Interviewing Sui Muqing: As a Human Rights Lawyer, I’ve Sacrificed a Lot, But Gained Even More

Sui Muqing, Yaxue Cao, June 2, 2020

This is the second interview in our How I Become a Human Rights Lawyer series. Today we present our conversation with Guangzhou lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青), conducted on May 19, 2020.  — The Editors

1. Tiananmen, 1989

Yaxue Cao: Let’s start from Tiananmen. There are quite a few Chinese human rights lawyers, probably more that I don’t know of. At the very least, there are the ones we call the Generation of 1989 — Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜), Tang Jitian (唐吉田)… and you, of course. There’s a photo I remember very clearly, that was shared widely online, of you and several classmates singing together.

Sui Muqing: I don’t know when this photo was taken. When did I first learn about it… it was in 2015 during the 709 Crackdown, when I was imprisoned. At that time, Pu Zhiqiang[1] was on trial, and the Guobao (国保, Domestic Security Division of public security) showed me that photo, asking if it was me. After looking at it, I was cheered up immensely, because it wasn’t until Pu Zhiqiang was on trial that I was aware of it.

This was the first clear photo I’d seen from 1989. There’d been others, but this was much clearer. When I saw it, I joked that they should have grabbed Pu Zhiqiang earlier, because as soon as he was arrested, this photo turned up.

This photo is precious to me, but I really don’t know exactly when or where it was taken. From the background, I’m guessing it was taken during the April 27 demonstrations, but not in Tiananmen, perhaps elsewhere, and possibly singing The Internationale or something similar. It was taken by Tang Shizeng (唐师曾), who was one of our professors at the time, who eventually became a reporter for Xinhua.

Sui Muqing, front middle in blue jacket, in 1989. The white arrow points at Pu Zhiqiang in the third row.

YC: The way it came out was very interesting. Obviously, we can’t revisit the entire Tiananmen movement here, but this was an important episode for you personally and we can’t omit it. If I asked you to summarize the significance of Tiananmen as you see it in a few words, how would you describe it? Have you thought about it before?

Sui: I think that the events in 1989 really didn’t have a huge impact on my values, because they were like that to begin with, but they did change the trajectory of my whole life. Without 1989, I might have walked down a completely different path, because after the incident, we were assigned jobs back to our hometowns, me to the small county I had come from, which changed everything. I’d originally hoped to go to graduate school, and then teach at university. I applied for grad school, but I was told, “don’t even think about it, there are political barriers there as well.”

So someone like me, at least for the first few years after Tiananmen, had no hope of being accepted, and I gave up on going to grad school. That road was closed to me. Really, though, I’d never thought of becoming a lawyer. I didn’t think I was well-suited to being a lawyer, because in China the most important thing about a lawyer wasn’t his or her understanding of the law, but their ability to promote themselves. I was forced to choose a path that I didn’t like at all.

YC: You once said that, after the massacre, you went on the run for four months, and then were caught and detained for three months. What’s the story there?

Sui: Right. After Tiananmen, I didn’t think that I would encounter any problems (with the authorities), because I wasn’t the kind of person to seek the limelight. But after I got back home [in Jilin Province], I heard more and more rumors, because my name had once been added to a “Citizens’ Autonomous Council”, and I was actually appointed to a leadership position when I wasn’t even present. I felt this might be dangerous for me, so I dropped out of sight before it caught up to me. No sooner had I gone to ground than the police started searching for me, and I fled from my home in the north towards the south.

So I fled from the Northeast all the way to Guangzhou. I remember sleeping behind a statue of Sun Yat-Sen one night, because the country was under martial law immediately after the massacre. I’d studied history, I knew that there were no rules under martial law [to constrain the authorities], and that they could kill people freely, so I should definitely escape since I had the chance. In reality, my fleeing was the right choice, because I escaped a lot of abuse. I had a classmate who was arrested for the same reasons as me, spent four extra months in custody, and suffered a lot more for it. This was because when he was first imprisoned, the detention center was run by the military. They were very different from the police, and would frequently drag people from their cells to beat them.

YC: Where were you when you were caught?

