Lü Shijie, July 4, 2018
In China, lawyers who handle cases according to the law and uncover the illegal activities of the authorities have increasingly filled the Chinese Communist Party with dread. Their courage has invited strict surveillance and repression. The methods of repression incorporate not only the past experiences of ‘class struggle,’ but have been further refined through continuous innovation to form a comprehensive and more deceptive mechanism of control.
1. Unlawful ‘Annual Review’ of Lawyers
Each year, Chinese lawyers must complete a so-called ‘inspection’ with their local judicial bureau. Those who pass receive a blue seal on their practice license to confirm that they are ‘qualified’ (称职). Over the years, the authorities have used this as a means of muzzling lawyers. Not being allowed to pass the review and get the seal creates massive obstacles for lawyers in their practice, as the public security authorities can use it as an excuse to refuse them access to case files. Recently three lawyers in Guangdong province with a track record of defending human rights cases were given the blue stamp of ‘unqualified’ (不称职) on highly spurious grounds.
Under Chinese law, lawyers are qualified to practice as soon as they obtain their licenses, and there’s no specific rule that requires the annual review, which was originally administered by law firms. Now it has turned into a ‘administrative permit’ issued by the Justice Bureaus and is an instrument the authorities use to keep lawyers under control despite vocal opposition from the legal community.
2. The Illegal ‘Reporting System’
The authorities have outlined 10 categories of cases that are subject to the so-called ‘reporting system’ (报备系统), including cases involving national security, religious beliefs, and mass incidents. Lawyers who take on these cases and have any confrontation with public security officials, the procuratorate, or court, can be forced to withdraw from the case, and can be barred from handling any such cases in the future. This new requirement has indirectly placed restrictions on lawyers and law firms by exerting an extra level of pressure. To avoid trouble, some law firms either refuse to provide paperwork to facilitate their lawyers’ work, or flat out reject certain cases.
3. Clamping Down on Lawyers’ Social Media Expression
In the name of ‘preventing hype,’ the CCP has restricted lawyers from using social media to voice their opinions, and prevent them from engaging in discussions concerning the judiciary. Lawyers have been forced into silence despite being fully aware that the Party meddles in the judicial process in order to maintain its empty claims of a harmonious and prosperous society.
Several local judicial bureaus have asked lawyers to report their Twitter and Facebook usernames this year, marking tightening control over their social media use. The joint statement of the Supreme People’s Court and the Ministry of Justice made on April 24 also specified that lawyers “are not allowed to hype up cases online by issuing statements, open letters, or calls to action, whether by using personal accounts or other persons or media.” Those who refused to heed these demands saw their WeChat or Weibo services restricted or suspended. The authorities also picked at faults in their posts and threatened to suspend their eligibility for pass in annual review or even revoke their licenses.
4. Using Gangster Tactics to Obstruct Lawyers’ Work
When lawyers insist on their right to defend or file complaints against judicial irregularities perpetrated by police, the procuratorate, and the courts, they are often obstructed and labeled ‘anti-Party.’ This is particularly true for human rights cases. The authorities would force the defendants or family to cease contact with their lawyers or block the two parties from meeting. They can stop lawyers from viewing case files or giving defense in court. There are compulsory security measures such as body searches, and the authorities are not above beating or unlawfully confiscating lawyers’ equipment to intimidate and delay them. Short of practicing law in China as a human rights lawyer, it’s hard to imagine the extent the Chinese government would go to wreck your work and your person.
5. Co-opting Lawyers’ Associations to Exert Pressure on Lawyers and Law Firms
When lawyers receive ‘judicial advice’ from the court or the procuratorate, they can expect trouble from the judicial bureau regardless of whether their practice is in line with the law. Trouble can come directly from the government organizations or via the lawyers’ association. Lawyers and law firm directors are asked to give written reports of their cases, give up records and supporting documents, or come in for ‘talks’ in person. ‘Politics’ is used as a carte blanche to bypass legal reasoning and intimidate law firms and lawyers; this excuse can even be used to impose actual restrictions, such as forbidding them to continue work on their cases.
If the judicial bureau isn’t satisfied with the lawyers’ attitude, it can pressure them using other methods. In the past, this has included asking the law firm to report the lawyer’s personal information, how he or she came to represent the case, as well as inspecting all of the lawyer’s documentation and equipment. The main aim of this is to give the lawyer a hint that he or she is ‘a target under watch’ and needs ‘to be obedient.’ Sometimes the authorities threaten penalties or instruct the firm to terminate the lawyer’s contract.
