In what seems to be a crackdown on public dissent, hundreds of Chinese rights lawyers have been detained or interrogated. While temporarily muzzled, the advocates' determination shouldn't be underestimated, say experts.
They challenge their country's authorities over human rights violations, frequently reporting about harassment, detentions or abuse of power, and often refusing to back down when told to do so. Some, such as Li Heping and Wang Quanzhang, have been engaged in this sort of work for over a decade. They have taken cases of people charged with speech crimes - such as "inciting subversion of the State" - and faith crimes - such as "using an evil sect to impede the implementation of the law" - at a time when almost nobody else dared to do this. In some cases, they would even enter "not guilty" pleas for their clients against the explicit instructions of the authorities.
But while the work of China's human rights lawyers or "weiquan lüshi" has always been difficult in the one-party communist state, it has become even more dangerous over the past few weeks. According to the Hong Kong-based NGO Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG), a total of 249 human rights lawyers and activists have been taken either into custody, interrogated or temporarily detained across the country since July 10.
Some of them have been accused of being involved with the work of the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm - described in a report by the People's Daily as a "major criminal organization" which had "seriously disturbed order." China's Ministry of Public Security said the lawyers were using the firm as a platform to raise awareness about sensitive cases, in order to "extort money in fundraising" from online campaigns and overseas donors and "create social chaos."
According to Amnesty International, some rights defenders were taken from their homes at night and had their offices raided
According to Amnesty International (AI), some rights defenders were taken from their homes at night and had their offices raided, while others were summoned for "tea" by the authorities - a euphemism for being interrogated. Some have even been paraded on national television, making "confessions of guilt." And while most of the advocates have been released after being threatened for supporting the firm, rights groups claim that some 20 lawyers and activists are either missing or at risk of torture in police custody.
The crackdown has triggered widespread international criticism, with United Nations human rights experts expressing concern for the physical and mental integrity of those detained and underscoring that in societies governed by the rule of law lawyers "should never have to suffer prosecution or any other kind of sanctions or intimidation for discharging their professional duties."
Margaret Lewis, a China criminal law expert at US-based Seton Hall University, who has been analyzing information on the treatment of those detained or otherwise contacted by the government, told DW that there were repeated reported violations of a number of rights guaranteed by Chinese law and supported by international human rights norms such as detention without proper legal notice and denial of access to counsel.
AI China researcher William Nee told DW that the huge scale of the nationwide police operations and coordinated state-media attack on the lawyers and activists made this an unprecedented crackdown. "Given the scale, it is probable that the move is being led by the highest-level authorities, or at least has their implicit blessing."
Eva Pils, an expert on Chinese law at King's College London, has a similar view. She argues that the use of very public denunciations all over the national media is meant to remind observers of the Mao Zedong era. "Those were not really held to determine whether someone was guilty. Rather, they were held to exhibit the accused to the public and show them being punished," Pils told DW.
A political threat
The expert explains that the authorities want to send out a message that these people acted wrongly by taking their advocacy efforts beyond the restrictive limits the authorities impose on lawyers, for instance, by engaging in social media advocacy or small-scale demonstrations. "They resisted the control of the legal process by the government and (ultimately) the Communist Party," said Pils, who characterized the crackdown as the latest step in a much broader effort by Beijing to defeat liberal forces within Chinese society.
"The party-state has rolled out a wider campaign apparently aimed at eradicating independent civil society, and returning to a more Mao-Zedong-style form of political governance," said Pils, stating that the recent crackdowns on journalists, advocacy NGOs and initiatives such as the "New Citizen Movement" were also part of this drive.
A similar view is shared by law expert Lewis who argues that since rising to the pinnacle of power in 2012, President Xi has demonstrated an increasingly hostile attitude towards anyone deemed a threat to the existing political system. "Lawyers were the target of government reprisals before Xi Jinping's rise to power, but the situation has worsened dramatically in the past few years," she told DW.
In this context, Keith Hand, Director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, explained that China's Communist Party leaders had identified rights lawyers as a potential threat as early as the mid-2000s. "Chinese authorities have since worked to marginalize rights defense lawyers through harassment, the cancelation of law licenses, detentions, and questionable criminal charges. As the Party tightened its grip on the legal system and on political-legal discourse, even moderate rights lawyers who have tried to work within the system have found themselves targets."
According to Hand, the latest crackdown is therefore only a crescendo in this decade-long effort to marginalize the group. But it is also a clear sign that while Beijing considers the legal system a useful tool to discipline lower levels of the bureaucracy, ensure the implementation of economic policy, and protect rights within limits, the Party will not allow lawyers to use it in a bid to weaken its power, generate system-wide reform pressures, or, in the view of Chinese leaders, contribute to social instability.
Moreover, China's leadership recently enacted a new National Security Law, which experts fear may lead to legislation further narrowing civil society liberties, including revisions to Foreign NGO and Criminal Law.
The latest developments have inevitably raised concerns within the legal community about the future of the profession in the East Asian country, with legal expert Lewis speaking of a "chilling effect."
"By locking up many of the gutsiest criminal defense lawyers, who will be left to even attempt to take them on as clients?" she asked. "The government is sending a clear message to the broader legal profession that they should choose cases carefully."
A temporary retreat?
However, Dr. Teng Biao, a human rights lawyer and a visiting fellow at New York University's US-Asia Law Institute, believes the impact will only be temporary. "Many activists have been warned this time and forced to keep silent or a low profile. But some are still speaking up. These people run a high risk of being arrested. The majority of those detained will be tried and given long-term prison sentences and some more lawyers may face even face disbarment in the coming months. But the chilling effect will not last long," Teng told DW.
Legal expert Pils is oft he same view. She argues that while some rights lawyers appear to be lowering their profile temporarily, she doesn't think they will back down over the long term, especially as there is an ongoing effort to rally around those detained and provide mutual support.
"The human rights lawyers' social media groups are very actively discussing what can be done." said the King's College researcher. For instance, when one lawyer is detained or harassed, others in the loose network will publicize the case and speak up on their behalf. Structurally speaking, she added, the authorities have to face the fact that these lawyers are organized in a myriad of ways with no clear hierarchies and that much of their communication and coordination is fluid and almost invisible.
Moreover, while only some 300 are willing to see themselves as human rights lawyers there are some 240,000 full-time licensed lawyers nationwide, and "some of them at least tend to take an interest in what happens to their colleagues," said Pils.
Calling for support
In the meantime, Maya Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), called on other countries, including the US and UK - which President Xi will visit later this year - to take a tougher stance on the issue.
"Unless these governments speak up for China's civil society in a forceful manner and seeking the release of these lawyers and an immediate stop to the crackdown, Beijing is likely going to maintain this current high level of pressure on civil society through implementing new state security laws and through the leadership of the new National Security Commission," said Wang.