China Change, May 3, 2018
Every year, justice bureaus and lawyers’ associations across China demand that lawyers and law firms submit to a “annual review” (年检), held in spring each year, that determines whether they can continue to practice law in China.
Ostensibly, these assessments are aimed at evaluating professional competence and merit — yet their primary function, as far as the authorities are concerned, appears to be aimed at keeping a tight leash on the lawyer class, designated by the authorities as the “opposition.” For more than a decade, it has been used as a tool of pressure to keep human rights lawyers at bay.
China Change recently obtained a copy of the 2018 annual assessment form provided to lawyers in Beijing that demonstrates a codification of this political control. The form requires the following:
- On personal information, it demands: Name, law firm, whether full- or part-time, marital status, ‘political status’ (i.e. whether a Party or Youth League member or hopeful member, or merely one of ‘the masses’), lawyer ID, cell phone, citizen ID, passport number, social media accounts, professional speciality, income during the previous year, current address.
- The section below, on ‘integrity,’ inquires:
- Have you been subject to penalties or disciplinary sanctions by judicial administrative organs or the lawyers’ association?
- Have you been subject to coercive measures by public security organs?
- Have you been criminally penalized (including crimes of commission or omission)?
- Have you been penalized by securities, tax, or social security administrators?
- Have you undertaken employment in violation of regulations in Party, government, or state-owned enterprise units?
- Have you, against the regulations, established offices or branch offices near courts or detention centers?
- Have you been summoned for discussion by public security, justice organs, or lawyers’ associations, for inappropriate comments made on the internet or to media?
- An ‘annual summary’ section then requests a thought report of no less than 500 Chinese characters ‘including but not limited to’ topics like how they have adhered to the Law on Lawyers (律师法) and professional ethics, how many cases they have taken and of what sort, their legal aid work, awards from Party organs and the masses, complaints or penalties by plaintiffs or government departments, and, remarkably, whether they have sought instruction or engaged in collective internal discussion (i.e. with communist authorities, in breach of attorney-client privilege) when handling ‘major sensitive cases.’
All this is a significant change from the requirements of 2017, according to last year’s assessment form also obtained by China Change. That form requests only a few personal details and leaves space for a short summary of the year’s activities.
The annual inquisition has long been a tool of surveillance and discipline. It is administered by municipal bureaus of justice and lawyers’ associations, both of which are instruments of the state. In Beijing, for instance, the Beijing Lawyers’ Association interfaces with individual lawyers and manages their annual assessments, while the Beijing Bureau of Justice renews the licences of law firms.
This dynamic leads to peer pressure, as lawyers who take on sensitive cases are exhorted by their non-activist colleagues to “avoid making trouble for the firm,” according to Liu and Halliday (Liu and Halliday 2016, p. 108). The authors continue: “Accordingly, the live in constant apprehension that their practices and livelihoods will be truncated or their legal careers summarily foreclosed.” (Ibid., p. 91.)
The closest appearance of an official justification for the political use of these annual assessments is in the third requirement for professional competence stipulated in the 2007 Law on Lawyers. The three requirements are that a lawyer has passed the bar examination, has been a trainee lawyer for two years, and is ‘a person of good character and conduct.’ In 2010, Zhou Yongkang (周永康), the then Secretary of the Party’s Political and Legal Committee, apparently drawing on the third criterion, told the All China Lawyer’s Association that people with “bad political quality, professional quality, or with bad legal ethics could not be lawyers.” (Pils 2015, p. 179)
The thrust of Zhou Yongkang’s remarks was further amplified by Fu Zhenghua, a hard-core security cadre who became minister of justice in March 2018. Fu made the following remarks in an internal meeting on April 13, after listening to the verbal report of Beijing Municipal Party Committee Secretary Miao Lin (苗林):
“Beijing, as the capital, has carried out its judicial administration work under the firm leadership of the Municipal Party Committee and Municipal Government, always persevering in the ‘four consciousnesses’, always hewing to the ‘four self-confidences,’ always upholding the grand banner of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era of Xi Jinping (习近平新时代中国特色社会主义思想), with our work at the vanguard of the nation in every respect. Beijing has endeavored with remarkable results to improve the feelings of contentment, happiness, and safety among the masses in the city, and has achieved much success. For instance, the work of Party construction among lawyers started the earliest, with the lawyers in Beijing being the most numerous in the nation, including major lawyers and law firms. All this shows, from another angle, that the political quality, professionalism, and battle strength of the Beijing judicial administrative corps is the strongest in the country.”
It is precisely the emphasis on notions like ‘political quality’ and ‘battle strength’ that appear to have come down from Fu and informed the vetting of lawyers through the annual assessments.
A lawyer in Beijing, who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, shared his views on the updates to the annual lawyers assessment in an online chat with colleagues, saying: “In what manner is this a professional assessment? It’s entirely a political assessment! If we fill everything in per the requirements, then it will be — to use an inapposite metaphor — no different to laying down on the ground, crawling forward on our hands and knees in surrender. This will cause untold trouble in the future.”
He added: “Everyone, share your views as to how we should respond to this.”
“Private personal information shouldn’t be submitted,” another lawyer said. “This way of toying with the law is different to even Zhang Jun [a previous official]. If a few lawyers can make open information requests on this, maybe we can unravel it.”
A third added: “This lawyer assassin and human rights thug Fu Zhenghua (傅政华) becoming the minister of justice really changes things.”
Post the 709 crackdown, it appears that the Chinese authorities have been using straightforward disbarment to take out human rights lawyers. In recent days, lawyer Li Heping (李和平) received notice of impending disbarment; lawyer Xie Yanyi’s (谢燕益) license status is said to have been revoked on the official website of the Beijing Justice Bureau, but he’s received no notice of such; lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) has not resumed practice and her inquiries have gone unanswered.
More lawyers are facing imminent disbarment as a result of their work in defending human rights and fighting a upward battle against abuses of the law. Even more lawyers are now looking upon this year’s “annual review” with concern and fear.
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown, China Change, January 24, 2018.