Sui: I was in Guangzhou when I felt the situation had started to stabilize, so I went back to Beijing. Because I had no money (I’d been pickpocketed in Guangzhou), I headed right back to school. Going back was considered “giving oneself up”, and it was already past October. Of course, as soon as I got back, I was taken away that very afternoon.

YC: Where were you held?

Sui: Dongcheng Detention Center (东城看守所), for about three months. Later I heard that China and the U.S. had agreed to a deal whereby China would release the less serious “offenders” like us. Supposedly they let about 500 people go all at once, and I was one of them.

YC: You just mentioned, and I’ve heard other 1989ers say, that those two graduating classes, or maybe even all four classes, were assigned undesirable jobs after graduation. This would have been an unwritten rule, right?

Sui: Right. The classes who entered in 1985 and 1986, juniors and seniors at the time, and maybe those a year behind us as well, they all received poor assignments. At that time, college graduates were still relatively rare, call it the “favored child phase” maybe, so it was unlikely for one to be sent back to a rural county. When I got back to Tonghua (a county-level city in Jilin Province),  they were planning to send me further down to the countryside, but I was able to stay in the county seat, probably because my family lived in town.

2. Before becoming a human rights lawyer

YC: Doing research on you the last few days, it seems you’ve been through basically every phase of legal practice since reform and opening began. At the beginning, you caught the tail end of the civil-servant lawyer phase. So I’d really like to hear you tell us, what role did the earliest civil-servant lawyers play in the system?

Sui: I started out as a lawyer in the Justice Bureau, we were considered a department under the Bureau, still civil servants. So I was a paid civil servant, and the department was considered a good place to work at the Bureau. The status of lawyers in China really hasn’t changed at all, they were meant to work with the security apparatus. Back then, there weren’t so many rules.  When I started there, I was able to handle cases and meet with clients even though I didn’t have a license to practice law. Today that wouldn’t be possible. I was pretty well-known in my hometown, I never had a problem finding cases, as a lot of people would come find me.

YC: From 1993 to 2012, a lot happened in the 19 years before you became a human rights lawyer. After the Southern Tour, the start of economic Reform and Opening, a lot of people left the public sector, private enterprises started popping up like toadstools, semi-privatized media organizations appeared, Falun Gong was suppressed, Charter 08 was published, the Weiquan Movement arose. In Guangdong there was SARS, the Sun Zhigang Incident, the Taishi Village Incident, and the Wukan village elections. From the economy, politics, and culture to everyday life, every aspect of China’s society saw rapid changes in those years. What did you spend them doing?

Sui: I’m ashamed to say it, but for most of those 19 years, I was busy making a living. I paid attention to the changes in society, but no more…certainly I had no intention of participating. I was a relatively passive person, and usually wouldn’t step up to participate in anything. If I hadn’t met Guo Feixiong (郭飞雄)[2], I wouldn’t have become a human rights lawyer.

In 1992, I passed the bar easily. Among the people who had been at Tiananmen in 1989, Pu Zhiqiang and I were lucky; we both became lawyers and got our credentials. Later on, I heard that many of our generation who passed the bar weren’t able to start careers as lawyers, and even that some couldn’t obtain a license.

As soon as I passed the bar and got my license, I resigned and left my hometown. You know the kind of life people live there? Eat and drink to excess every day, eat until you’re fat. My views, every facet of my life, were very different from everyone around me. I often couldn’t sleep at night. I thought, “Am I going to live my whole life like this?” I didn’t really have a long-term plan, nor did I desire money; I just wanted to leave my job, find a place with a little more freedom, and go take a look. First, take a look, then decide what to do.

YC: When you left your hometown, where did you go, and what did you do?

Sui: After 1993, I went to Beijing, worked at some companies, and also had a small retail business of my own for a while. I basically didn’t take cases then. After staying in Beijing for a number of years, I got sick of the city. In 1999, I transfered my license to Guangzhou and started officially practicing again. In 2003, because I formed a small partnership, I also transferred my hukou (residential registration) to Guangzhou. Life after I arrived in Guangzhou was more or less smooth. In about two years I was able to get a mortgage and buy a small house, as property was still cheap back then. I settled down and planned to stay in Guangzhou, but at the time I was still just earning a living.

