Liu Shuqing, May 16, 2018
Beginning last year as the 709 crackdown gradually petered out, the government’s hands were freed up, and they decided to do something about the ‘unconventional lawyers’ (非常规律师) they kept seeing. They have since been targeting these lawyers using a combination of methods that aim at terminating their professional lives. These include straightforward revocation or annulment of legal licences; forcing lawyers to transfer law offices but then gumming up the process so they end up with no place of employment; delaying lawyer annual assessments and more. The community has felt the blow and the sting.
The reason I place these targeted lawyers under the term ‘unconventional’ is because the scope of targets in this round of assault is fairly broad: there are the human rights lawyers like Sui Muqing (隋穆青), Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武), Wen Donghai (文东海), Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Li Chunfu (李春富), Huang Simin (黄思敏) and so on — the standard group on the receiving end of punishment from the government — and then there are those like Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱), who has experimented with his own performative lawyering, and been called an unorthodox lawyer in the ‘diehard’ school (死磕派); and finally the orthodox diehard lawyers like Zhou Ze (周泽) and Wang Xing (王兴).
Of course, this taxonomy may itself be problematic. Many diehard lawyers have taken on human rights cases, and human rights lawyers are diehards when fighting in court for procedural justice. Moreover, rights defense lawyers and diehard lawyers have been constantly adaptive. Nevertheless, there is a difference in inclination between the two groups, and most importantly, in the political spectrum of lawyers as imagined by officialdom, the difference between these lawyers does exist.
These three groups have been simultaneously punished, but the degrees of punishment dealt differ. These moves against specific lawyers or certain tendencies are clear in their logic and precise in their degrees of severity, and they are entirely consistent with the general ‘stability maintenance’ ethos of the Chinese Communist Party. It is of a piece with the ongoing, gradual return to totalitarian orthodoxy.
In China’s current political climate, the demand of the authorities for ‘stability’ is rising — this means of course that the voices of political dissent, the voices of defense for freedom of speech, assembly, and belief, and the voices that criticize the torture of political offenders, are simply no longer permitted to exist. In particular when it comes to human rights lawyers, who have had the latent potential to form a social organization, the iron hammer must be brought down with even greater force to get rid of them. Thus, active human rights lawyers have come face to face with disaster.
The ‘diehard’ lawyers who constantly drag courts and judges through storms of public opinion also need to be appropriately attacked. The latter often have an extensive and deep network of contacts inside and outside the system; they share the same aspirations and enjoy mutual support from liberal journalists and scholars; and when they take on cases, whether it’s a corrupt official or an organized crime case, they’re able to portray their client as if they were as pure as the undriven snow. Yet for them, being of high repute is not enough — they want to be famous, make a lot more money, and conduct their defense cases without heed to China’s ‘national circumstances’ or established convention. They want to form a defiant style of defense different to models common among the vast majority of lawyers in China: cooperating with the government or even conspiring with the police, prosecution and the court. Their ‘diehard’ work has allowed them to frustrate the execution and image of even the Party’s shuanggui (双规) system [involving the extralegal detention and interrogation of Party cadres suspected of corruption] and anti-crime campaigns. Objectively, they’re also ‘deconstructing’ the Party’s system, so in the future they’ll also be disallowed. This is why lawyers like Zhou Ze (周泽) and Wang Xing (王兴) have been temporarily suspended from practicing, as a way of sending a warning to others like them.
As for the peculiar creature Yang Jinzhu, he’s a category in himself. He once had his day in the sun and had significant influence, but has become increasingly dramatic and vulgar, embarrassed courts and judges, and given lawyers a bad name by cursing and swearing. If the authorities wish to reconstitute the authority of the judicial system and enforce calm and order, those like Yang will also need to be thoroughly purged.
This is the logic behind the government’s actions.
As the authorities see it, this round of precision targeting is not only an intrinsic demand of stability maintenance, but a required house cleaning for future judicial reform that focuses on delivering ‘justice.’ Of course, this logic is self-serving — and the reality is that a sweeping out of lawyers that so departs from justice itself presages a result that will little resemble a just one.
As for whether or not the goal of stability maintenance can be achieved, it will depend on how things play out. The goal of stability maintenance is to preserve the political security of the Party, and all stability maintenance efforts are directed toward this end. Will the attack on lawyers serve to fracture the bonds between rights lawyers and their rights defense movement and thus lead to the decline of the latter, or will the rights defenders become more radical because they’re at the end of their rope? This is impossible to predict.
Now, back to the notion of Justice (正义) cherished by the legal profession. It is not just about the result of a case but also procedural justice. The process of achieving justice is itself a promotion of ideas and mindset, and it’s necessarily an awakening of civil rights awareness and enlightenment. Taken as a whole, the current campaign of purging and punishment deals damage to the cause of justice in numerous ways.
