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Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

By Mo Zhixu, published: July 23, 2015

This commentary was written and published in March 2014 in connection with the Jiansanjiang incident (建三江事件) in which four rights lawyers went to Heilongjiang province to free Falun Gong practitioners from a black jail. The lawyers were tortured and temporarily detained. Dissident intellectual Mo Zhixu’s observations about the political climate in China (paragraph 3 onward) stand out even more today in light of the recent large scale arrests of rights lawyers.   – The Editors



Recently, when lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Wang Cheng (王成), and Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) went to the Jiansanjiang Agricultural Reclamation District in Heilongijiang to provide legal assistance to Falun Gong practitioners being held at a so-called legal education center, they and relatives of the detainees were all detained by local police. After repeated inquiries by numerous parties, it has now been confirmed that Tang and Jiang have been given 15-day administrative detentions for “using a cult to undermine social order.” At this time, it remains unclear what has become of Wang and Zhang. To rescue the four lawyers, a group of lawyers including Li Jinxing and Qing Shi [Zhang Lei] and around a dozen rights activists have quickly made their way to Jiansanjiang, where they have launched a 24-hour hunger strike outside the detention center and demanded to meet with the detained lawyers.

This incident might have occurred because of its connection to Falun Gong practitioners. Most incidents of violence against lawyers in recent years have been connected to Falun Gong—for example, the illegal detention and beating of lawyer Zhang Kai in Chongqing in 2009. However, there is something else about the identities of these four lawyers that makes this incident unusual. Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, and Wang Cheng are three principal contacts in Chinese Lawyers for Human Rights, a group that has been active lately. In rounding up all three at once, it might be a sign that the authorities are planning a total crackdown against human rights lawyers. On his Sina Weibo microblog account, lawyer Qing Shi expressed this concern: “The safety of the majority of lawyers is due to these few lawyers being out in front and taking on the risk. Today, they’ve been arrested; tomorrow, it will be us. So this isn’t only about these four individuals, and it’s not only about a group of lawyers, either.”

The authorities have long been on guard against rights-defense lawyers. On July 31, 2012, the overseas edition of People’s Daily published an article by Yuan Peng, director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, in which he wrote: “Over the next three to five years . . . the United States will use a variety of non-military means to delay or hinder China’s progressive rise. . . . In the name of ‘Internet freedom’ . . . [it will attempt to] transform the traditional mode of pursuing top-down democracy and freedom by utilizing rights lawyers, underground religious activity, dissidents, Internet leaders, and vulnerable groups as core constituencies with the aim of infiltrating China’s grass roots ‘from the bottom up’ and creating conditions to ‘transform’ China.” Many summed this up as a “New Black Five Categories”—a listing of undesirables in which rights lawyers were shockingly listed first.

Such concern by the authorities over rights lawyers is not without reason and has been long in the making. Since 2000, the advance of limited market reforms and China’s entry into the WTO have necessitated that the authorities strengthen efforts to build the requisite legal system. At the same time, development of the economy and society has created many disputes over rights and interests, and there has been a significant increase in rights-defense cases of all sorts. Encouraged by this, some activists seem to have identified the potential to use rights defense as a means of promoting rule of law and to use rule of law as a means of further promoting political transformation. These activists put forward the idea of a rights-defense movement and attempted to promote political transformation in China by “legalizing political problems and proceduralizing legal problems.” Beyond ordinary cases involving the protection of rights and interests, the rights-defense movement hoped even more to utilize cases involving civil and political rights as a means to gain entry and further the process of political transformation.

The authorities have shown considerable concern and vigilance regarding the rise of the rights defense movement. On the one hand, they recognize that the continued growth of China’s economy necessitates marketization, globalization, and information technology, making it difficult to avoid having an increasingly plural society, an increasingly active state of free and dissenting expression, and even an increasingly frequent number of protests. They consequently understand the necessity of showing a certain degree of tolerance toward such things. On the other hand, however, the authorities’ tolerance for such things must have a limit, and they are unwilling to allow things to lead toward any political liberalization.

