China Change, March 31, 2019
Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原) stands prominent among China’s human rights lawyers. In 2004, he came to Beijing to practice at the age of 40. In the roughly one decade up to mid-2015, he represented countless rights cases. Some of the more notable of these include the appeal of a death sentence by farmer Li Zhiping (李志平) in Dingzhou, Hebei Province; the Yang Jia (杨佳) police murder case in Shanghai; the case of the three netizens in Fujian (福建三网民); the case of journalist Qi Chonghuai (齐崇淮) in Shandong; and the case of Ji Zhongxing (冀中星), the migrant worker who threw a homemade bomb at the Beijing Capital Airport in 2013. Cases Liu Xiaoyuan has taken on in recent years include the “separatist” case of Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti (伊力哈木▪土赫提), as well as numerous dissidents and activists charged with offenses like incitement, subversion, picking quarrels, or disturbing public order and obstructing official business. Among his clients, the artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未) is probably the most well-known.
But from July 2015 till now, Liu Xiaoyuan has been out of work for three and a half years. In 40 days, he stands to lose his practicing license. At least two other lawyers of Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, Zhou Lixin (周立新) and Wang Yu (王宇), are facing the same deadline. Lawyer Huang Liqun (黄力群), a government official before becoming a lawyer, possibly faces the same situation. This is obviously due to the machinations of the Chinese Communist Party.
On July 9, 2015, the Chinese government carried out mass arrests of human rights lawyers in what became known as the 709 incident. At the center of this crackdown was the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm (北京锋锐律师事务所). That night, the firm’s lawyer Wang Yu (王宇) was taken away from her home; the next morning, on the 10th, Fengrui director Zhou Shifeng (周世锋) was detained at a hotel in Songzhuang Town of Beijing’s Tongzhou District. More than 10 other Fengrui lawyers and staff were also rounded up. Over the following two weeks, up to 300 lawyers around China were interrogated, held in short-term detention, or given warnings. The 709 Incident is regarded as a movement by the authorities to stamp out human rights lawyers. Official mouthpieces played their part in this effort, labelling the Fengrui Law Firm and the community of rights lawyers as “horses bringing trouble to the herd” (害群之马) and representatives of overseas anti-China forces bent on engineering a color revolution.
Liu Xiaoyuan is one of Fengrui Law Firm’s three partners. During the 709 crackdown (Liu himself doesn’t approve of and avoids using this term), at the time he was out of town and was placed under control for three days. Following the incident, around 50 lawyers employed by Fengrui who were not implicated left to work with other law firms. A manager with the Beijing Justice Bureau’s oversight office (监管处), which deals with lawyers, told Liu that being a partner to Fengrui, he could not transfer to another law firm until the cases involving those arrested in connection with the 709 incident were settled and the matter of Fengrui Law Firm resolved. Only then would the office let Liu transfer to a new firm.
Lawyer Zhou Shifeng, after being put under six months of residential surveillance, was formally arrested on January 8, 2016. On August 4, he stood trial and was sentenced to seven years in prison and five years of deprivation of political rights for the crime of subversion of state power. In March 2018, the Beijing Justice Bureau suspended Fengrui Law Firm’s law license. On November 9, after the firm’s sub-branch in Nanchong, Sichuan, was closed down, Fengrui’s business permit was revoked. Since that point, Feirui has ceased to exist.
According to the Ministry of Justice’s “Regulations on Law Firm Management” (《律师事务所管理办法》) and the “Beijing Municipal Guidelines for Implementing the Management Regulations of Law Firm Operation” (《北京市律师执业管理办法实施细则》), after a law firm is closed, its partner lawyers are allowed to transfer out. Starting from November 9, 2018, Liu Xiaoyuan and another partner lawyer, Zhou Lixin, as well as lawyer Wang Yu who is the first 709 detainee and released without charges, have six months —or until May 9, 2019 — to transfer to a new law firm. If, by the six-month deadline, they have not transferred to another firm, the lawyers will have their practicing licenses cancelled.
It isn’t the first time that Liu Xiaoyuan has had to deal with firm shutdowns and transfers. On April 3, 2011, artist Ai Weiwei was arrested at Beijing Airport and charged with tax evasion. As a friend and lawyer, Liu Xiaoyuan gave interviews with the media voicing his opinion about the legality of the matter. Afterward he himself was taken away with his head covered under a black hood and detained for five days, during which he was subjected to a strip search and interrogation, then released after writing statements of repentance (悔过书) and guarantee (保证书). In 2011 and 2012, the Beijing Justice Bureau found excuses to obstruct the annual inspection of his firm Qijian Law Firm (旗舰律师事务所), forcing the firm’s several lawyers to transfer. Liu Xiaoyuan was compelled to close the firm, but allowed to transfer to a new firm and continue his practice. On November 28, 2012, Liu officially transferred to the Fengrui Law Firm, and became a partner attorney in 2013.
