before Reform and Opening Up. The government has given more independence to courts dealing with soft cases, such as those about environmental and business issues, and tried to make some attempts to make the judicial procedure more transparent, including live-streaming some trials.

However, once the reformers tried to touch the core problems–issues regarding organs of state power violating human rights, freedom of speech, and high-ranking party officials’ corruption–the reform could not continue.

It worsened after President Xi Jinping took power in 2013. Xi openly stressed the importance of the party’s leadership over China’s legal system. He wrote in an article published in Qiushi Journal, a periodical belonging to the CCP: “We must never follow the path of constitutionalism, the separation of powers or the judicial independence of the Western world.”

Meanwhile, officials in the judicial system are busy showing their loyalty to the party to avoid being purged. In January 2017, China’s chief justice, Zhou Qiang, denounced the idea of an independent judiciary and other liberal principles in a speech to a group of legal officials. “We should resolutely resist erroneous influence from the West: ‘constitutional democracy’, ‘separation of powers’ and ‘independence of the judiciary’,” he said.

He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University, wrote in his blog: “This is truly a statement that wrecks the nation and harms the people. It truly goes against history.” The blog was later deleted. “Years ago, when we talked about reform, we used ‘judicial neutrality’ instead of ‘judicial independence’ most of the time, because the latter is more sensitive. But today even ‘judicial neutrality’ is rarely heard,” added Zhao.

The result is that China’s judicial system has less and less power to resist interference from party officials, especially in cases where the latter’s economic interests or the state security apparatus are involved. Thoughts and words that the party doesn’t like become crimes, and the courts can do nothing to bring justice.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo was sentenced for “subversion of state power” because he drafted Charter 08, which called for a new constitution guaranteeing human rights, the election of public officials and freedom of religion and expression. In 2018, Tibetan activist Tashi Wangchuk was sentenced to five years for “inciting separatism” because of an interview with The New York Times in which he expressed his worries about losing his language and culture.

In 2015, after a year and seven months in detention, lawyer Pu Zhiqiang was given a three-year suspended jail sentence for “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels” in social media posts. One of the posts presented to the court as evidence said: “Why wouldn’t China work without the Communist Party? How would I know why it wouldn’t work? Other than fraud, evasion, axes and sickles, what’s this party’s secret for staying in power?”

What’s worse is that Chinese media is controlled by the party and the government, and on sensitive and important cases media coverage is heavily censored to influence public opinion.

In December 2018, for example, Wang Quanzhang’s trial was conducted behind closed doors, with journalists and foreign diplomats barred from entering the courthouse. There wasn’t any in-depth coverage of the case in China other than by a few outlets which re-posted the government’s official announcement.

“When the ruling party has the absolute power, it will create a monopoly and verbal hegemony, and its power will filter into any aspect of the society, including public speech,” said Zhao. “Journalists, professors and artists should speak and act – that’s the nature of their roles.”

He added that nowadays people such as these dared not talk as even private conversations could be used as evidence of a crime.

The crackdown on civil society and the tightening control of the media are creating a vicious cycle in China. When civil society is attacked, the media can’t make their voices heard; and when the media find themselves dancing on an iron chain, nobody in civil society can go to the street to speak for them.

Li has not been allowed to meet her husband in more than three years. When she took part in a protest march demanding an explanation for his arrest earlier this year, the authorities stopped the march and placed her under house arrest. But no Chinese media ever reported these stories. It was as if she and her family did not exist. Meanwhile, Zhao’s account on Wechat, China’s most popular social network app, was suspended for a few days with the reason given that it was “spreading fake information”. Zhao doesn’t know which information was problematic but he is sure it must be something related to politics.

Zhao chooses to believe in a better future. He said: “Of course, what is in front of us now is sad. Judicial reform and independence is not allowed to be discussed, and everyone is showing their political loyalty. However, I believe technology will help to create a space for people to express [themselves]. Although currently there is fear, fear [will] not rule the future forever.”

First published in Index of Censorship magazine's Summer 2019 edition.