Campaign for Direct Elections of Beijing Lawyers Association, 2008-2009

China Change, July 8, 2019


In 2008, encouraged by a sense that China was opening up to more democratic norms, a group of lawyers in Beijing sought to directly elect the Beijing Lawyers Association, which was controlled by the government and did not serve lawyers’ genuine interests. In this exclusive interview, nine lawyers tell the story of their endeavor, the government’s response, and how the lawyers and law firms that participated were punished for their roles in the effort.

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Full Transcript

Tang Jitian (唐吉田), lawyer formerly with Beijing Anhui Law Firm:

I worked as a prosecutor for 7 years in Yanbian. I took the judicial examination in 2004. After I got the legal practice qualification certificate, I went to Shenzhen for an internship and got my license in 2006. I came to Beijing in 2007 and practiced at Haodong Law Firm near West Third Ring Road. At that time, civil society was rather active in Beijing. There were many online and offline activities. I took part in lectures and met lawyers Li Wusi and Xie Yanyi, as well as others. During the campaign for direct election of the Beijing Lawyers Association (BLA), I was a main contact person. The campaign took place between 2008 to 2009, and it was also something I got involved deeply. It has been more than 10 years since then, and I feel it’s necessary to offer an assessment of it. In my opinion, the action was a landmark event for lawyers, as well as the rule of law, in China.

Tong Chaoping (童朝平), former director of Beijing Anhui Law Firm:

I started my practice in Beijing in 2003, during the SARS crisis. SARS was a pretty big event in 2003. I came to Beijing that May and found a law firm, where I practiced until 2006. After that I wanted to set up my own law firm. Why did I want to set up my own firm? Because I believed that China had developed a relatively robust legal system and constitution, that is, the 1982 constitution. But the constitution has a large number of clauses that are in a state of dormancy. Whichever clauses are beneficial for the authorities are in use, but the ones that benefit the people are in hibernation. Only by establishing my own law firm could I help advance the cause of rule of law in China. My power as an individual was tiny, buy by setting up my law firm, we could grow our strength. I believe that humanity’s development advances from the barbaric to the civilized, and how to measure this? One important indicator is the degree to which the rule of law is respected.

In 2007, when I founded the Beijing Anhui Law Firm, there were 10,000 lawyers in Beijing and about 1,000 law firms. That works out to an average of ten lawyers at each firm. From when I started my business until the end of 2008, I had 26 lawyers working at the Anhui Law Firm. 

Cheng Hai (程海), former director of Beijing Wutian Law Firm:

I got to Beijing in October 2003. I’d had a lot of jobs before becoming a lawyer. I’d been a sent-down youth; I’d been a worker; then I took the college exams and went to university; then I did grad school. I also worked as a civil servant in the Anhui provincial government. After that I became a teacher, and also tried my hand at entrepreneurship. Around 1999, in a dispute with a neighbor, I came into contact with a lawyer and discovered that I was well-suited for this line of work. I am quite interested in the idea of justice, so I sat the judicial exam. Before that lawsuit ended, I became a lawyer.

In October 2003 I started working at the Dingming Law Firm in Beijing. At that time I was handling routine civil cases. When I first started out, I didn’t know the ropes, and had to do cases involving construction, labor disputes, and that kind of thing. I did it because I am interested in social equality and public welfare. In 2005, I filed my first public interest case. It was reported by the media. I wanted to install a landline telephone in my rental apartment, and I was required to get a guarantee from someone with a local household registration. So I sued the telecommunication company in Beijing. It involved identity discrimination, because based on the laws concerning guarantorship, there are only personal and property guarantors. This kind of household registration-based guarantee was obviously a form of discrimination. The court dismissed the case, but it was reported by the media.

Afterward I handled some human rights cases, such as the Chen Guangcheng case in Shandong involving brutal implementation of the one child policy. Lawyers Li Jinsong, Li Fangping, Li Subin and I went there. We were beaten three times, and were not allowed to meet the clients. The person I was representing was Chen Guangcheng’s brother Chen Guanghe. For one, I wasn’t allowed to meet the client, and on top of that there were black government cars stalking me. At this Public Security Bureau they seized my camera, then they beat me at an intersection. They beat lawyers on this bus, Li Fangping was bleeding.

Wen Haibo (温海波), lawyer formerly with Beijing Shunhe Law Firm:    

If I start from the beginning, then I have to take some time to explain how I entered the human rights advocacy scene. Around 2004, I joined Gao Zhisheng’s law firm. I was Lawyer Gao’s assistant. We took on many cases involving forced demolition, medical disputes, and petitioners. Later on we accepted many Falun Gong cases. We investigated some of these cases, and we tried to use civil lawsuits to help Falun Gong practitioners stand up for their rights. But the circumstances were incredibly difficult. Many of the cases could not enter the litigation process.