YC: In 1999, after you started practicing law in Guangzhou, what sort of cases were you taking?

Sui: Basically anything. All sorts of civil and criminal suits. In a new place, with no existing business, you have to slowly build a client base, so you do whatever comes your way. 

But at that time I did have a strong awareness of rights. Starting 2003, I was a lawyers’ representative for three years. At that time, the lawyers’ representatives were just partners from law firms. Each firm would recommend one or two, maybe more at a large firm, but at a small firm like ours there would only be one. I was a partner then. The others didn’t like to go, thought it was a waste of time, so I said I’d go, I’ll go represent them. The first year of my term, the other partners got angry with me, said I was speaking too freely and putting them in a difficult position. The lawyers’ representative circle is a grouping of so-called “elite lawyers.” Seeing that a lot of what they said was ridiculous, I’d often criticize them. When the Lawyers Association bought a new building a lot of lawyers disagreed, but didn’t dare speak up against it. One lawyer specifically drove over to my house to send me to the scene in order to have me voice these concerns. I have a habit of criticizing people. Later, when there was an election for council members, even though I wasn’t a candidate, there were still many people who voted for me. Years later when I got to know lawyer Ge Wenxiu (葛文秀)[3], he told me that he had gotten a strong impression of me from that episode.

YC: Well done. You have to criticize. That is to say, you still knew of all the large public incidents that occurred in China in those years, including those having to do with political opposition, right?

Sui: I knew a bit, I’d heard of Guo Feixiong. In the early years when I’d just come to Guangzhou, Tang Jingling (唐荆陵)[4] and I were colleagues at the same firm. Back then, we only knew of one another, but didn’t interact. But, for example, I’d never heard of Charter 08, because I didn’t go online much. I am a fan of Go, and usually went online only to play. I used to be a Go champion, back at China University of Political Science and Law, a bit of an amateur master.

YC: What dan? Were you ranked?

Sui: I never did compete to get a formal rank, but I’d guess I would have placed into the 5th amateur dan or so.

3. The New Citizens Movement trial

YC: At the end of last year, on December 26th, the authorities again arrested Ding Jiaxi (丁家喜)[5]and others. I know when Ding was arrested and tried during the New Citizens case in 2013, you were one of his defense lawyers, and I’d like to ask you to review his trial and that of Li Wei (李蔚)[6]. When the Guangdong Provincial Justice Department revoked your license to practice law in early 2018, they used your behaviors at this trial as a rationale.

Sui: When the New Citizens Movement activists were arrested, they were mainly represented by Beijing lawyers, and lawyers from elsewhere were not brought in. But at the first hearing, the defendants dismissed all those lawyers. This isn’t to say they were dissatisfied with these lawyers; they took advantage of a rule that allowed them to replace a whole group of lawyers and restart the hearing.

Ding Jiaxi had been to Guangzhou, but he never met me there. He told me privately after he was released: “I named you and Zhang Keke (张科科)[7] because I’d never met the two of you. But he said, “I never thought that you’d actually write me a world-class defense.”

When I went to meet with Ding in the detention, there was one time when, because I took a photo of him, the police trying to stop me hurt Ding’s wrist. I managed to take a photo of the officer who did it and post it online. So this attracted the authorities’s attention, and before the court hearing, the Justice Bureau invited me to dinner. It was a stability maintenance thing, they spelled out some requirements, for example not denying the constitution, and I said that I really didn’t have that ambitious a goal.

Ding Jiaxi in a Beijing detention center in 2013. Photo taken by Sui Muqing.

As for using the trial at the Haidian Courthouse as a reason to revoke my license, it’s just completely unjustified. Because the judge may have specifically targeted me, and because at the time I didn’t have enough experience in handling human rights cases, the judge would often interrupt me when I started speaking, which would derail my train of thought.  When next I spoke, sometimes I would stutter and stumble, and when that happened I would get angry, and bang on the table, you know? I banged on the table, “you can’t always interrupt me for no reason.” And it was easy to end up in an argument with the judge under those circumstances, but overall I think it was relatively civilized.

