China Change, February 12, 2018
On February 9, lawyer Chen Wuquan (陈武权) was criminally detained with five villagers on an island off the coast of Zhanjiang (湛江), on the southwest peninsular of Guangdong Province. He was not a lawyer representing clients in a land rights defense case, as one may assume. Instead, he was a disbarred lawyer living at home in his village, leading an effort against forced demolition, illegal land reclamation, and the logging of redwoods along the beach. The group of six had petitioned on behalf of the village, and the police responded by detaining them for “obstructing the start of construction.”
On February 11, Chen Wuquan’s family received notice of his criminal detention.
Before he led villagers to protest illegal reclamation, he had anticipated what might befall him and authorized the China Human Rights Lawyers Group, of which he is a member, to defend him. He briefly told his story as follows:
I was born on China’s fifth largest island, Donghai Island, in the village of Diaoluocun (东海岛调逻村).
Our village is in the northeast of the island, and features an expanse of beautiful beaches, mudflats, and mangroves. It’s a popular tourist destination. Donghai’s tidal flats are not only beautiful, but also highly fertile, producing an abundance of sea snails, oysters, shrimps, lingula [a kind of mussel], and more. This natural abundance has provided for Diaoluocun villagers for over 700 years. When I was four or five, I remember my mother taking me to the seaside to catch fish and shrimp and dig up sea snails and mussels. Only after beginning senior high school and moving to the city did I start to drift away from the ocean.
In 1998 after graduating from police college, I worked as a police officer in Zhanjiang. In 2004, I was given an internal Communist Party warning over the “4.25 Incident.”*
On April 25, 2005, I decided to leave my government job and become a lawyer. I focused my energies on preparing for the bar exam, and in September of that year scored 360 on the test. In March 2006 I became a lawyer.
It’s a wide world we live in, and I wanted to see it. At the end of 2011, full of dreams of distant adventures, I traveled to Switzerland to participate in a training on the United Nations human rights mechanism held by an NGO.
In early 2012 I joined Beijing lawyer Dong Qianyong (董前勇) representing a religious freedom case in Shantou, Guangdong. As part of that process, I penned and posted two articles — “Where is the Path to the Rule of Law in China?” and “The Ugly Privileged” — for which I was disciplined in April 2012.
On May 6, 2012, while in Beijing I agreed to represent Chen Kegui, Chen Guangcheng’s nephew. Due to this, I was subjected to an immense amount of pressure. I overcame the pressure of being disbarred and continued to proceed with the case. I thought that I still had some land and the ocean to live on back home if the worst came. On May 18, 2012, my license to practice law was rescinded.
In November 2012, under pressure from all directions, I returned to Zhanjiang. It was only when I got back, however, that I realized that the tidal flats that saw me through my childhood were no more. They’d been turned into dry land and a dumping ground for construction trash. The sea snails, oysters, shrimps and mussels were all gone. It pained my heart.
The difficulty of actually making a living after being disbarred also began to pinch, and I wanted to get back my license to practice law. I was born and grew up in Zhanjiang after all, had been a police officer there for seven years, and had friends and acquaintances throughout local government departments. For all these reasons, I refrained from publicizing any criticisms of the Zhanjiang government.
In May 2017, after lying low for five years, I entered the election for village chief. Yet the authorities still treated me with hostility, a potential threat, going around to undercut my support, even spreading propaganda that I was a criminal. Even after that, I received 1943 votes.
In October 2017 I made requests for information under the government’s open information regulations, whereupon I found that the tidal flats around our village had not even been lawfully acquired. Without any legal process, developers had simply filled in and destroyed the natural habitat. These were the tidal flats that had sustained our village for 700 years! I could not longer bear to do nothing, and at this point it was clear that my license to practice law would not be reinstated either. So I decided to put up a fight to protect the seaside, so my village — and even more, myself and my grandchildren — would still have blue skies and a healthy ocean for generations to come.
It was only at this point that villagers became aware of the fact that their legal rights had been infringed upon. They joined the push to defend the seaside in droves. They even pulled their boats on to the beach.
On December 25, 2017, the government mobilized armed police, public security forces, riot police, and urban enforcers — numbering into their hundreds, arrayed with guns and shields — against villagers defending the sea. They ripped out the vegetation that locals had planted as a tide break, and detained two villagers. Under the protection of other villagers, I was able to escape unharmed.
The authorities began slandering me, saying that as a lawyer I’d once defended an ‘evil religion,’ and what I did at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. I don’t understand: even if it was an ‘evil religion,’ why could one not offer a legal defense? I’ve defended individuals accused of robbery — does that make me an accomplice to robbers too? At the Chinese University of Hong Kong I’d once protested on behalf of human rights lawyers in China with foreign women present — is there anything wrong with that?
Once the arrow is shot, there’s no getting it back. At this point, honor does not permit me to retreat.
And no matter how scurrilous the means used to attack me, I will face it all calmly. I sincerely ask my colleagues to defend me.
* The “4.25 Incident” likely refers to the Falun Gong mass petition in Beijing that occurred on April 25, 1999. It’s unclear what Chen Wuquan’s involvement was when he was still a young student, and why the internal discipline occurred in 2004.
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown, China Change, January, 2018.