Gao Yu, one of China's most prominent journalists in Hong Kong June 9, 2012.

(New York) – The Chinese government should drop all criminal charges against Gao Yu, a veteran journalist accused of having leaked an internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document calling for greater censorship of liberal and reformist ideas, Human Rights Watch said today.

Police detained Gao, 70, on April 24, 2014, for “illegally obtaining” a secret document issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and providing it to a foreign-based website. According to a November 18 statement by Gao’s lawyer, Gao’s trial, which will be closed to the public and her family, is expected to begin on November 21.

“Gao Yu’s case is a frontal assault on the freedom of expression and access to information,” said Sophie Richardson, China director.  “China should drop the charges immediately or face widespread international condemnation.”

The alleged “state secret” is a document issued by the Central Committee warning its members against “seven perils” including “universal values,” civil society, and a free press, referred to as  “Document Number 9.” Under China’s draconian state secrecy laws, internal Communist Party documents are deemed state secrets. Gao initially confessed to the charge but later told her lawyers that her confession, which was aired on state TV on May 8, 2014, was extracted under duress by the police. During her first two months in detention, Gao was repeatedly denied access to legal counsel. The media company to which Gao allegedly supplied the document – the US-based Mingjing Magazinedenied that the information had come from Gao.

The charge of “illegally providing state secrets to [institutions] outside [China’s] borders” carries up to life imprisonment for serious cases.

China’s state secrets laws apply far beyond the scope of national security to include economic, social, and political matters such as “secrets in national economic and social development,” and other matters “affecting social stability.” Since 1989, the agency in charge of enforcing the state secrets system, the State Secrets Bureau, has issued more than 100 regulations which define the scope of classification for all government ministries and state institutions. Some of these regulations are themselves classified as state secrets.

The state secrets laws and regulations drastically curtail the rights of defendants. All contact between a lawyer and client is subject to the approval of the investigating authorities, and the defense can be denied access to evidence. The trial can be conducted behind closed doors. There is no mechanism to challenge the State Secrets Bureau if it classifies a matter as a state secret, making the bureau’s authority absolute – and making it impossible for anyone to disprove charges of violating state secrets.

If convicted, this would be Gao’s third time in prison. Gao, who worked for the state press in 1989, was an active participant in the pro-democracy protests. She was jailed for more than a year following the massacre. Gao was sentenced for the second time in 1994, to six years in prison for “leaking” policy decisions taken by senior officials of the CCP in early 1993, decisions that were already reported in the Hong Kong press.

Chinese authorities have often used state secrets charges to prosecute individuals for actions that are not criminal under any other laws. One of the best known cases of such abuse of the law includes the jailing of journalist Shi Tao, who was imprisoned for 10 years under state secrets charges in April 2005 for passing to overseas websites Chinese government instructions to media organizations on how to cover the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre.

“State secrets laws have been a perfect weapon for prosecuting activists and whistleblowers like Gao Yu,” said Richardson. “Internal Communist Party ideological directives mandating further restrictions on free expression cannot be legitimately protected by state secrecy laws.”

Gao is one of hundreds of human rights activists and dissidents detained during the current crackdown on civil society, which is possibly the largest in scale since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. In the past 20 months since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, there have been three major waves of crackdown, targeting activists involved in the New Citizens Movement in 2013, those who commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre around June 2014, and those who expressed support for the Hong Kong “Occupy” protests in October and November 2014.

Many of those detained have been formally arrested and prosecuted, some facing trial, and others imprisoned. So far, one of the harshest sentences handed down was against prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to life in prison for “separatism” in September 2014, in retaliation for his criticism of the government’s minority policy towards Uighurs.

At the same time, the government has moved to tighten control over key pillars of Chinese civil society including the internet, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the media. The government detained major social media opinion leaders (known as “big Vs”) who have voiced critical opinion; issued judicial interpretation extending existing laws to criminalize online expression; and shut down websites, microblogs, and WeChat accounts. The government has also arrested journalists, purportedly for accepting bribes and “creating disturbances,” and issued new rules banning journalists from sharing unpublished information through their work on the internet or with foreign media. The party has also identified “ideological challenges” posed by the “West” as a major threat and has strengthened ideological training for influential sectors of society, including university lecturers, researchers, journalists, and party cadres.

“The party may think it is restoring public legitimacy by reining in the nascent and critical civil society,” Richardson said. “But in doing so, it sets back progress, risks increasing social pressure, and forecloses the possibilities of peaceful criticism that can help resolve grievances.”