The CCP doesn’t go easy on the firms that support these human rights lawyers either. It prohibits them from accepting intern lawyers, which makes it difficult for them to obtain the experience needed to receive official licenses. Staff and partners of the offending firms will be targeted as well: lawyers and their associates may be forced to transfer or quit their positions; property owners may be told to not renew leases for office space. Firms can be subjected to so-called rationalization, have their annual inspections be intentionally delayed, or be stripped of their business licenses.
6. Disbarring Lawyers and Persecuting Them Financially
For the lawyers whose practice was interrupted under persecution, the judicial bureau throws off all pretense and further beats them down. Lawyers who are forced out of their workplace have found that no other firms are willing to receive them, as the judicial bureau has previously warned them away. Lawyers who chose to establish their own practices face challenges from the departments concerned, which finds every possible excuse not to approve the application. According to Chinese law, if a lawyer can’t find a firm in six months, his or her license will be revoked.
The financial persecution doesn’t end here. It is difficult for lawyers who have lost their license to represent certain types of cases [that do not require license lawyers], since the neighborhood committees are wont to deny these lawyers local certification for them to do so. Restrictions can extend to their relatives. Shanghai-based lawyer Peng Yonghe and his wife were discharged from several companies due to pressure from the authorities.
7. Revoking Licenses and Canceling Law Firms
The methods of suppression described above are covert and have little impact on general society, so the authorities usually get their way. When roundabout methods fail, the authorities use more direct measures such as flat-out disbarring lawyers and shutting down their firms.
The Chinese authorities have recently taken to suspending or revoking lawyers’ practice. Due to a directive issued by Zhang Jun (张军), former Minister of Justice, lawyers Sui Muqing (隋牧青) and Zhu Shengwu (祝圣武) had their licenses revoked and the business license of Beijing’s Fengrui Law Firm (锋锐律师事务所) was canceled.
The licenses of a number of human rights lawyers, including Li Heping (李和平), Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), Wen Donghai (文东海), and Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱), were revoked under the watch of Fu Zhenghua (傅政华), former Deputy Minister of Public Security and the current Minister of Justice. The Baijuming Law Firm (百举鸣律所) in Guangxi Province was also forced out of business.
Post 709 Crackdown, administrative penalties have become a key method that the CCP uses to retaliate against and persecute human rights lawyers and law firms. On the surface, it may appear less severe compared to the mass arrests and torture that marked the 709 Crackdown, but these abuses of power wreak broader harm upon not only these individuals and their families, but also society by cowering the legal profession and the civil society at large.
As all this was not enough, the government has more tools in store for lawyers.
8. Criminally Jailing Them on False Charges
The authorities have made a habit of charging human rights lawyers with severe-sounding crimes, typically ‘subverting state power’ or ‘inciting subversion of state power.’ The CCP has acquired a lot of ‘case experience’ from the 709 Crackdown that it now brings to bear against the lawyers: residential surveillance at a designated place; denying them access to lawyers; forcing relatives to disengage the lawyers of their own choosing; forcing the detained lawyers to go on national TV to confess their ‘wrongdoings’ by threatening them with the safety of their loved ones, especially their children.
Lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s (王全璋) case has already reached court, but he has not once been able to meet with his lawyer, and he has been held incommunicado for 1091 days as of today. Lawyer Yu Wensheng (余文生), who was arrested on January 18, 2018, has not been allowed to see an attorney either. Despite this, the work unit in charge of his case produced documents claiming that Yu had cancelled the service of the lawyers engaged by his wife. In the case of lawyer Xie Yang (谢阳), the authorities forced him to deny that he had been subject to torture and abuse in custody.
I believe that in China the administration of justice is progressively coming under the total control of Domestic Security (国保, a CCP secret police organ) operations. We have seen how Domestic Security has often forced the judiciary to obey its orders. Nowadays, in some places, essential positions in the judicial administration are directly filled by Domestic Security agents. This is becoming more and more common.
The CCP’s ‘rule of law’ is little more than an Orwellian catch-phrase, given the severe repression meted out to human rights lawyers. Even so, there are some who still have hope in the system’s ability to reform. But this possibility, which was small to begin with, is rapidly fading. Lawyers’ attempts to file suit or appeal against the injustice done to them have virtually no chance of success. Wrongdoers are rarely punished, and the powers-that-be are becoming more blatant and arrogant in their abuse.
Lü Shijie (闾视界) is a human rights lawyer in China who wishes to remain anonymous.
709 Crackdown Three Years on: ‘I Stayed Because I Want to Change It’, Jiang Tianyong, July 3, 2018.
709 Crackdown Three Years on: ‘If This Country Can’t Even Tolerate Lawyers’, Wen Donghai, July 4, 2018.