By Yaxue Cao and Yaqiu Wang, published: August 19, 2015
The Chinese government has lately carried out a massive campaign to arrest, summon, and threaten Chinese lawyers. The propaganda machine has followed in lock-step, operating at full strength to tarnish these lawyers’ reputations by describing them as a “criminal gang,” “hooligans,” and “scum of the lawyer community” (here, here, and here).
Rights lawyers first emerged in the 2000s at the onset of a Chinese rights-defense movement. For more than a decade, they have fought courageously for legal justice and been on the front lines of promoting rule of law in China by taking part in innumerable cases of all sizes dealing with some of the most important problems in Chinese political and social life, such as social justice, free expression, religious freedom, food safety, property rights, economic charges, political rights, power abuses, wrongful convictions, and the rights of ethnic minorities and disabled people.
Some of them call themselves “die-hard lawyers.” Lawyer Si Weijiang explains (Chinese) that the “die-hard lawyer” are no different from ordinary criminal defense lawyers, except that they’re particularly persistent about procedures and refuse to play by any of the “hidden rules” of the Chinese legal system.
Though more and more lawyers have begun to join the fight for justice and their numbers have grown from just a handful to (according to some estimates) over a thousand, rights lawyers remain a tiny minority among China’s 270,000 practicing lawyers. But in contrast to the distorted and insulting way the propagandists present them, to a great degree they are the only true lawyers in China.
For their efforts, they have been subjected to all sorts of attacks from the authorities, including having their licenses revoked, physical threats, being summoned for questioning, imprisonment, and torture. Despite all of this, more than 200 individuals—many of them rights lawyers themselves and members of the legal community—have refused to be intimidated and have recently signed a statement (Chinese) of protest, accusing China’s Ministry of Public Security of carrying out an illegal and abusive act against rights lawyers.
We have selected 14 cases from the past dozen years that represent and exemplify the rights-defense movement, our goal being to answer a question that many of our readers might ask: “What kinds of cases do rights-defense lawyers handle?”
In China’s legal environment, the efforts of rights-defense lawyers often end in failure. In the eyes of the authorities, however, these Sisyphean efforts clearly represent a kind of defiance. Examining the cases that rights lawyers have taken on over the years helps us understand the origins and logic of the fierce repression they are experiencing under the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule.
Sun Zhigang Case (Custody and Repatriation)
In 2003, a recent university graduate from Hubei named Sun Zhigang (孙志刚) found a job in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong (广州广东). As he had only recently arrived, he had yet to obtain a temporary residence permit. On March 17, police apprehended him in the street on suspicion of being an “illegal migrant” and sent him to a “custody and repatriation” center, used to hold people unable to produce an ID card, temporary residence permit, and work permit together. Three days later, Sun Zhigang was brutally beaten to death by guards and other inmates while he was being held in a medical clinic affiliated with the center. News of his death rocked China after it was reported in Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily.
In May, three young legal scholars named Yu Jiang (俞江), Teng Biao (滕彪), and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) submitted a recommendation to the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, pointing to the restriction of citizens’ personal freedom under custody and repatriation as a violation of the constitution and requesting that the regulations governing the measure be changed or abolished. In June, the State Council announced that the Custody and Repatriation Measures would be abolished. At the same time, those who took part in the beating of Sun Zhigang were tried and convicted.
Xu Zhiyong also provided defense for Yu Huafeng (喻华峰), the general manager of the Southern Metropolis Daily who was retaliated for his paper’s investigation of the Sun Zhigang story and the SARS story.
Many at that time believed that Sun Zhigang’s death would “bring about the birth of a system of constitutional review (Chinese) long-hoped-for by Chinese people.” The “successful rights defense” of the three young legal scholars was praised as a milestone in China’s legal history, and the incident filled Chinese intellectuals with hope about the development of rule of law in China.
