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Video: China lawyer’s crackdown 3 years on – ‘If this country can’t even tolerate lawyers then it’s lacking a key feature’

Chinese human rights lawyer Wen Donghai became a defence lawyer for Wang Yu in July 2015. He became one of the first victims of widespread crackdown against activists, rights lawyers and their aides that year. Wen was not allowed to meet his client, despite lodging several complaints, and was later investigated by Chinese authorities for “disrupting court order and interfering in court hearings.” Three years on, a video and transcript from Wen has been published on the ChinaChange website. 


Hello everyone. I’m lawyer Wen Donghai from Changsha. In the early hours of July 9, 2015, we first heard Wang Yu’s call for help. She said that unidentified men had charged into their home and was going to take her away. For a long time following that, we didn’t hear any news.

In the evening of July 10, the next night, I received a phone call. The caller identified themselves as coming from the police station, and said they wanted to speak to me. After I got there they began questioning me. Their main line of enquiry was about the arrest of Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng. They said that we shouldn’t pay any attention to them. [I said:] You go and brazenly snatch people up like that, yet you’re telling me not to pay it any notice, or figure out what the situation is? There’s a problem with that — that’s for sure. I was quite forceful about it at the time. I said that I would for sure pay attention to their case. I said that if their family got in touch with me, I would act as their lawyer.

In August of 2015, I accepted the commission of Wang Yu’s mother and became Wang’s defence attorney. After Wang Yu was released from custody, the people in our local judicial bureau warned me: You’ve done quite enough; you can’t keep going, and in particular, you’re not permitted to write anything.

See also: China’s lawyer crackdown 3 years on – ‘The most painful part of it all was the squandering of life’

My family members were obviously very concerned. They’d never encountered this sort of thing before, and didn’t know how sinister it gets in this field. Nor do they know the enormous pressure one faces when doing these things. Sometimes my wife would complain, saying: “Stop getting yourself involved in all this danger. When you’re out and I’m home, as soon as I can’t reach you on the phone, I get scared to death.” The thing with my family is that I’m the primary breadwinner. My wife doesn’t work and we have two small kids – one six years old, the other eight. So there’s a certain family pressure there.

It’s all because I took on the 709 cases, and some dissident cases later on – including those of Liu Feiyue, Xiao Yuhui, and Mi Chongbiao in Guizhou. I did a lot of cases like that and some religious freedom cases. The reason I got so angry is because the authorities just don’t follow the law.

wang yu

Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu. Photo: China Change.

A year after I finished up on Wang Yu’s case in July 2017, the Hunan Lawyers’ Association opened an investigation on me, accusing me of disrupting court order. In late 2017, they transferred the case to the Hunan Provincial Justice Bureau and said that they were going to cancel my license to practice law. The superficial reason was that I’d taken on some Falun Gong cases and got into arguments with judges. They said I’d disrupted court order.

What I think is that, the 709 incident may represent a systematic suppression of lawyers over the last couple of years. This campaign of suppression has personally affected so many people. When 709 just took place, they carried out massive arrests of lawyers — this is the most direct, commonly known ‘709.’ But the deeper meaning of 709 is much greater than that. For instance, many people have come out and defended 709 lawyers, which involved about 60 lawyers at the most.

But just the campaign to arrest 709 lawyers wasn’t enough to satiate the authorities, who didn’t yet feel they’d achieved their objective. Their policy goals and broader objectives against this group had not yet been realised.

So in early 2017 they began planning things out — how to carry out further suppression. In this case, they primarily set about using administrative sanctions, which also accompanied a few arrests.

By late 2017 and early 2018 their focus turned to the disbarment and administrative punishment of 709 lawyers and the lawyers who defend them. Targets included lawyer Sui Muqing from Guangdong, Xie Yanyi and Li Heping in Beijing, Ma Lianshun in Henan, Qin Yongpei in Guangxi, Yang Jinzhu in Hunan, and me. All were either 709 lawyers, or defenders of the 709 lawyers.

wen donghai

Photo: NTD China News Channel screenshot.

So I think the narrow definition of 709 is the arrest of lawyers, while the broader meaning of it is this campaign of rounding up and eliminating human rights lawyers. This takes the form of administrative punishments, criminal arrests, interrogations and warnings, and some other measures — all of it is part of the suppression. I’ve been questioned numerous times and have had my freedom restricted for short periods.

As a defence lawyer for the 709 lawyers, my own license was cancelled in June 2018. According to the logic of their laws, I am no longer a lawyer.

If this country can’t even tolerate lawyers, then it’s lacking a key feature — which is whether or not the rule of law you have is genuine. Even though I’ll never be a lawyer again, I’ll still be involved in different sorts of legal work.

I hope that the international community, every friendly country, human rights organizations, and others, can all pay a great deal of attention to the persecution currently taking place in China, as well all the attacks the authorities are making on civilized society. I hope they can also take some concrete actions, and improve the situation for the victims.

Perhaps the affairs of state are not as clear and black-and-white as I’ve said — yet the human rights persecution and the harms dealt to individuals, all these are truly existing facts.

I think that only if we study the path that Western countries have successfully walked and draw positive lessons from their experiences, our country will be able to actually realise the meaning of hope in the slogans we’re used to shouting.

Thank you everyone.

Video: China lawyer's crackdown 3 years on - ‘If this country can't even tolerate lawyers then it's lacking a key feature'