In the eyes of those in power, concessions in the area of rights would have only a minor effect on promoting the continued economic development upon which the legitimacy of their rule ultimately depends. But once the civil society that is now developing by leaps and bounds gains possession of these rights, it will significantly increase the capacity to coordinate and mobilize, civil society will achieve a much higher level of integration, and it will become much harder to curb progress toward political liberalization. For precisely these reasons, the rights defense movement—particularly rights defense activity in the area of civil and political rights—has become a focus of the authorities, something that must be vigorously suppressed.

Rights lawyers occupy a core position in the rights defense movement. They are direct participants in rights defense cases, and they also act to disseminate information about these cases and explain their significance. Rights lawyers thus play a pivotal role as bridges drawing links between specific cases and the wider social environment. Individual rights cases can take on broader legal and political significance and become part of the rights defense movement only through the efforts of rights defense lawyers. Of the “New Black Five Categories” described above, only rights defense lawyers work with all groups participating in rights defense actions, including petitioners, followers of underground religious, dissidents, and Internet leaders. Naturally, the authorities cannot overlook this important, central role played by rights defense lawyers.

Therefore, ever since the rise of the rights defense movement, the authorities have met that movement with repression each step of the way. During a high moment for the movement in 2005, Asia Weekly (Yazhou zhoukan 《亚洲周刊》) named 14 Chinese rights defense activists as its “Persons of the Year.” Afterwards, all of them suffered various types of repression. Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) was imprisoned for three years for inciting subversion. Zheng Enchong (郑恩宠) was imprisoned for three years for providing state secrets to overseas entities. Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) was imprisoned for four years and three months for intentionally destroying property and gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic. Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄) was imprisoned for five years for illegal business activity. Now, Xu Zhiyong (许志永) has been imprisoned for four years for gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place. In addition, Teng Biao (滕彪), Li Baiguang (李柏光), Zhu Jiuhu (朱久虎), Fan Yafeng (范亚峰), and Li Heping (李和平) have all been subjected to various types of repression, such as secret detention, arrest, and beatings. As a result, all of these individuals have to a certain degree distanced themselves from rights defense or at least no longer engage in such sensitive activity as before.

Even so, spurred on by the new social conditions, there has been no let-up in rights defense activity of all types. More and more rights lawyers are taking part, and their actions have taken many new forms. In each of these new types of action, legal rights defense activists remain prominent, such as Xu Zhiyong, Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Sun Hanhui (孙含会), and others in the New Citizen Movement. The Chinese Lawyers for Human Rights group is yet another new form of action that has emerged recently. By seeking broader publicity for human rights cases, this group has quickly come to receive broader attention and support. In the wake of the serious crackdown against the New Citizen Movement, the emergence of the Chinese Lawyers for Human Rights is even more notable. This, of course, has also brought them a high degree of scrutiny from the authorities. This explains why, in the eyes of many, the detention of these four lawyers in Jiansanjiang goes beyond any individual case and has become a decisive case through which to observe how the authorities might further crack down in the name of “stability maintenance.”

As I write this, the incident in Jiansanjiang is still unfolding as activists from all over continue to issue calls for assistance and rush to the scene. Under the influence of rigid stability maintenance, it is unlikely that these activists will see their demands satisfied anytime soon. As far as the four detained lawyers are concerned, it is difficult to tell whether their detention is the beginning of a broader crackdown following in the wake of the New Citizen Movement activism or instead a lesser sort of punishment aimed at temporarily curbing their activism. At present, either seems possible. However, if the logic I’ve laid out in the analysis above continues to hold, in order to prevent the appearance of further political liberalization, the authorities’ repression against rights lawyers will not stop. So long as the original motivations of rights defense lawyers don’t change, the crime and punishment of people like Gao Zhisheng—along with the associated glory and suffering—will inevitably befall them as well.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Mo Zhixu (莫之许)

Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.




Biographies of Lawyers, Staffers and Activists Detained or Disappeared in the July 10 Nationwide Raid Against Rights Lawyers, China Change, July 23, 2015.

Wu Gan the Butcher, a profile of one of the seminal and most important rights activists in China, by Yaqiu Wang, China Change, July 22, 2015.

Cataloging the Torture of Lawyers in China, China Change, July 5, 2015.


(Translated by China Change)

Chinese original《莫之许:维权律师的罪与罚》




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