Educational Equality Movement (Household Registration System)
After the “Sun Zhigang Affair,” the three young legal scholars and their friends established a public-interest civil society organization called “Gongmeng” (also known as “Open Constitution Initiative”). Consisted mostly of lawyers, Gongmeng worked to provide legal aid in cases involving social injustice. After Gongmeng experienced many years of repression, it evolved into the “New Citizen Movement.” One of the movement’s initiatives concerned the fight to provide the children of China’s migrant population with equal rights to education by ending the segregation of those with rural household registration and the discrimination and injustice associated with that status. The education equality movement called for the children of migrant workers to have the right to take the university entrance examination in the cities where their parents had come to work, instead of forcing those children to leave their parents and return to their places of household registration in order to take the exams. Xu Zhiyong organized many signature and petition campaigns in support of this cause.
The education equality movement achieved limited success in provincial cities throughout China, but Xu Zhiyong was arrested in July 2013 and sentenced the following January to four years in prison for the crime of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place.” Lawyer Ding Jiaxi, another important participant in the New Citizen Movement, was also sentenced to 3½ years’ imprisonment in 2014.
Sun Dawu Case (Economic Reform)
Sun Dawu is a well-known private entrepreneur from Hebei Province and chairman of the Dawu Group, a producer of agricultural and pastoral products. Unable for many years to borrow money from state-owned banks, the Dawu Group turned to its employees, friends and relatives, and local residents to raise capital—a method commonly used by private businesses in China.
In May 2003, Sun Dawu was arrested on charges of “illegally taking public funds.” After he received near-unanimous support from public opinion and experts, Sun was given a suspended sentence and released. Sun’s defense counsel Xu Zhiyong considered this to be the “most ideal resolution” (Chinese) in a country where a court cannot admit that it shouldn’t have tried the case in the first place. Xu Zhiyong later wrote that he had hoped to “use Sun Dawu’s case to promote market reforms in China and improve the environment in which private enterprise can exist and grow.”
Four years later, in March 2007, a wealthy young woman entrepreneur from Zhejiang named Wu Ying (吴英) was arrested by the authorities for “illegally taking public funds.” Wu Ying’s fate was starkly different from that of Sun Dawu, however, as the Zhejiang High People’s Court eventually sentenced her in 2012 to death, suspended for two years, for the crime of “fraudulent fundraising.”
After the mass arrest of lawyers on July 10, Sun Dawu wrote to express his support for rights lawyers: “Corrupt officials and people with special privileges don’t believe in the law and won’t care one bit whether or not there are lawyers. But ordinary people want their society to be well ordered. In the past, when they had an economic dispute, a divorce, or were involved in some criminal violation, they might have gone looking for connections or someone powerful to protect them. Now, the first thing people will think of is getting help from a lawyer.”
Taishi Village Recall Case (Anti-Corruption, grassroots democracy)
In 2005, residents of Taishi (太石村), a village in Panyu District, Guangzhou (广州番禺), formally requested to recall the village head because of dissatisfaction over graft and corruption by members of the village committee. The Panyu government mobilized several hundred police officers to suppress the recall campaign, beating many participants and arresting several of their leaders.
As the situation in Taishi became more serious, it attracted widespread attention and intervention by rights-defense activists, lawyers, scholars, and media organizations from both inside and outside China. The Guangzhou-based lawyers Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) and Guo Yan (郭艳) were sought out to take on the case by village residents and rights activist Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄). Lawyers Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), Zhang Xingshui (张星水), Teng Biao (滕彪), Li Heping (李和平), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) and Xu Zhiyong (许志永) were among those who formed the “Taishi Village Legal Advisory Group” to provide support to this case.
The recall campaign ended in failure, but this case gave further momentum to the rights-defense movement. As Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) wrote: “The Taishi Incident is not only a striking indicator of how far local democracy in China has come; it is also an incident in which ordinary people have again paid a price and one that will certainly be inscribed in the history of progress toward grassroots democracy in China.”