Firstly, this will never result in universal justice in individual cases. Punishing lawyers in this manner will result in court hearings being ‘harmonized’ once again, with no contention between the parties. What they pursue is order, but what they get will simply be ‘harmony.’ This is opposite to the judicial reform ideas pursued just a few years ago, named ‘the two sides contend, the court decides’ (两造对抗、法官居中裁断). In the current judicial system where the relative power of the two sides is not evenly matched, the work of diehard defense lawyers is able to mitigate the defects of the system by making the public security organs and the procuratorate more careful and pay more attention to protecting the legal rights of suspects. Giving more freedom to these lawyers also allows the judge to listen to both sides and thus see the full picture, rather than grow numb under a pile of bland documents. This will increase the chance that justice is obtained; the alternative will be justice randomly distributed, and the outcome, good or bad, will simply depend on chance.
Secondly, this purge campaign directly goes against Justice, because it seeks to stunt the natural growth of citizens’ consciousness of their own rights and the rule of law. Whether human rights lawyers or diehard lawyers, whether calling for protection of basic freedoms, or protecting and demonstrating the right to bring suit, it’s all a microcosm of social progress. When lawyers themselves modulate their participation in this enlightenment, things will progress gradually and with order, and over the long term it will have the effect of raising the general consciousness of the rule of law among the public, ultimately orienting it toward constitutional democracy.
Finally, if the authorities think that by first shocking and aweing lawyers, then rolling out some limited regulations protecting the lawyers’ professional rights and interests, they will be able to ‘bring things back to how they should be’ and re-establish the prestige of the judicial system, then they might as well climb a tree to catch a fish. The prestige of the judicial system does not arise from some sense of court ritual, or from a hypocritical authority that brooks no dissent. The prestige of the judicial system comes from the fair judgements rendered by independent judges, and this encompasses Justice of both procedure and outcome. Only by doing this will people feel that things are fair, and be satisfied and content, and respectful of the system.
Lawyers have played important roles in many countries’ transitions to democracy, and this has fueled the suspicion and vigilance of the Chinese authorities around the growth of human rights lawyers and diehard lawyers. Civil society has also put enormous hope in rights defense lawyers. During the suppression of political opponents in the ‘Kaohsiung incident’ in Taiwan, defense lawyers ultimately became a key part of the opposition movement. In Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003-2008, also started as a defense lawyer before becoming an opposition political leader. In India, the leader of India’s movement for national self-determination, Mahatma Gandhi, was also a lawyer. And over 200 years ago when the United States was formed, nearly half of the participants in the Constitutional Convention were lawyers. The suppression of lawyers by the CCP is a preemptive attack against an imaginary threat.
The truth is, in a totalitarian society, there is simply no space for an independent sphere of power to grow. Although the spread of WeChat and QQ chat groups has led to a degree of fellowship among small groups in society, these are still communities centered around shared ideas or hobbies, and the difference between them and genuine civic organizations is night and day. Perhaps they will band together and offer comfort to one another in times of crisis, but they cannot truly grow into a political force. Thus, they are essentially still atomized. The community of human rights lawyers is no different.
In a state as massive as China, silence induced by political suppression comes with its own risks. Within the framework of Chinese law, the small number of rights defense and diehard lawyers have the effect of placing minor, appropriate restraints on the exercise of power. What the CCP could have done is respond flexibly to this group, and give them a small degree of latitude. But the Party is disproportionately obsessed with and terrified about its political security, with the result that its methods of rule become inescapably more and more rigid and brittle.
 A category of lawyers who “argue vehemently and uncompromisingly, but do not take on politically sensitive cases…” (as Eva Pils writes in ‘China’s Human Rights Lawyers: Advocacy and Resistance’ (2015) p. 282 note 111)
Liu Shuqing (刘书庆) is a lawyer and a professor of chemistry at Qilu University of Technology (齐鲁工业大学) in Shandong, His own law license was revoked in the aftermath of the 709 arrests. Liu had been a lawyer for seven years, and had taken on cases the authorities consider sensitive. In April 2018 the university announced that Liu had “repeatedly made inappropriate expressions,” and his teaching career of 16 years was put to an end.
War on Human Rights Lawyers Continues: Up to 16 More Lawyers in China Face Disbarment or Inability to Practice, China Change, May 14, 2018.
Detention and Disbarment: China Continues Campaign Against Human Rights Lawyers in Wake of 709 Crackdown, China Change, January 24, 2018.
Human Rights Lawyer Wen Donghai Targeted in Continuous Crackdown, China Change, November 6, 2017
Little-Known Chinese Lawyer Disbarred for Defending Freedom of Speech, Yaxue Cao, October 3, 2017.
Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers, Mo Zhixu, July 23, 2015.
14 Cases Exemplify the Role Played by Lawyers in the Rights Defense Movement, 2003–2015, Yaxue Cao and Yaqiu Wang, August 19, 2015.