This went on until 2005, when Gao Zhisheng’s law firm was shut down and I was compelled to join another practice, the Yitong Law Firm. There were many people at that firm who I later became friends with: Tang Jitian, Yang Huiwen, Cheng Hai, and so on. At the firm, we would often discuss topics related to the public good and lawyers’ rights. The feeling was that everyone was really unsatisfied with the supposedly professional, autonomous Beijing Lawyers Association.

Wu Hongwei (邬宏威), lawyer, Beijing Weize Law Firm:

The demand for direct elections of BLA in 2008 was preceded by a series of events. For example, we’d talked before about how lawyers involved in the case in Linyi, Shandong Province were ferociously beaten. When the rights of lawyers were violated, they received no protection. Afterward, there were some so-called sensitive cases, like the case of the “Three Grades of Servants” church that was classified by the authorities as “Lightning No. 1.” When we got involved, the judicial authorities surveilled us from beginning to end. When we got there, that very day we were subject to search by the police, and we were barred from meeting with the defendants’ relatives. Our right to practice came under pressure. This was one problem. In March 2008, there was the Tibetan incident that was big. A lot of Tibetans were arrested, so some lawyers wanted to intervene. This also brought on a wave of crackdown on lawyers.

Xie Yanyi (谢燕益), lawyer formerly with Beijing Kaitai Law Firm:

I think the year 2008 was very special. How should I say it, many things happened that year, like the Wenchuan earthquake. Looking back, there was also the Olympic Games and Charter 08. There was a lot of pent-up energy in Chinese society. You can call it an atmosphere, or a kind of force.

Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵), director of Beijing Qianqi Law Firm:

Of course, there is a broader background to this: that at the village level, there were experiments for autonomy, for grassroots elections. I’d say that in 2008, the space for civil society was more open and active.

In my memory, for instance, in Shaanxi, Guangdong, or even in Beijing, there were places where there was a great deal of political participation at the grassroots: people demanded elections for village committee seats and even for the head of township or the head of the county. There was this kind of demand for democracy. It was this social background that had an effect on activism in the legal profession, that is, the call for direct elections in the Beijing Lawyers Association.

Of course, we didn’t mean to push for democratic elections in China through direct elections of the BLA. We weren’t thinking about advocating democracy across China. This wasn’t our aim; our aim was more about reforming the Lawyers Association, making it an entity that protects lawyers’ rights and the fair interests of the legal profession, and provide a better environment for the advancement of the profession.


Wen Haibo (温海波):

The BLA at the time asked for very high membership fees. These were compulsory. If you didn’t pay the fee, you couldn’t practice.

The annual fee was about 2,500 RMB per lawyer, and 10,000 RMB for each law firm. After collecting the membership fee, the BLA didn’t help lawyers develop their businesses and protect their rights. Quite the opposite, we called them the Second Justice Bureau. The Justice Bureau is the judicial administrative organ that manages lawyers, and the Lawyers Association usually helps the Justice Bureau carry out this task. What could happen is that, for example if some lawyers intervene in a sensitive case involving a major civil disturbance, the Lawyers Association or the Justice Bureau would issue warnings and order the lawyers to withdraw from the case, or follow the authorities’ cues on how to represent their clients.

To us, these kinds of demands are outrageous and have no legal basis. They want lawyers to follow and cooperate with the authorities while taking on these sensitive cases. Many lawyers cannot accept this.

Cheng Hai (程海):

We asked the BLA and the municipal Justice Bureau to protect our rights, but were ignored time and again. There was no response at all. Moreover, there were some cases that the authorities gave us warning not to intervene in, or plead not guilty for, such as cases relating to Falun Gong and some other persecuted groups. Our actions as lawyers were restricted, and we did not receive protection.  You have to pay fees to the BLA. The primary task of Lawyers Associations, according to the Attorney Law, is to ensure and safeguard lawyers’ legally sanctioned rights to practice and their lawful interests.

Xie Yanyi (谢燕益):

I sued the National Trademark Bureau and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce, and also provided legal consultation for people whose homes had been demolished and farmers trying to protect their land rights. I set up an office opposite the Miyun county government. These were used by BLA as excuses to punish me by not letting me pass the annual inspection, so I went to Beijing Justice Bureau to negotiate. The BLA serves as a tool to crack down on lawyers, right? Because it’s the BLA that collects the fees for the inspection, they have to stamp it with their seal, and they are the ones to carry out the preliminary audit. So they obstructed me.

That year, when I went to the Beijing Justice Bureau to negotiate, I saw a stout man wearing glasses there at the entrance as well. I asked him what he was there for. He said that the Beijing Justice Bureau didn’t pass his annual inspection and obstructed him. He went in first, and I waited outside. When he was done, I went in. I came out and saw him waiting for me. I asked him his name. He was Jiang Tianyong. That year us two were the last to pass the annual inspection, he was second to last, I was last.