The lawyers who took part in the Taishi Village case went on to become core figures in the rights-defense movement for many years. Tang Jingling, Li Heping, Xu Zhiyong, and Pu Zhiqiang are all behind bars today. Though Gao Zhisheng has been released from prison, he has not yet regained his freedom.
Guo Feixiong, one of the pioneers of the rights defense movement and the central figure in the Taishi Village case, is also behind the bars today. Lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青), who represented Guo, is among the lawyers detained on July 10th.
Linyi Violent Family Planning Case (One-Child Policy)
Coercion and violence have always been part of the implementation of China’s “one-child” birth control policy. In 2005, the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) began investigating the “birth control campaign” being carried out in Linyi, Shandong (山东临沂), where the authorities made widespread use of detention and beatings, carried out forced tubal ligation and abortion, imprisoned families that had “too many children,” tore down houses, and forced people to attend and pay for “study classes.” In addition to helping victims defend their rights, Chen Guangcheng invited several lawyers from Beijing—including Jiang Tianyong (江天勇), Li Chunfu (李春富), Li Heping, and Teng Biao—to go to Linyi to carry out on-the-ground investigations and provide legal aid.
Beginning in August 2005, Chen Guangcheng and his wife were put under residential surveillance and subjected to numerous beatings. Not long afterward, a local court sentenced Chen to four years and three months in prison for “intentional destruction of property” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt traffic.”
After Chen Guangcheng was released from prison in September 2010, he was once again put under house arrest. This led to a nationwide campaign to “Free Chen Guangcheng.” In April 2012, Chen escaped his village of Dongshigu. After hiding out in the US Embassy, he went into exile in the United States.
Melamine Milk Powder Case (Food Safety)
In September 2008, Beijing resident Zhao Lianhai (赵连海) discovered that his infant son had a 2mm stone in his right kidney. Upon further investigation, he found that companies were mixing the industrial chemical melamine in their milk powder in order to give the appearance of having higher levels of protein. He established a website called “Home for Kidney-Stone Babies,” which he used to investigate, report on, and exchange information about poisoned dairy products and to call on victims of melamine milk-powder poisoning to join together in a lawsuit to defend their rights. 300,000 infants were found to suffer from urinary-system diseases after consuming melamine-laced milk powder. At least six children died as a result.
In November 2009, Zhao Lianhai was placed under criminal detention on suspicion of “provoking a serious disturbance.” Li Fangping (李方平) acted as his lawyer. One year later, Zhao was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
Between 2008 and 2011, Peng Jian (彭剑), Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), Li Fangping (李方平), and more than 100 other public interest lawyers sued the Sanlu Group in the Supreme People’s Court and hundreds of local courts—including in Hong Kong—to seek compensation for the victims and their families. More than 200 poisoned babies got justice beyond the official plan for state compensation, with the highest amount of compensation awarded to an individual reaching 350,000 yuan.
Zhou Shifeng (周世锋), one of the lawyers who took part in the lawsuit against the Sanlu Group, is one of the lawyers detained on July 10, while Li Fangping is one of the 269 lawyers called in for questioning and threatened since that date.
Tan Zuoren Case (Political Persecution)
Tan Zuoren (谭作人) is a writer and editor from Sichuan. After the Wenchuan Earthquake (汶川) in 2008, he called on civil society to investigate the construction quality of schools that had collapsed during the earthquake and set up a database collecting information about the thousands of students who lost their lives in the school collapses. In March 2009, Tan was detained on suspicion of “inciting subversion.”
After the court handed down a five-year sentence against Tan Zuoren in February 2010, his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强) excused himself. Standing in the hallway outside the men’s room, Tan’s wife heard him bawl like a child. Pu said: “This was a political trial, decided on the basis of political factors.”
