It is hard for Chinese lawyers to represent people trying to defend themselves against the state or human rights abuses because they themselves are likely to encounter problems. There is a growing group of lawyers in China who are nonetheless determined to give legal counsel to the poor and disadvantaged. Recently, the New Zealander James Thomas set up a legal advice hotline with a Chinese colleague mainly for foreign journalists and human rights groups in Beijing.
A legal advice hotline was set up by independent lawyers for foreign journalists attending the Olympics
Thousands of foreign journalists came to China before and during the Olympic Games and many of them ran into problems when they wanted to broach sensitive issues. There exist complicated legal rules about what the media is allowed to report about in China.
A Chinese citizen might run into problems if caught talking to the foreign media. But how are foreign journalists supposed to know the rules or the ins-and-outs of Chinese law? James Thomas, a lawyer from New Zealand, set up a hotline with the Chinese lawyer Li Baiguang to help them find out and answer their queries and those of human rights organisations.
The idea was triggered a year ago by the upcoming Olympic Games. Thomas explained that they thought there would be “a need for journalists or people who wanted to express themselves to know what legal ground they stood on.”
Thomas said that 16 people had called the hotline -- many were journalists from Australia, Africa or the Middle East. They wanted to know what kind of problems they might encounter if they touched upon controversial themes, as well as what help they might get if they were arrested or had other trouble with the police. Most of the journalists had not experienced such a situation themselves.
Robin Hood law firm of China
But giving legal advice on human rights is not a money-making business, which is why Thomas and Li have another source of income: “I jokingly consider this to be a Robin Hood role,” explains Thomas, “because we help wealthy Chinese investors to emigrate to Canada, Australia and other places and we take their money [that] we use for of the public interest cases.”
“Some of the people that we’re representing right now cannot afford our fees. We’ve been down in Guangdong, in Huizhou, recently talking to people who are terminally ill because they worked in terrible conditions in factories. These people are dying and we’re helping them pro bono. We can’t charge them anything but we’re balancing it with some commercial work -- my specialty is immigration law. I’ve helped a couple of hundred Chinese investors to emigrate overseas and invest overseas on government programmes in Quebec or Australia. We’re the Robin Hood law firm of China.“
Hope for the future
The hotline was set up nine months ago. Since then, the two men have not had any problems with the authorities. Thomas says that so long as they remain within the framework of the law, they cannot have any problems.
He is reasonably positive about the future of democracy in China despite the problems witnessed during the Olympic Games.
He expresses his personal opinion: “I think that the central government has been a little paranoid. I feel that they could have relaxed things, they could have allowed a bit more protest -- it’s normal and they need to understand that these things are a normal part of developing a democracy. At the same time I also want to praise what I’ve seen. I’ve seen wonderful progress at ground level -- wonderful things are happening here in China.”