Wen Donghai, July 6, 2017
With the second anniversary of July 9, 2015 approaching, and as someone who has witnessed it first hand and served as the defense lawyer for one of the prominent 709 detainees, I’ve racked my brains about what to say. I feel that I have so much to say — but at the same time, it seems that only being as quiet and still as a mountain could truly encompass the full meaning of the 709 Crackdown.
Naturally, the first people I was worried about when the crackdown began were my client Wang Yu (王宇) and her family. Prior to 709, she was extremely active as a human rights lawyer, gaining the nickname “Goddess of War” (战神) for her fearlessness. The 709 incident seemed designed to shatter this legend, and so in the early hours of July 9, 2015, the shocking, flagrant conspiracy that was the 709 incident began to unfold, with Wang Yu bearing the brunt of the impact as the first to be snatched away. Wang Yu was at home by herself that night, having just seen off at the airport her husband Bao Longjun (包龙军), and their son Bao Zhuoxuan (包卓軒). A group of men began idling about outside her home, and when she yelled out asking who they were, they shrank away and kept quiet. About an hour later, when she was unable to raise her husband and son on the phone, and just beginning to get anxious, the lights in her apartment suddenly went out. Her internet was also cut. The harsh buzz of an electric drill shattered the silent darkness and within a few minutes the lock had been drilled out, falling to the ground. A gang of men rushed in, shoved her onto the bed, and snapped a cold pair of handcuffs on her hands, twisted behind her back. She was hooded and hauled out into a waiting vehicle, then taken to a facility whose location is unknown to this day. There, they drew a circle around Wang Yu’s spot on the bed: for several weeks, she had to sit with her legs crossed in the circle, and if she left it would be screamed at or beaten.
In the month that followed, Zhou Shifeng (周世峰), Li Heping (李和平), Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Xie Yang (谢阳), Wang Quanzhang (王全璋), Sui Muqing (隋牧青) and another few dozen human rights lawyers lost their freedom one after another. I myself was one of the 300 or so lawyers and activists around China who were summoned, interrogated, and temporarily detained. I was warned away from paying any attention to what happened to Wang Yu, Zhou Shifeng, or anyone else.
Fortunately, after the majority of the lawyers overcame the initial sense of terror, they bravely announced that they wouldn’t be cowed. Other lawyers also began joining the ranks of those willing to defend their persecuted colleagues, and thus began the tenacious work of rescuing detainees. The obstacles facing the lawyers were formidable: many were unable to even see their clients from beginning to end; they were illegally told by police that they’d been fired; the atmosphere of terror was constant and nagging; the 709 defense work required groping in the dark given that little information about the detentions was available; and the 709 detainees’ wives and children were swallowed in anxiety by the unfathomable unknown. But despite all this, the 709 defense lawyers and their families didn’t shrink from the fight. From the beginning they were awaiting the arrival of dawn. It’s this persistence that will stand as a monument to the honor of China’s human rights lawyers as a whole.
Every step in the resistance of 709 lawyers and activists has been a trial, and it’s far from over. There is still no news about Wang Quanzhang, and his safety is now our greatest concern; Jiang Tianyong has been given a brutal lesson: the mercy he hoped to receive from the police through a confession led instead to harsher criminal charges, again proving that it’s futile to harbor any illusions about the authorities. Wu Gan (吴淦) set a courageous precedent by refusing to give quarter, adding more dignity to the last part of the 709 resistance. Then there is the long list of others – Zhou Shifeng, Hu Shigen (胡石根), Zhai Yanmin (翟岩民), Gou Hongguo (勾洪国), Wang Yu, Bao Longjun, Li Heping, Xie Yanyi, Xie Yang, Zhang Kai (张凯) — who have either been sentenced to actual prison, or been given suspended sentences under strict control, or been let out on a “probation” that amounts in fact to house arrest…
Although there’s often a great deal of disagreement in the Chinese legal field about how to categorize a human rights lawyer, there is simply no doubt that 709 lawyers are the true heirs to this title. Their efforts give real meaning to to the vocation of a human rights lawyer, and their comportment in the face of power shows the strength of character of those in their field. Because of the 709 lawyers, China’s human rights lawyers now have clear values to pursue.
With this understanding in mind, I begin to imagine that, in the years to come, there won’t be such a thing in China as a “human rights lawyer,” because as soon as the values pursued by human rights lawyers are internalized by China’s legal community as the universal standard of professional conduct, every lawyer will have become a human rights lawyer. The only distinction will be whether or not a lawyer has the fortune of coming across a case in which rights must be safeguarded, and whether they discharge their responsibility to see it to the end.