Even though Tan Zuoren has now been released from prison, Pu Zhiqiang is unfortunately behind bars in what is commonly believed to be retaliation by the authorities against his history of advocacy in rights-defense cases. Another one of Tan Zuoren’s defense lawyers, Xia Lin, has also been jailed for defending civil society leader Guo Yushan (郭玉闪).
Tang Hui Case (Re-Education Through Labor)
Re-education through labor (also known as laojiao) was a system of administrative punishment in which public security organs could directly sentence offenders to up to four years of imprisonment and compulsory labor without trial by a court. Tens of thousands Chinese were sent to laojiao after it was set up in 1957, and over the years the number of ridiculous grounds for which people were sent to laojiao grew too numerous to mention—for example, playing mahjong, cursing officials, or posting items online. Laojiao camps were rife with various human rights violations, and those sent to laojiao were forced to work overtime and were frequently abused and beaten.
In October 2006, a 10-year-old girl who came to be known as “Lele” was abducted from nearby her home in Yongzhou, Hunan (湖南永州). She was put to work in a nearby brothel and raped by numerous men before being found by family members nearly three months later. Lele’s mother, Tang Hui (唐慧), went to the police to demand a criminal investigation, but her demands led nowhere. This led her to begin petitioning.
In August 2012, the Yongzhou Public Security Bureau sentenced Tang Hui to laojiao for 18 months on charges of “disturbing social order.” When Tang Hui requested an administrative review by the Hunan Laojiao Committee, that committee annulled the original laojiao decision and released Tang Hui after less than two weeks. In January 2013, Tang Hui and her legal team including Pu Zhiqiang applied for state compensation from the Yongzhou Laojiao Committee. A court eventually awarded her compensation in the amount of 2941 yuan.
Public calls for the abolition of laojiao had been growing over recent years, and those calls reached their high point around the time of the Tang Hui case. At the end of 2013, the NPC Standing Committee announced that laojiao would be abolished. Lawyers handling Tang Hui’s case—Si Weijiang (斯伟江), Xu Liping (徐利平), Hu Yihua (胡益华), and Pu Zhiqiang (who handled several other cases involving laojiao)—have been credited with making major contributions toward the ultimate elimination of laojiao.
Xia Junfeng Case (Violence by Urban Enforcement Officers)
One day in May 2009, a Shenyang street vendor named Xi Junfeng (夏俊峰) and his wife were selling barbecued meat skewers on the street when they were accosted by around a dozen members of the local urban enforcement squad (or chengguan)—a para-police organization set up in Chinese cities to enforce urban planning regulations and maintain order. An argument ensued, and officers began beating Xia, who was then taken to the local chengguan office. There, he was subjected to further beatings by two officers. As the beating was going on, Xia pulled out a knife he carried to slice sausages and fatally stabbed two officers and wounded another in the course of trying to escape. During the trial, the court refused to accept the testimony of six witnesses who saw the officers beat Xia Junfeng in the street and only accepted testimony from other chengguan officers. In September 2013, Xia Junfeng was executed for intentional homicide.
Teng Biao, who represented Xia Junfeng in his appeal trial, said: “The decision in this case is intended to send a message: namely, that no defiance of the government will be tolerated—even when that defiance is directed at local law-enforcement personnel.”
The afternoon that Xia Junfeng was executed, 25 Chinese lawyers issued a joint statement (Chinese) protesting the execution and demanding that the Supreme People’s Court release its written decision confirming the death sentence. They also demanded that the Supreme People’s Court reform its process of reviewing death sentences by doing away with the secrecy surrounding that process and implementing the principle of judicial openness.
Nian Bin Case and the Leping Case (Wrongful Convictions)
In July 2006, several members of two households were poisoned in Pingtan County, Fujian (福建平潭), leading to the deaths of two children. Local police investigators established that someone had poisoned the families with rat poison and identified neighbor Nian Bin (念斌) as the chief suspect.