By regulation, when lawyers transfer from one firm to another, they must first apply for two documents from the Beijing Lawyers Association (BLA). One is the certificate showing which firms they have worked at, and the other is a certificate confirming that they have not violated lawyer codes. Under normal circumstances, a lawyer can use a member’s login to access the BLA’s website and submit an application. The check will be done using the information on the website and the two documents will be sent to the lawyer, who can then take them to the new law firm that accepts him or her. A proof of employment will be issued by the firm, the local Lawyers Association will issue a certificate. These documents can be submitted online and the transferral process can be completed. The process is fairly easy if it involves just a regular transfer.
But in November 2018, around the time Fengrui Law Firm had its business license cancelled, Liu Xiaoyuan found that his information had been deleted from the lawyer management system on the Beijing Justice Bureau’s official site. Entering his name, ID number, or practicing license number produced no results. This meant that the new firm that had accepted him was unable to apply for a transfer number. As this was happening, the BLA’s website updated the status of his practice to “unregistered,” preventing him from logging into the website and retrieving the two documents he needed for transfer.
Lawyers Zhou Lixin, also a partner of Fengrui, and lawyer Wang Yu, find themselves in the same situation as Liu Xiaoyuan: they are also facing the possibility of their practice licenses being revoked if they do not transfer by May 9. It would seem that this is precisely what the Beijing Justice Bureau and the BLA is aiming for.
(On March 27 Wang Yu was stopped by Chinese police checking IDs outside the U.S. Embassy as she tried to enter the embassy for an event marking Women’s History Month. She was handcuffed with her hands behind her back and detained for 20 hours for questioning the legality of random ID check.)
Last year, on November 12, Liu Xiaoyuan signed the cancellation documents for the business license of Fengrui Law Firm in the certification branch of Beijing’s Chaoyang District Justice Bureau (朝阳区司法局证照科). The next day, he went to the Beijing Justice Bureau to discuss his transfer. The staff who received him said they had to make a report to their higher-ups and the discussion ended there. The subsequent talks turned into small talk. One of the staff said: “most of the cases you’ve taken on are in other provinces, you can go somewhere else to practice.” Another said: “Why don’t you develop in a new direction and handle economic cases instead?” Liu Xiaoyuan responded: “As a lawyer, the clients come to me. No matter what type of case it is, as long as I think I can take it, I will take the case. I don’t have defined boundaries.” However, he told the three staff members, some cases he took on involved people from vulnerable groups whose human rights had been infringed upon, such as those expropriated of their land and victims of forced demolition. When he went to court, many people would come to attend the hearings and express their approval of his argumentation. That led to similar cases coming his way.
He didn’t know that the 40-minute chat he had with these three Justice Bureau staff would be his last time of being received at the Bureau. After that he has had no more such good luck, even though the chat didn’t resolve any of his problems.
Liu has spent most of his three years in unemployment in his hometown in Jiangxi. On November 16, he called the Beijing Justice Bureau supervisory office in charge of managing lawyers, as well as the deputy branch chief, but got no response. Calling mobile numbers didn’t work either. On Twitter, he said: “It can’t be that there’s no one at the supervisory office during working hours.”
The same day, he wrote: “during my career as a lawyer, I’ve received warnings, threats on my life, been evicted from my rental home, had my right to travel restricted, summoned by the authorities, made to wear a black hood, disappeared, had my annual lawyer’s inspection delayed, and forced to stop operating my law firm. In conjunction with the ‘Fengrui issue,’ I’ve been put under control, made to sign repentance and guarantee statements, and forced out of work for three years and four months [to the current month]. Now it may come to me having my lawyer’s license ‘gotten rid of.’”
Over the past few months, he has called the Beijing Justice Bureau’s supervision office practically every day or every other day. No one has ever picked up. He called Xiao Lizhu (萧骊珠), secretary-general of the BLA, and got no response either. His calls to the deputy director of the Chaoyang District Justice Bureau didn’t get through. Looking through Liu’s Twitter posts from the past months, you get the impression of a neverending string of unanswered phone calls. One time a miracle occured: Liu got through to a Justice Bureau deputy director, who listened to him long enough to realize who was calling, then said he had a meeting to attend and immediately hung up.
Apart from making phone calls, he wrote to all the relevant addresses he could think of. This included four letters to Justice Bureau chief Li Chunying (李春莹), one to the bureau’s Communist Party secretary Miao Lin (苗林), two to Beijing Mayor Chen Jining (陈吉宁), and one to Yuan Shuhong (袁曙宏), Party secretary of the Ministry of Justice. He sent multiple inquiries to the online box of civil-administrative relations of the Beijing Justice Bureau, and also petitioned at the Bureau’s Letter and Visit office.
One day in December 2018, Liu was on the website of the Beijing Justice Bureau again browsing replies by the leaders to the mail in their inboxes, and unexpectedly found a response to his letter to the bureau chief. Using the password he set when sending the letter, he quickly opened it and found the following:
“Lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan is urged to follow proper procedure according to the law in completing his transfer process.”
