By Oiwan Lam
At least 190 human rights law practitioners have been arrested, detained or interrogated since the debut of a nationwide crackdown in China over the past few days.
Overseas human right groups and activists have responded with protests in front of a number of Chinese consulates to call attention to what they deem a reckless affront to civil liberties in mainland China. In addition, they’ve launched a petition calling for the United States government to cancel Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit later this year.
China’s Ministry of Public Security coordinated the crackdown, which started on July 9, according to a story in the state-controlled China Daily on July 11. The newspaper reported that the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, the major target of police operations, is accused of running a “criminal syndicate”, having a hand in organizing over 40 “sensitive incidents” that led to social disorder and undermining the credibility of the authorities.
The firm, headed by Zhou Shifeng, has employed several of the country’s most courageous lawyers. One of the firm’s lawyers, Wang Yu, began representing a follower of banned spiritual practice Falun Gong in June 2015 and sued authorities on her client’s behalf for illegal sentencing. On July 9 at 4 in the morning, police raided Wang’s home and arrested her and her husband, Bao Longjun, who is also a lawyer in the firm. Two days later, the police revealed that six lawyers and staff from the firm were in criminal detention.
In its report, China Daily also alleged that using popular mobile messaging app WeChat, human rights lawyers and activists formed an ad hoc group to “frame” a police shooting death in Qing An in May as a state effort to maintain social stability by jumping on the fact that Xu Chunhe, the man who was shot dead, was a petitioner. In China, petitioning is a system for ordinary people to appeal to the provincial or central government to investigate abuse of power or corruption committed by local authorities.
The newspaper suggested that the lawyers’ intent was to boost their reputation and make a profit.
Since 2009, the Chinese government has suppressed the citizens rights movement. In January 2014, Xu Zhiyong, a human rights lawyer and leading figure of the movement, was sentenced to four years in prison, and in the arrest of prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang in May 2014. Thus far, the persecution has been on a case-by-case basis, but the current nationwide crackdown of law practitioners is unprecedented.
After the arrest of lawyers and their staff, including ones from the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, the police moved on to detain and interrogate other lawyers who called publicly for their release. According to China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, at least 190 law practitioners have been detained, arrested, summoned or cut off from communication. To date, 11 have been put in criminal detention or house arrest, 19 have disappeared or been cut off from communication, and 160 have been released after police summons and interrogation.
Despite the police threat against posting messages on the raid, law practitioners continue to speak out. Below is a selection of quotes from the law community in China (via China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group’s Facebook page):
The police came to my home at night and warned: “Don’t show your support. Don’t create a hype on the internet. Be responsible for what you say.” It is absolutely cruel and inhumane to ignore your beloved friends. Even Satan will look down on such people. Caring for your friends isn’t about creating a hype. It is a responsibility. — Lawyer Feng Yanqiang
In an attempt to strengthen its societal manipulation, the objectives of this “New Politics” are to restrict freedom of speech, blackmail the press and intensify punitive measures. As of now, all the blackmail and regulation of human rights lawyers stem from that, with authoritiesy intending to tighten its grip on the social discourse from within and beyond China. — Lawyer Lu Liangbiao
My e-mail and phone can be monitored, I can be followed and my internet can be hacked. But I can ignore them because I have nothing to hide. I will fight back and I welcome the monitoring and tracking, because I did nothing to harm this country. Please do not talk behind my back, please attack me or arrest me! — Professor Chen Taihe, Guilin University of Electronic Technology Law.
Punishing one while trampling over the law is fundamentally destroying the legitimacy of the government. Although stability may be achieved temporarily, it sows hatred. You achieve peace temporarily, but sooner or later the volcano will erupt and the flood will drown all. — Professor He Weifang, Beijing University.
From the authority’s perspective, lawyers are often disregarded and discriminated against, some even alienated. This is totally wrong. Lawyers should stand tall and move forward with courage, because we have the rule of law. Rule of law cannot do without us.
Overseas human rights activists have protested in front of Chinese consulates in major cities including New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Hong Kong, calling for the immediate release of the lawyers. They also used the US government’s online petition platform to ask the White House to put pressure on the Chinese government by canceling Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US:
Since Xi Jinping came to power, China’s human rights record has kept worsening. Under his reign over 1000 dissidents have been arrested. We urge President Obama and the U.S. government to investigate this case of severe human rights infringement, and, on humanitarian ground, take strong measures to intervene. Xi’s state visit to the U.S. scheduled for September this year should be cancelled, and all official exchanges with the Chinese government should be suspended until this matter is resolved.
In an email statement, Marco Rubio and Chris Smith, chairs of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, described the crackdown as a “bold disregard” for human rights and that the wave of repression represents an undeniable setback in US-China relations.
Meanwhile, activists are sharing the latest information on the crackdown via social media hashtag #freethelawyers.
Oiwan Lam is a media activist, researcher and educator currently based in Hong Kong.