Nian was arrested by police and subjected to severe torture in an effort to secure a confession. His hands and feet were bound, books were tied around his ribs while police beat him with a hammer, and slivers of bamboo were placed in the spaces between his ribs. In the process of handling the case, police also fabricated test results showing that the deaths were caused by rat poison, revised the timeline of the crime, and concealed crucial witness testimony.
Nian Bin was forced to endure numerous trials and was sentenced to death four separate times, with Nian appealing the verdict each time. On August 22, 2014, the Fujian High People’s Court issued a final verdict in the “Nian Bin Poisoning Case,” proclaiming Nian innocent of all charges and releasing him from custody. The victory in the Nian Bin case was the product of many years of perseverance by a group of Chinese lawyers who sought justice in his case, including Si Weijiang, Zhang Yansheng (张燕生), Li Xiaolin (李肖霖), Zhang Lei (张磊) and Gongxun Xue (公孙雪).
The “Leping Wrongful Conviction Case” on the other hand was connected to a robbery, rape, and dismemberment case that occurred in Leping, Jiangxi (江西乐平), in 2000. In May 2002, police arrested Huang Zhiqiang (黄志强) and three other suspects. The four men were forced to confess under torture and sentenced to suspended death sentence, and they remain imprisoned to this day.
However, as early as November 2011, the suspect in another case confessed responsibility in the Leping case. Lawyers Zhang Weiyu (张维玉), Wang Fei (王飞), Yan Huafeng (严华丰), and Zhang Kai (张凯) joined together to prepare a petition requesting that the case be retried, but the Jiangxi High Court refused their lawful request to review files in the case. In May of this year, they carried out a sit-in protest together with victims’ family members outside the Jiangxi High Court. Wu Gan (吴淦), an activist taking part in the protest, was arrested in May. Among the lawyers recently arrested or summoned, Zhang Weiyu of Beijing’s Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所) was briefly detained, while Zhang Kai was summoned for questioning and given a warning.
Jiansanjiang Case (Religious Freedom, Falun Gong)
In March 2014, rights lawyers Tang Jitian (唐吉田), Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng (王成), and Zhang Junjie (张俊杰) went to Heilongjiang to provide legal assistance to Falun Gong practitioners who were being held illegally in a so-called “legal education base”—really a “black jail”—at Qinglongshan State Farm. The next day, the four lawyers were taken away by local public security officers and placed under administrative detention for “using a cult to endanger society.” During their detention, the lawyers were brutally beaten. After news spread of their detention, other lawyers and ordinary people from throughout the country went to Jiansanjiang to show their support, many of them also ending up subject to detention and abuse.
At the end of April, the Heilongjiang General Administration for Agricultural Reclamation disbanded its “legal education bases.” Lawyer Li Fangping remarked (Chinese): “This outcome was achieved through rights defense lawyers putting their own bodies on the line in protest.”
In China, it is extremely dangerous to defend Falun Gong practitioners. Gao Zhisheng, who was the first lawyer to investigate the persecution of Falun Gong, was punished with nine long years of torture and imprisonment between 2005 and 2014. After being released from prison on August 7, 2014, he remains under “soft detention” at a relative’s home in Urumqi, Xinjiang, and is unable to be reunited with his family in the United States.
In addition to Gao Zhisheng, other well-known rights defense lawyers who have defended Falun Gong practitioners include Wang Yu (王宇), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Jiang Tianyong, Mo Shaoping (莫少平), Li Heping, and Shang Baojun (尚宝军). These lawyers not only understand that they have no chance of winning these cases—they are also clear that their defense of Falun Gong cases has the potential to bring them huge risks and even personal harm. There have been instances of licenses being revoked and lawyers being subjected to surveillance, detention, home raids, and beatings for defending Falun Gong practitioners’ religious freedom.
Ilham Tohti Case (Free Expression)
Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木∙土赫提) was an economics professor at Minzu University of China (formerly known as Central University for Nationalities). In the 1990s, he started using his writings and lectures to criticize and make recommendations regarding the central government’s policies toward ethnic minority groups. For this, the authorities punished him by barring him from publishing and suspending him from teaching.