Faced with this sort of non-answer, Liu didn’t know whether to react with laughter or tears.
His letter to the Beijing mayor got a response in February saying that “given the content of your complaint, it will be handed over to the responsible party, the Justice Bureau, to be dealt with.” Liu tweeted bitterly: “[This is] petitioning with Chinese characteristics: my letters of complaint come full circle, back to the hands of the accused.”
Already in late November last year, Liu expressed doubt as to whether he would be able to transfer, thus continue his career as a lawyer. Indeed, in the course of the past year, he has seen how many of his fellow human rights lawyers have had their licenses revoked: In January 2018 it was Sui Muqing (隋牧青) and Yu Wensheng (余文生); Zhou Shifeng (周世锋) in February; Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) and Li Heping (李和平) in April; Huang Simin (黄思敏), Wen Donghai (文东海), and Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱), and Qin Yongpei (覃永沛) in May; Cheng Hai (程海) in August; Chen Keyun (陈科云) in October; and Liu Zhengqing (刘正清) that December. Lawyer Zhang Kai (张凯) faces the same problem with his transfer.
Lawyers arrested during the 709 Crackdown were subjected to secret detention and brutal torture. Aside from Zhou Shifeng, Fengrui lawyer Wang Quanzhang (王全璋) was sentenced to four and a half years in prison after being held for three and a half years without trial.
On the eve of China’s annual National People’s Congress that began on March 5, Liu Xiaoyuan launched a countdown on Twitter: 67 days until May 9, the day when he will lose his license if the stonewalling continues. He tweeted the phone number of the Beijing Justice Bureau’s supervisory office: 010-55578662. He knew that the bureau must have put him on a no-call list, but others could call and ask why lawyers like him, Zhou Lixin, Wang Yu, or Zhang Kai were being treated so maliciously and prevented from practicing. Liu asked the media to pay attention to the situation they faced.
As the National People’s Congress convened, many human rights lawyers, dissidents, activists, and liberal scholars were given warnings, placed under house arrest, or even made to take “vacations” away from Beijing. Liu Xiaoyuan said jokingly that every day, he expected a call to appear in the Beijing Justice Bureau. But no such a call came. Instead, one day, his wife, a surgeon, was summoned to the local public security bureau, where she was asked to persuade Liu Xiaoyuan not to spread “negative energy” online. Because of this disturbance, she had to postpone the surgeries of several patients. When she got home, she was very angry and the couple had a fight. Liu Xiaoyuan was incensed: “I am doing chores and cooking at home every day. They don’t come for me, but harass my wife.”
On March 18, Liu Xiaoyuan dialed the mobile number of Gao Zicheng (高子程), president of the BLA. Gao said that he was aware of the situation, and that he had already told the Secretariat four times and would continue to ask about the matter. The reader may wonder: how is it that the president of the lawyers association asks his subordinates repeatedly to solve this matter, and still with nothing to show for it?
This is the lawyers association with Chinese characteristics, not the bar association that you know. Lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田), disbarred in 2010, explains it: After the Cultural Revolution, the lawyer system was restored with lawyers being state officials. Beginning in the early 1990s, the profession of lawyer was gradually separated from the state system, and became private, yet remained under the supervision of the Justice Bureau and the Lawyers Association. For years, the president of the Lawyers Association had been held concurrently by the head of the Justice Bureau. It was the same throughout the hierarchy of the Justice Bureaus. By the early 2000s, though lawyers began to serves as presidents, vice presidents, and supervisors of many lawyers associations, the secretariat held real authority, and the staff of the Secretariat were appointed by the the Justice Bureau. These personnel, especially the secretary-general, are actually cadres of the Justice Bureau. Some lawyer associations also have such a position as Party secretary. In these cases, the position was held concurrently by a deputy director in the Justice Bureau office that supervises lawyers. Therefore, actual control over the Lawyers Association lies with the secretariat — that is to say, the Justice Bureau.
This is why, though BLA chief Gao Zicheng is aware of Liu Xiaoyuan’s situation, he can do nothing to help even if he answers his phone calls. The current BLA secretary-general, Xiao Lizhu, has been in this position for at least ten years and has a long record of suppressing human rights lawyers.
“A lawyer’s right to practice is a human rights, and obstructing my ability to transfer to a new firm and continue practicing is a violation of my basic human rights,” wrote Liu Xiaoyuan on Twitter over and over again. Who says it is not? But this is a normal, rational and modern concept, and the Chinese regime operates neither normally nor rationally; it is still a barbaric rogue state in terms of human rights and the rule of law, the world’s second largest economy though it may be.
There are few persons more aware of this painful truth than a Chinese human rights lawyer.
As of March 31, there are 40 days until Liu reaches the May 9 deadline to transfer to a new firm. He said he has written (unclear whether it’s filed) a complaint with the Beijing Municipal Political and Legal Affairs Commission, in which he accused the Beijing Justice Bureau of abusing its power.
Hope may or may not be on the horizon, but this short-statured lawyer isn’t about to give up just yet.
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