Human rights lawyers are guardians of fairness and justice. Their success in this role comes for their proactive involvement in public affairs and the positive leadership role they play. Some people have said that lawyers are manufacturers of public incidents — but I disagree. Public incidents don’t need lawyers to manufacture them; they arise naturally in society. The key is that lawyers can get involved in public affairs, and through their professional activities, knowledge, and experience, to a certain extent guide public discussions. Or to put it another way, lawyers are creators of public discourse — but they don’t manufacture public incidents. It’s precisely through participating in matters of public interest that they’re able to guide the discourse, and thus truly safeguard fairness and justice.
To an extent, human rights lawyers are dispute resolvers; strictly speaking, however, the resolution of disputes should ultimately rely upon the healthy operations of an independent judicial system — not merely the skill of lawyers. In actuality, the correct designation for lawyers is “a defender of the interest of the client,” and in this regard human rights lawyers are no different. There are particular circumstances under which lawyers, in order to safeguard the interests of their client, are forced to create a certain level of dispute so that the process of resolving the dispute results in a reparation to the party whose interests were harmed.
Human rights lawyers are entirely worthy of the title of human rights defenders. The rights of the lawyer, indeed, come from the basic rights accorded to any specific individual; and if the fundamental rights of the individual aren’t protected, the rights of the lawyer won’t be respected. But the defense of human rights is the responsibility of all people; lawyers are at the forefront of this defense of rights, as a result of the nature of the profession itself. Just as in the realm of environmental protection, which in the same fashion requires a group of experts getting involved to protect the environment.
Mostly, human rights lawyers defend personal rights, so they are inevitably on guard against the power of the state. Most of the attacks against human rights come from the abuse of state power. The 709 lawyers are worthy of the title of human rights lawyers because of their fearless exertions in balancing against the power of the state, and for their attempts to establish anew the proper balance between the state’s rights and individual rights in China.
Human rights lawyers should be the advocates of policies and the proponents of democracy. If they do so, of course, they will have entered the realm of politics — at which point they won’t merely be lawyers. This is just the same as how many social activists are also journalists, writers, scholars, or even regular citizens, simply adopting different roles in different contexts. In the case of lawyers, however, the law in which they believe and the political system are necessarily connected, making them natural-born politicians. Lawyers are often more apt than other professionals to take an interest in political affairs, and to use their knowledge and natural political acuity to get involved in public and political matters.
China’s human rights lawyers have gone through a stage of significant growth and transformation in the roles they play. Before the 709 incident, the majority of them avoided from commenting on political affairs, or kept away from them, whether deliberately or subconsciously. Indeed, lawyers would often try to turn political questions into legal ones, legal questions into professional ones, professional questions into procedural ones, and then engage in the minute analysis of procedure.
The initial form of human rights lawyers in China was the “diehard lawyer” (死磕律师). Even though the majority of “diehard” lawyers didn’t particularly want to touch cases that officialdom had designated “politically sensitive,” they were willing to walk into the Communist Party’s courts and use the Communist Party’s laws to hold forth a robust and courageous resistance. Through this, they won widespread social approbation. This circumstance was possible because at the time there was still a limited space for legal resistance. But after the 18th Party Congress, and in particular in the post-709 China, the Communist Party has severely rescinded the space for so-called “legal resistance,” replacing it instead with violent repression and power. This, conversely, led more lawyers to see clearly for themselves the true face of the slogan that the Party is “ruling the country according to the law.” They began to think over the root cause of all this. And as this took place, human rights lawyers began to slowly emerge into the view of the public. While the Party tried to besmirch their reputations and persecute them, they won the recognition of a wider and wider swathe of the public, and the number of supporters continued to swell. Even though the activities of human rights lawyers have been severely restricted by the authorities, the persecution has helped them reach a far greater audience, and has enhanced their reputations across society.
The direction taken by human rights lawyers in China will test how civilized the country becomes. If China undergoes a democratic transition in the near future, a portion of these lawyers will inevitably be set on the path of professional politicians, while others will continue in their role as lawyers, becoming even more professional. Moreover, they’ll increasing depart from being “human rights lawyers,” because a truly civilized country doesn’t require that many rights lawyers — only a country that engages in constant human rights abuses, and which also maintains a minimal degree of social openness, leads to the proliferation of human rights lawyers as a professional group.
Upon the occasion of the second anniversary of the 709 crackdown, this article is offered merely as a call to remember. I continue to believe that the steadfast pursuit of values will become the direction towards which China’s lawyers develop, and only that attitude is appropriate to lawyers in a civilized country.
I give my respect to Wang Quanzhang, Jiang Tianyong, Wu Gan, and the many, many other 709 lawyers and activists, as well as all the older generation of human rights lawyers!
Wen Donghai (文东海)
July 6, 2017
Wen Donghai is a human rights lawyer based in Changsha, Hunan province.
The Vilification of Lawyer Wang Yu and Violence By Other Means, July 27, 2015.
Translated from Chinese by China Change.