In 2006, Ilham Tohti established a website called Uyghur Online, which disseminated news and provided a platform for peaceful Uyghur-Han interaction. The website was frequently attacked by hackers and was finally forced to shut down in 2009.
After the July 2009 riots in Urumqi, Ilham Tohti was subjected to much harsher treatment in Beijing, including short-term detentions, house arrest, verbal and physical abuse, and being barred from traveling abroad. He was arrested in January 2014 and sentenced to life imprisonment that September for the crime of “separatism.” Many foreign governments, human rights groups, and international organizations have issued statements strongly protesting and condemning the verdict against Ilham Tohti.
Rights lawyers Li Fangping and Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原) served as defense counsel for Ilham Tohti, preparing a meticulous analysis of the charges against him and pointing out all of the various procedural violations during the trial. After the trial had concluded, the two defense lawyers pointed out on WeChat that the Xinhua News Service reporting on the trial contained many factual errors and concealed other facts and that it was a serious violation of the law for the court to allow the media to reveal evidence from the case files before Ilham Tohti had had a chance to appeal. Wang Yu (王宇) also previously took part in the Ilham Tohti case.
Fan Mugen Case (Resistance to Forced Evictions)
Suzhou resident Fan Mugen (范木根) was forced to go into hiding when he couldn’t bear the violence of the gangs carrying out forced evictions in his neighborhood. He returned to his home in Yanshan Village, Tong’an Town, Suzhou (苏州通安镇严山村), after 6 a.m. on December 2, 2013. Early the next
morning, a gang of around 14 or 15 men charged into Fan Mugen’s home brandishing steel clubs. Fan Mugen, his wife, and their son were all injured in the attack. Fan Mugen defended his family with a knife, fatally wounding two of the most violent attackers.
Lawyers Wang Yu (王宇), Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原), Zhang Junjie (张俊杰), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Guo Haiyue (郭海跃), Lin Qilei (蔺其磊), and Lü Zhoubin (吕州宾) all got involved in the case on behalf of Fan’s defense. Several dozen rights-defense lawyers and public intellectuals have taken part in efforts to support Fan Mugen, including holding seminars, filing requests to disclose official information, submitting written allegations of wrongdoing to state judicial bodies, and organizing a legal support team. Fan Mugen’s trial was held in February 2015, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison on May 8.
Fan Mugen and his family members were preparing to appeal when their lawyer Wang Yu was thrown in jail. Wang was the first lawyer to “disappear” during the sweeping arrest of lawyers on July 10. The only female lawyer among the detained lawyers, she is currently held under “residential surveillance at a designated place” and has been denied of access to lawyers for having “endangered the state security.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website; Yaqiu Wang researches and writes about human rights in China.
Posts on the recent arrest of rights lawyers on ChinaChange.org:
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, by Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.
The Vilification of Lawyer Wang Yu and Violence By Other Means, by Matthew Robertson and Yaxue Cao, July 27, 2015.
Getting Rid of Lawyers Is the Start of Fascism, by Zhai Minglei, July 27, 2015.
What Can You Do in the Face of Terror – A Chinese Entrepreneur Responds to Arrest of Rights Lawyers, by Sun Dawu, July 24, 2015.
What You Need to Know About China’s ‘Residential Surveillance at a Designated Place’, by Yaqiu Wang, August 2, 2015.
A Letter of Protest Against China’s Arrest of Rights Lawyers, to be read at a rally in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., and then formally delivered, by multiple groups in DC area, August 12, 2015.
Wu Gan the Butcher, by Yaqiu Wang, July 22, 2015.
Tackling a Wall of Lies – Profile of Pu Zhiqiang, a Chinese Human Rights Lawyer, by Abertine Ren, September 14, 2014.