Wu Hongwei (邬宏威):

Another thing is that there was professional discrimination. The BLA marked the certificate of lawyers who had previously held “special” professions with a “T” which meant that they would be treated preferentially. Lawyers from other provinces received a W. Lawyers are supposed to fight for democracy, social justice, and so on, and now they were being categorized like this. These instances sparked indignation among the lawyers. In these circumstances grew the demand to elect our own Lawyers Association. The so-called direct election of the BLA meant simply the concrete implementation of democracy.

Xie Yanyi (谢燕益)

At the time—and at present as well, actually—the Lawyers Association and its lawyers’ representative assembly was the highest organization for serving lawyers’ rights. Under the assembly was a council with a council chairman. Where did the assembly come from though? Nobody knows. Who were the lawyers’ representatives? I never took part in the assembly, and nobody ever informed us of elections, we never took part in such a thing, and we had no idea how the representatives were selected. We inquired with the Justice Bureau time and again. The BLA still had a website at that time, and the Association had its rules, right? But there was nothing written there about how to select representatives or the assembly chairman.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

A common phenomenon among lawyers associations across the country in and before 2008 was that the Director of the Justice Bureau would concurrently hold the position of the President of the Lawyers Association. Although in Beijing and some other places, the positions of presidents, vice presidents, or supervisors began to be held by lawyers, the real power of the association was in the secretariat, and the staff of the secretariat were appointed by the Justice Bureau, and these people, especially the secretary-general, were actually cadres from the judicial authorities. Some lawyers associations would also have the position of Party Secretary, and it was usually held concurrently by a deputy director of the Justice Bureau who oversaw lawyers. Therefore, even if a lawyer was the president, vice president, or supervisor of the lawyers association, due to the constraints placed on him or her by the secretariat and the party secretary, the real power center was in the secretariat, that is, in the Justice Bureau, not at all in the hands of the lawyers.


Cheng Hai (程海):

In May, 2008, we had a discussion at Yitong Law Firm, there were a dozen or so lawyers, and we decided to get this started. We wanted to set up an organization, not really an organization, and we called it the Beijing lawyers salon. More than ten people joined, including Tang Jitian, Li Xiongbing, Zhang Lihui, and Jiang Tianyong, there were about a dozen of us. Yang Huiwen was also there. There was a charter requiring members to hand in some fees and fulfill some responsibilities. Some were tasked to compose a proposed Charter for the BLA, other to write analysis and rebuttals. A division of labor was thus set up to analyze the current state of the BLA, look after lawyers’ own rights, mobilization, and organization. We held regular meetings since the salon’s establishment.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

At the time, Cheng Hai was elected convener, and the vice organizer was Zhang Lihui. I was new to Beijing and didn’t know much about things. But I was willing to put in the time, talk to people, and do errands. So even though I was a new face, I was nominated to be the secretary.

Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵):

Just to clarify, all of us are from different law firms. There is none of collusion, conspiracy, and organization that the officials accused us of. It’s not like that. Rather, it was a quest that came naturally as we practice law and saw problems in individual cases and violations of lawyers’ rights.

Wen Haibo (温海波)

A detail that I can still remember vividly is that we spent a lot of our free time discussing about how to formulate the two documents — a charter for the BLA and the electoral process. And Qin Bing often brought people lunch boxes out of his own pocket.

I can still remember this because it seems inconceivable or a bit crazy, thinking about it now. But we did put in a lot of energy in a crazed manner, seeing it in hindsight. About a dozen of us met for days in the Yitong Law Firm office in a hotel across from the Beijing West Railway Station. A lot of lawyers would handle cases during the day and gather in the afternoon at Yitong to discuss the charter. We called it the folk version of the BLA charter. The meeting could go on from afternoon or evening all the way until two or three the next morning. Then the lawyers called taxis or drove home. Everyone was so intensely involved, thinking about it now, things were pretty crazy.

Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵):

We met a few times at the office of an NGO called Aizhixing (Love Knowledge Action). We also met in the office of Open Constitution Initiative in Weigongcun near the North Third Ring Road as well as at the Yitong Law Firm near the Beijing West Railway Station. These are places where the lawyers who participated in the campaign worked and deliberated.

Liang Xiaojun (梁小军), director of Beijing Daoheng Law Firm:

I’ve been to a few of the meetings, including the study of Robert’s Rule of Order, which we used to discuss paperwork, although I don’t have a very strong impression of it. The translator of Robert’s Rule of Order, Yuan Tianpeng, were invited to teach us how to use the rules in our discussions.

Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵):

Why did we need so much discussion? The reason, as well as the legal basis for direct election of the BLA, was pretty clear, with little controversy. Our concern was to minimize the chance that the government make accusations based on something being phrased or worded improperly. So we wanted to make sure that our expressions were peaceful, reasonable, and respectful of the law. The documents we produced were very moderate and smooth, nothing more than requesting a good and genuine BLA.

The BLA should represent the legal profession and its image, protect its rights, and serve the broader direction of the country’s democratic and legal reform. That was all we were calling for. The documents went through five or six rounds of revision.

Wu Hongwei (邬宏威):

Of course, this regime was not applicable in practice. Afterward we did some research. It was too cumbersome for us to use the parliamentarian rules. So we introduced an express voting process so that discussion on the topics wouldn’t drag on for too long without any decision being made. You wouldn’t imagine it, but we would start a discussion, from 8 or 9 pm, on the term length of the president of the BLA, which some lawyers think should be five years and some think it should be three, since five years would be too long. The disagreement would become a prolonged discussion that went back and forth for rounds and rounds. When more lawyers attending the meetings, from a dozen to twenty to thirty, think about how long it would take when everyone spoke for three minutes.

Then there would be a second round, and back and forth, which went on until after midnight, sometimes we couldn’t even decide one item after an entire day. We felt that it was too time-consuming. Democracy is time consuming, but it’s also a process of making compromises. So we thought that we shouldn’t keep going like this and needed to speed up the process, thus the express voting was introduced to straighten things out.

Xu Zhiyong (许志永), founder of Gongmeng (公盟), or Open Constitutional Initiative:

At the Open Constitutional Initiative, we listed the BLA election as one of our projects. Our position was to provide support for lawyers who have the courage to stand up, and to encourage more lawyers to participate. One detail of significance was that we sent 16,000 letters to lawyers in Beijing, one letter per lawyer, to advocate for the significance of the democratic election and to introduce the candidates. We also provided support to the lawyers who chose to participate in the election, such as sending volunteers to help with things.

Our idea was to seize every opportunity to push forward democracy and the rule of law. We take the core values hanging on the wall and the articles written into the constitution as real, and we believe that democracy and rule of law are for real. What is democracy? It’s the democratic election of the government and legislative body. What is the rule of law? It’s judicial independence. Law should be made democracally. These are universal values and we take them seriously, that’s why we took every chance to promote them.

Liang Xiaojun (梁小军):

I was an outlier participant. I don’t know how they came up with this idea initially. But I was greatly inspired after receiving the letter, since I thought that these lawyers expressed the inner voice of many lawyers in Beijing. They represented the ideas of many lawyers in China and especially Beijing. I fully support their ideas. The internet wasn’t as developed at the time, after learning about it through letters, the 80 to 90 lawyers in our law firm were all talking about it. Everyone was supportive and wanted to participate.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

Back then, when we had meetings in a small meeting room, many people couldn’t even sit down. People would stand outside the door to take part in it. More and more lawyers got to know that we were promoting direct elections, and many of them were willing to participate. Some of them were lawyers who had made enough money, and whose had secure source of business. They were also willing to participate in discussions and promote the elections.

Wu Hongwei (邬宏威):

During the process we also had extensive interactions with the NGOs and realized the importance of these organizations for societal development. They also provided help for our campaign. We in turn helped them to bring attention to some issues that they were passionate about. For example, we helped the OCI on some cases and began to have more understanding the marginalized communities, and through Aizhixing, the LGBT groups.

During this time we had a lot of interaction with Aizhixing, a company managed by Wan Yanhai, and we joined many of the activities he was involved in. We also communicated our vision to defend human rights. The other organizations that we had contact with include the Transition Institute founded by Guo Yushan, and the Yirenping Institute founded by Lu Jun, we also gave them legal support. I remember Guo Yushan called attention to the rights of taxi drivers, and we specifically called for a discussion forum to provide advice and support.  

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

In August 26 [2008], we finalized the draft. My recollection is that Cheng Hai was the one who first posted it online. After that I also put it on Kaidi. The title was: “Follow the Historical Trend and Implement Direct Election of the Lawyers Association: An appeal to the lawyers of Beijing, the municipal judicial authorities, and the Lawyers Association.” The other documents that went with the appeal also reflected our demands for the BLA to become an organization of lawyers themselves, instead of a tool of the Justice Bureau. I remember that one of these documents was the “Rules for the Election of the Beijing Lawyers Association.” The main tone of these documents was that the president and vice president of the BLA should be elected by representatives who were directly elected by the lawyers, instead of by appointment of the Justice Bureau, or through the so-called consultation and other methods by which the authorities’ decisions are imposed upon the lawyers.

Wen Haibo (温海波):

It took a great deal of discussion for us to come up with two documents. We hoped to have more Beijing lawyers understand what was going on. So after the formulation of these two documents, we went online and gathered the contact information of many law firms. We contacted them by telephone and by mail to spread our ideas and writings. We got positive feedback from many of the lawyers. I remember that after sending out these appeals, there were I think 39 lawyers who signed the petition. After it was spread more, over 100 lawyers signed to show support.

Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵):

By the end of August, after our article demanding direct elections was published, it caused a great stir in the media and society, and was considered a positive action. Contrary to our hopes, the authorities quickly responded with suppression. The first reaction, around September 5, was that the Beijing Lawyers Association published a statement called “A Solemn Statement,” which applied a political label to our actions.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

But since the separation of the lawyer profession from the state, lawyers had become more and more market-oriented and private. As a body intended to serve the legal profession, the BLA did not feel shame in acting like they were issuing demands to Party members, using ideological discourse and saying things like “their intention is to destroy our Party” and so on. It misrepresented the requests for direct elections into subversion of the lawyer system, the judicial system, and even the political system.

Liang Xiaojun (梁小军):

We found this statement utterly preposterous: As an association for lawyers, how could it even publish such a statement? It feels just like class struggle, like they’ve raised a club to strike the lawyers on the head.


Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

After we posted our appeal on August 26, although we recruited more lawyers to participate and hoped that lawyers would pay attention to the problems of the BLA, in fact the progress was very slow. But 10 days later, the “Solemn Statement” came out, and had a major ripple effect. Up to that point our appeal felt like a fist hitting on cotton, but unexpectedly after the statement came out, many lawyers were disgusted and moved closer to us. They spoke out one way or the other, some made clear statement that they wanted to join the petition, and the momentum it took was beyond our imagination.

Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵):

Apart from the BLA response, a deputy bureau chief surnamed Dong of the Beijing Justice Bureau, who was in charge of overseeing lawyers, gave an interview with the state media. His opinion regarding our call for direct election—of course, he put on an official’s airs—was that the conditions weren’t mature, and he deflected the issue without shooting it down outright. He didn’t deny outright the positive meaning of what we were doing. He only said that the conditions weren’t ripe yet, and whether or not there were direct elections was not the problem, the issue was how to improve the services of the BLA. It was a high-sounding, pretentious response.  

In regards to this, we quickly drafted up a rebuttal, and it was me who did the writing. Cheng Hai, Tang Jitian, and a few others were privy to the details. I rejected the idea that the conditions for having direct elections had yet to mature. I raised a few issues: was it that the judicial administrative agency’s ability was lacking, or was it that the BLA’s present capabilities and conditions weren’t up to par, or did Mr. Dong simply think the lawyers themselves were too low in character?

Contrary to these two official responses, some academics in Beijing, including law professors and other academics, expressed their support for the lawyers actions. In their view, this represented a positive development that advanced the rule of law and the legal profession, and that it was the right direction for the growth, services, and capabilities of the BLA.

Wu Hongwei (邬宏威):

After the appeal was published on August 26, on September 14 or so, we went to meet Dong Cunjiang, vice director of the Justice Bureau in charge of lawyers’ affairs. With us were lawyers Cheng Hai, Li Subin, and Zhang Lihui, four of us went to talk to him about why the lawyers wanted directed elections. The BLA in and of itself is an organization composed of legal professionals, so why did it do these illegal things? How was its funding managed? Why did they chose such an expensive place for members to do physicals?

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

That time I negotiated with the Justice Bureau, I didn’t go alone, but I don’t remember now who went with me. I remember that we were in an office of the Justice Bureau. On our side, we were four or five people. On the other side were the Justice Bureau’s Xiao Lizhu (萧骊珠) and three or four of her subordinates. We had a heated debate on the issue of direct elections. We believed that society had already reached a relatively mature level of development. Elections were not only being held in autonomous organizations such as the neighborhood and village committees, but some mass organizations as well, such as trade unions as well. Being legal professionals, and adding the fact that Beijing lawyers were so concentrated, there would be no technical problems. We could even try online voting. On what basis could the Justice Bureau claim that our requirements were divorced from national conditions and out of line with reality?

Xiao Lizhu acted very harshly. She said that we had gone too far, that we were transgressing into dangerous territory, and so on. I remember that at the end of the meeting, she also singled me out, saying, “you came from the procuratorate. You should know the nature of our country. What kinds of consequences will arise from your doing this? I don’t need to say it, you yourself should be aware. You should think about it carefully.” At that time, I was in a state of enthusiasm and commitment, and disregarded her warnings. Later events proved the seriousness of her words.

Some staff in the Justice Bureau and the BLA deliberately avoided these topics, but some people lashed out viciously and with arrogance. For example, Li Dajin, then the BLA president, said that the people who demanded direct elections were the dregs of the legal community; they were poor wretches who want to escape their fate by launching revolution. These people should be severely punished and thrown out their jobs, and so on. Some of these statements were made publicly, and some were passed around internally. Zhao Xiaolu, then chairman of the board of supervisors of the BLA, and who later set up a firm on Cuiwei Road in the Gongzhufen area, also heaped some verbal humiliations on us.

Wen Haibo (温海波):

In fact, we had difficulties making headway in our campaign, because the number of lawyers who were willing to step out and join the call for direct elections were relatively few. The majority of lawyers only wanted better income and social status. Many lawyers were summoned by the Justice Bureau or the BLA for talks. The officials would say to everyone they summoned, “as lawyers, especially those who come from out of province, you have such good working conditions in Beijing. Why don’t you take focus on making more money? If you don’t have opportunities, I can help put you in a good law firm where you will make good money every year. Where’s the sense in stepping out for the so-called direct elections?” So it seems that what we did was pretty incomprehensible to these officials.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

In order to earn the title “Civilized Law Firm” and open more branches around the country, the law firm I was in at the time had to have a good relationship with the Justice Bureau. Because of me, they were under great pressure. At first the director was polite to me, and persuaded me to leave the law firm. Later, he became resolute, leaving no room for discussion. When my contract expired, I must leave, no renewal. I had no choice but to leave. I really couldn’t change the firm’s decision, and in the end, I had to leave. Others had similar experiences: Wen Haibo, Yang Huiwen, Cheng Hai, and so on, they were also dismissed by their law firms.


In the fall and winter of 2008, Tang Jitian, Cheng Hai, and Yang Huiwen joined the Anhui Law Firm.

In February, 2009, the 7th Beijing Lawyers Association and its board passed the Association’s Charter as well as Guidelines for Elections.

In March, 2009, Beijing Lawyers Association held elections to select a new administration.

Tong Chaoping (童朝平):

The electoral rule was that a candidate for lawyer representative needed recommendations from three law firms. So, Anhui Law Firm and two other law firms recommended a candidate, a human rights lawyer. However, the Justice Bureau would not approve him, and did not recognize the recommendation. The Justice Bureau set up a subordinate election committee. This committee would not approve the candidate. What could we do?

After our recommendation was rejected, our firm identified 4 candidates from among 26 lawyers. These four were independent candidates, namely Tang Jitian, me, and Yang Huiwen and Cheng Hai. We would participate in the election independently. In order to let more lawyers know our candidacy, we knocked on the doors of law firms one by one, telling them of our positions and asking them to make an independent judgment: “if you believe we can represent you better as your lawyers’ representatives, then please give us your vote.”

Wen Haibo (温海波):

At that time, it so happened that one day the BLA was having a free movie screening in a theater in the National Library for some lawyers. Upon learning about this, we first of all questioned the matter on the one hand: why did the BLA provide these members free tickets at the expense of all members? On the other hand, we also seized the opportunity. Many of us, including me, Teng Biao, Tang Jitian, Yang Huiwen, and Tong Chaoping, went to the theater. We were outside of the entrance, holding promotional materials about the direct elections. When we saw someone passing by or entering the door of the cinema, we would stop him or her and ask if he or she was a lawyer. If we found the person was a lawyer, we would give the materials we were passing out and take a very short time, 10 seconds, to explain our views to these people, and promote Lawyer Yang Huiwen to be elected president of the BLA.

Many BLA staff and security guards came out to stop us from passing out flyers on the street. However, in that situation, we argued with the security guards and the BLA personne. I remember it was Jiang Tianyong who argued most vigorous with them. He said that our practices were legal and that we were promoting direct elections to these members of BLA.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

The same day, we were having a meeting at the office of the Open Constitution Initiative near Dazhong Temple to discuss the next steps. At that time, Yang Huiwen wanted to run for president of the BLA and, according to my recollection, Zhang Lihui wanted to run for chairman of the board of supervisors. When they passed out materials there, Yang Huiwen was beaten by security guards. After we heard the news, we adjourned the meeting and immediately took a taxi to go over to help. I had a heated argument with the officials of the Justice Bureau and the BLA.

In my memory, those present were Xiao Lizhu and Feng Xinquan of the Municipal Justice Bureau, and Liu Jun, deputy secretary general of the BLA, as well as some others. I demanded that they offer apologies, and called the police to handle the situation. But in the end nothing was done. This incident showed that the Justice Bureau and the BLA were unlikely to accept our opinions and recommendations.

Tong Chaoping (童朝平):

At that time, the location of our constituency district was in the district Justice Bureau in Balizhuang. During the electoral process, there were 4 of us and 12 official candidates whom the Justice Bureau selected, so there were a total of 16 candidates. We received more votes than most of the official candidates.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

Almost all the lawyers of the Anhui firm participated, and the administrative staff also went to videotape the scene. We wanted to prevent them from playing tricks, so we had to gather evidence at the voting venue. Sure enough, the authorities had their deployment too. They brought some mafia-like figures who loitered around inside and outside the venue and put pressure on us. Because of our mobilization and canvassing done ahead of time, me, Tong Chaoping, Yang Huiwen, Cheng Hai, and Zhang Lihui were all chosen as candidates in the first round of elections.

Tong Chaoping (童朝平):

Due to our vote canvassing, this election ended with less than half the votes going to any of the candidates backed by the authorities. According to the electoral rules, a second round of elections must be held if no candidate gets more than half of the votes. In the second round of elections, only 12 candidates were allowed in accordance with the runoff rules, and these 12 would be chosen according to who had received the largest number of votes in the first round of voting.

However, the election committee, manipulated by the Justice Bureau, did not allow the 4 independent candidates who had the most votes to enter a runoff election, and the 12 officially recognized candidates who got fewer votes became candidates instead. In this way, they stripped us of our constitutional rights to elections, and killed our opportunity.

Only 12 people’s names were printed on the ballots of the second round election, and the two blank spaces for self-chosen candidates were removed. Moreover, if you fill in another person on your ballot, for example, if you fill in Tong Chaoping, who was not one of the candidates they designated, then your ballot would become invalid. This is another unconstitutional act.

Cheng Hai (程海):

Therefore, the BLA election was a blatant violation of the law: such flagrant disregard for the law and rules during elections was simply unprecedented throughout the country. Later, this case was reported by the China Youth Daily. China News Weekly was also planning a report, but it was eventually shut down, almost certainly because the Beijing Justice Bureau contacted the Central Propaganda Department.

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

Since the BLA had blatantly violated their own election rules, me and some of my colleagues decided to go to the BLA representative meeting and ask to audit the session. It was about March or April of 2009. We came to the venue set at Beijing Continental Grand Hotel in the Asian Games Village or Beichen Road. But we simply couldn’t get in and couldn’t get close to the site. After some maneuvering among ourselves, I remembered Zhang Lihui and I got to the floor of the meeting. The guards were very nervous. There was an official in the Justice Bureau called Chai Lei, who at that time was perhaps a deputy director a department. He was the one who often had contact with guobao, or the security police. He came out with the guards and finally drove us out of the floor where the meeting was hosted.


Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵):

After the BLA election, it was in mid-2009, and it was also the period of the annual review of lawyers. A large scale of suppression of lawyers’ right to practice occurred, the most severe in over a decade. Many lawyers who participated in the BLA direct election were forced to stop practicing, blacklisted, and finally had their licenses suspended or revoked. I was personally forbidden from taking the annual review starting in 2009, until I left the Gaobo Longhua Law Firm and transferred to another firm. Only following a year of suspension did I resume normal practice.

Wen Haibo (温海波):

So around 2008, Yitong Law Firm was suspended for six months. Before this happened, we were compelled to leave Yitong to find employment with other law firms. I transferred to a law firm where lawyer Liu Wei was working at the time. Tang Jitian and Yang Huiwen both went to a different firm. Yitong has since recovered from the six-month suspension. There’s no denying that the discussions we had at Yitong Law Firm brought about quite a lot of trouble for the firm. We are very thankful for Yitong director lawyer Li Jinsong’s help in the BLA direct elections campaign, because he let us use the firm’s space for discussions, and he also withstood the pressure put on him from the BLA and the Justice Bureau.

Tong Chaoping (童朝平):

I was the director of Anhui Law Firm, the Justice Bureau order me to dismiss lawyers, and the number one person they named was Tang Jitian. There were other human rights lawyers who were marked for dismissal too. They told me, “If you don’t dismiss them, your firm won’t pass the annual review.” I said to the then director of the Chongwen District Justice Bureau, surnamed Liu. I said, Director Liu, although you are the leader, I can’t follow this instruction of yours, because these lawyers we hired are all our treasures. If they violated the constitution and the law, I would dismiss them immediately. However, these lawyers at our firm, like lawyer Tang Jitian, uphold the dignity of the constitution and law, and help many people in China’s disadvantaged groups. If you have me dismiss him, then I will have violated the law and betrayed morality and justice. I can’t do something like this, that would be immoral or illegal.

Then the Justice Bureau made their second move and conducted a carpet review of my entire law firm to see if we had transgressed the law in any way.

The review found no wrongdoing on our part. In June, they should have put the stamp of approval on our lawyers’ certificates, which would have allowed them to practice as normal. Instead, they did not stamp any of our lawyers’ cards, but they privately consulted each lawyer: Do you want to get stamped? If you want to get stamped, you can have it now, but you must transfer away from Anhui Law Firm. Leave the Anhui Law Firm. If you can’t find a new firm, we will find one for you right away.

Another thing they did was to investigate all the accounting records of the Anhui firm. They secretly contacted the accountant who provides me service to see if we had any overseas funding.