Another small incident happened during the trial, which was also used as a reason for revoking my license. The female prosecutor as I learned later turned out to be an alumni from my university, and had been something of a star prosecutor as what they call a “top ten prosecutor countrywide.” Anyway, during the trial, her performance was poor. During a recess, I made a joke and said she was very much like Yao Ning (幺宁). She started angrily and said, “Say that again?” and I repeated, “You’re very much like Yao Ning. What’s wrong?”

YC: What do you mean, “very much like Yao Ning?” Who’s Yao Ning?

Sui: Yao Ning was the woman prosecutor in Chongqing who framed lawyer Li Zhuang (李庄), and is notorious in the legal world in China, but of course the authorities have never said anything negative about her. So when the prosecutor on my case reacted angrily, she effectively admitted that she agreed with the public’s negative opinion of Yao Ning. She caught herself midway and ended up responding with something like, “Oh well, Yao Ning is younger than me,” and the moment passed. Later on, the authorities said I’d insulted the prosecutor, and it became one of the reasons they listed for the revocation of my license.

(Note: The prosecutor is Zhuang Wei (庄伟), who graduated from China University of Political Science and Law in 1995, and served as a prosecutor in Haidian (a district of Beijing). In 2019, she was appointed by the Standing Committee of the Beijing Municipal People’s Congress to serve as deputy prosecutor of the First Branch of the Beijing People’s Procuratorate.)

YC: And what about the court hearing?

Sui: Later at the trial, the major dispute was about cross-examining the original evidence. The judge refused to allow it to be brought out. We protested vehemently because for us lawyers with more than 20 years of practice, we’d never seen something like this happen before. So in a fit of rage, myself and lawyer Jiang Yuanmin (蒋援民) withdrew ourselves. Of course, we’d tried to explain it amicably to the judge before we left. We said, because the judge had already given me three, no, two warnings, and that he’d kick us out of court on the third warning anyway, so I said, “if you keep arguing like this, it’d be better if I left myself, before you make me.” So in this way lawyer Jiang and I exited the courtroom.

Prior to our withdrawal, during court recess, an intimidating bunch of officers immediately surrounded me as they saw that I was taking an interview with a foreign journalist. The police demanded to check our ID, we argued with them for an hour or so. In the end, we were late for the hearing.

Over the course of the hearing, the head of the lawyer management office at Guangzhou’s Justice Bureau came to personally supervise the case; they watched via video from the next room. Whenever I said something even a bit adversarial, they came to criticize during recesses, in the name of maintaining stability.

The verdict documents actually, you might have noticed, don’t have my name on them, as they stripped me of my designation as Ding’s counsel. I don’t believe the judge has this power, because at the time he didn’t object to my withdrawal. I discussed with him beforehand, and certainly wasn’t trying to cause trouble. In general, I try to be reasonable as long as possible, so I suppose this was the judge’s revenge against me. After I left court, I wrote a defense and sent it to the court. In the introduction I said that he failed to behave like a judge. 

Later on, I heard from a classmate that Beijing’s judicial system was in an uproar over this case, that there was an informal discussion internally, something to the effect of “when Sui Muqing next takes a case in Beijing, make him regret it,” but I never returned to Beijing for a case.

Note: The presiding judge in the Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei cases was Fan Jun (范君), a 1993 graduate of China University of Political Science and Law. He is currently the vice president of Haidian People’s Court and a Party Group member (党组成员).

YC: So they were quite angry with you.

Sui: Definitely. I really angered them with my involvement in that case.

In fact, in 2015 before the 709 crackdown, the Guangzhou Justice Bureau had already decided to revoke my license because of my involvement in Ding’s case as well as the Tang Jingling, Yuan Xinting, and Wang Qingying case, but the events of 709 interrupted the process. In 2018 during the hearing to revoke my license, the officials at Guangdong provincial Justice Department read a report filed by the Guangzhou municipal Justice Bureau in June 2015 right after the Tang/Yuan/Wang trial requesting that my license be revoked. 

When I was arrested during the 709 crackdown in 2015, the Guobao once said to me, “Getting arrested might not be a big loss for you, and when you are released, it’s possible that you could keep your license.” When my license was eventually revoked in 2018, I finally connected the dots and understood what the Guobao meant.

YC: Regarding the Tang/Yuan/Wang case, what was the main conflict between you and the security apparatus, that is to say, what were you doing that made them so unhappy?

Sui: One was revelation of Wang Qingying’s torture. I should mention that back then very few lawyers reported torture of their clients. Every time Wang was abused, including in the detention center, from fellow inmates, by the guards, and the beating he received when he was arrested… I reported them all to the outside world. At one point I took a picture of him in handcuffs and shackles. Later on, I saw Wang post this photo on Twitter, but some people still called him a liar, saying there was no way to take a picture like this.

Regarding lawyers taking photos while meeting clients, I should clarify: it is legal to photograph the accused, but many lawyers are in confusion on this point and think it’s not allowed. Indeed, the police will try to stop you from taking photos, especially in sensitive cases, where they’ll flat-out claim it’s against the law.

The three of them were first charged with provoking trouble, which was then changed to inciting subversion of state power. During the trial, I made a request that the judge not be a Party member, which seems to have enraged the authorities. Phoenix New Media had a commentator specifically issue a rebuttal, saying that some lawyers are so out of their minds that they even ask judges who are Party members to recuse themselves, things in that vein. In fact, I was not the first-ever lawyer to ask a Party member judge to recuse himself or herself, but this case was a big case, and it was a case particularly appropriate for such recuse, because the defendants were accused of inciting subversion of the CCP regime, it was a conflict of interest when a Party member was to judge it.

YC: Are there judges in China who are not members of the Communist Party?

Sui: The vast majority of them are.  

YC: You’d never seen Ding Jiaxi before, so please tell me, what was your impression of him from your client meetings and in court?

Sui: Ding is the same age as me. He studied at Beihang University, while I was at CUPSL, so really we were quite nearby, but we definitely never met in those early years. He did know a classmate of mine with whom I was quite close. He was a relatively successful commercial lawyer. He was very clear about his beliefs, very determined, and had established goals for himself, so I’m not surprised that he was arrested at this time. Because of the way I do things, personal positions, and some of my goals, I’m very different from Ding. He has a few ideas that I don’t agree with, but I understand that I must support him without hesitation, especially when he is in trouble.

I think he is the same as Guo Feixiong, Xu Zhiyong, and Tang Jingling, in that all of them are very idealistic and very dedicated. Any society needs a group of such warriors, whether you agree with them or not. Moreover, this bravery of theirs has ideals and values behind it. It’s very different from what some people call “bravery,” which is all about appearances, almost like posing for a photo. But these three genuinely gave up precious parts of their lives for their ideals and goals. This is very admirable. They’re among the most outstanding people.

4. Guo Feixiong

YC: Your becoming a human rights lawyer obviously has something to do with meeting Guo Feixiong. Call it fate, perhaps. Let’s start from how you met him, please.

Sui: I should say that before I met Guo Feixiong, I first met Wang Quanping (王全平), the lawyer from Jiangmen. He always dragged me along with him to sign this and advocate that, and he really was something of a pioneer among Guangdong’s new generation of lawyers. He was a former police officer. But at the time I really wasn’t very interested, even though I still supported him.

Shortly after, I met Guo Feixiong. In April 2012, when Ye Kuangzheng (叶匡政)[8] posted on Weibo requesting lawyers. He was doing that on behalf of Guo Feixiong, asking for lawyers to defend the five activists detained in Guangzhou. I said I would go. I started using Weibo in July or August of 2011, and met a lot of people that way, including Guo Feixiong. Meeting him in person, my initial impression honestly wasn’t that great, because he’d just been released from prison, perhaps half a year prior, and was still a bit traumatized. A lot of his behaviors were different from those of ordinary people. But he is a very adaptable person.

Normally I’d say that nobody I know reads as much as I do. But as soon as I talked with him, I realized that he was well-read and very knowledgeable. Even today he’s still one of the most well-read people I’ve met. So he had a lot of pointers for me, including books to read and ways to improve my writing.

There was basically no “childhood” period to my taking up human rights cases, or if there was, the process of getting started was pretty quick. