By Francine Chan and Brian Dooley
Last month, about a dozen human rights lawyers and activists in mainland China sent Christmas messages of support to counterparts in Hong Kong. “You are facing the same predicament as us,” said one. “We have seen hope from you.”
There is a strong sense of solidarity in the letters, a recognition of a shared experience. Mainland lawyers have endured decades of attacks, including torture and imprisonment. In Hong Kong, the pressure has been less severe but in recent months human rights lawyers have been threatened, abused online, publicly labelled as “yellow” (pro-protest), and doxxed. One has been beaten in the street.
Governments have a special duty to protect lawyers. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that “Where the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions, they shall be adequately safeguarded by the authorities,” and that “Governments shall ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.”
The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) tracks the arrest and abuse of lawyers on the mainland, including the 709 Crackdown in 2015 in which at least 321 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists and family members were summoned, criminally arrested, detained or imprisoned. CHRLCG is currently following those recently seized in a fresh crackdown at the end of 2019.
Despite hosting a global lawyers forum last month, attended by hundreds of legal professionals from around the world, China’s relentless aggression against its own lawyers continues.
After a private gathering of rights activists and human rights lawyers in Xiamen in mid-December, there has been a widespread, new wave of attacks by the authorities, led by police in Shangdong Province. Since December 26 more than a dozen lawyers and rights activists have been summoned or arrested.
These include lawyer Ding Jiaxi, who was taken by Shandong security agents. His family has yet to be formally informed of the arrest. And lawyer Huang Zhiqiang from Zhejiang Province was taken by the police on December 29 for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”; he was released on bail on 4 January 2020. Several were summoned while civil rights advocate and legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, fearing for his safety, has gone on the run.
In December mainland China lawyer Chen Qiushi says he was told by authorities he was not allowed to leave the country. The decision followed his August visit to Hong Kong when he went to witness the protests. He says his trip was cut short when he was summoned back to Beijing after a few days. Then his license to practise law was revoked, and his TikTok and Weibo social media accounts – which each had over a million followers – were permanently shut down.
In Hong Kong some lawyers representing those arrested in relation to the unrest, or otherwise associated with protestors, say they and their family members receive warnings, telling them their work is dangerous. Some have been targeted for online abuse.
One Hong Kong lawyer in her 20s told us that in July she was one of dozens of lawyers publicly named as “pro-yellow” on a Facebook page loyal to the government.
Hong Kong lawyer Craig Choy has provided pro bono legal advice to the protest movement. He said a reporter told him in mid-November that a doxxing website had disclosed personal information about him, and accused him of being a “rioter”.
A group of men beat veteran human rights lawyer Albert Ho with rods outside Tin Hau metro station one evening in November when he was on his way home from work.
While there are differences in the type and severity of attacks on human rights lawyers in mainland China and Hong Kong, the motivation is the same. The authorities and those loyal to them want to prevent people from accessing their rights, and to stop lawyers helping them to do so.
Despite the harassment, vilification, intimidation, beating and arrests, the solidarity between the advocates remains strong. In the Christmas messages, the mainland lawyers thanked their Hong Kong counterparts for their support, and explained how the protests have inspired them.
“The people of Hong Kong have helped me see dimly-lit hope at the end of the tunnel, which is the anticipation of freedom and the pursuit of democracy,” wrote one legal advocate who has been jailed in mainland China for his work.
“We do not fight because there is hope,” wrote another “but there is hope because we fight.”
Francine Chan is Executive Director of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG); Brian Dooley is Senior Advisor at Human Rights First.