Another thing was they asked the manager in my office, who was also a lawyer, to report whether I had violated any law. They put forward an offer to him that as long as he reported me, they would let him practice in Beijing; if he didn’t report me, sorry, he can’t practice in Beijing anymore. As a result, this lawyer is still practicing outside Beijing to this day.

Under these conditions, I felt that by upholding the dignity of the constitution and the law, our firm may have touched upon a third rail issue. Later, a series of facts proved this. What happened? In my hometown, I have had a good personal relationship with police officers of the local police station. They told me that the police in Beijing had visited my hometown more than once to investigate me and to see if there were any previous criminal records and if I had done anything illegal. But they found nothing.

In the following months, the Justice Bureau of Chongwen District in Beijing carried out a series of maneuvers to disband the Anhui Law Firm, including driving partners away and forcing a landlord to rescind a rental agreement. On March 28, 2010, the Anhui Law Firm closed down.


Wen Haibo (温海波):

At the time of the annual lawyer’s inspection in 2008, several of the main participants, including Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Lihui, Yang Huiwen, and Tong Chaoping, had yet to have their lawyers’ certificates restored. They have been unable to continue their legal work. As I understand it, many lawyers did not think that participating in such an action would bring such great disaster to themselves. I was among them.

I feel that I have taken part in these events based entirely on my own conscience. I hoped to do something to promote the development and democratization of the legal profession. If I could make the choice again, I think I would still do something like this. Because I think that what we did, whether then or now, is correct, meaningful, and valuable.

Xie Yanyi (谢燕益):

The campaign marked a starting point where lawyers became more aware of the collective effort to defend their rights. You can say that it matured or became more apparent, anyway from that point onward, a clear consciousness began to develop. This was the experience we had in the direct election of the BLA. Later, we went further and began to refer cases to each other, discuss cases together, and jointly represent some rights defense cases. Since that point on, we’ve come together as a community. 

Tang Jitian (唐吉田):

Although the Internet makes it easier for us to connect, the experiences of direct election of BLA have directly or indirectly influenced lawyers’ self-awareness, the question of professional autonomy, and later experiments such as the launch of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Group.

Li Xiongbing (黎雄兵)

To put it simply, I feel that the government is only paying lip service when it says “governing the country according to the law.” There is a long, long way to go before it is a practice, a conscious idea that drives actions. Lawyers as a whole is a participant on this journey. Lawyers, narrowly speaking, are a professional group, a way of making a living. But broadly, and more objectively, they participate in the mechanism of social fairness and justice.

Cheng Hai (程海):

The main misconception that everyone has currently is that it’s best to wait for the greater environment to change, or a major opportunity to come. In fact the opportunities lie within each of us. If everyone changes, if one person changes, it will lead to more people changing. More people changing will cause change among a majority of the people, and this country will change as well. So we should start this big change.

Liang Xiaojun (梁小军):

I think the significance of the 2008 BLA direct election in the history of lawyers in China is self-evident, and cannot be overstated. Although the effort was suppressed and many lawyers paid a hefty price, it planted the seeds of democracy and freedom in the minds of many lawyers. Today these lawyers are facing an even more severe and crueler environment, but one day they will rise again to claim their rights, and to take part in democracy building and the progress of democracy.

Tong Chaoping, Yang Huiwen, Wen Haibo, Jiang Tianyong, and Zhang Lihui had their law licenses revoked in 2009-2010.

Yang Huiwen resumed practice several years later in Shanxi Province.

Tong Chaoping has continued offering legal services without license.

Wen Haibo has been working at an NGO.

Tang Jitian was disbarred permanently in 2010.

Jiang Tianyong was arrested in November 2016, for organizing support for lawyers detained during the 709 crackdown. He is due to be released on February 28, 2019.

Cheng Hai continued practicing law until 2018 when he was disbarred and his firm shut down for representing lawyer Wang Quanzhang, a 709 detainee.

Xie Yanyi continued practicing until 2015 when he was detained during the 709 Crackdown on human rights lawyers. He remained in secret detention for 553 days and was severely tortured. He was forcibly disbarred in 2018.

A China Change Production


6 responses to “Campaign for Direct Elections of Beijing Lawyers Association, 2008-2009”

  1. […] Campaign for Direct Elections of Beijing Lawyers Association, 2008-2009 “ China Change […]

  2. […] Campaign for Direct Elections of Beijing Lawyers Association, 2008-2009 […]

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  4. Jenny Lau 68267998 says:

    China really needs to change. They are the evil of this world.

  5. […] China’s Great FireWall. In 2008, Xu Zhiyong’s Gongmeng helped a group of lawyers in Beijing to campaign for direct election of Beijing Bar Association — unsuccessfully. During the 2016 people’s […]

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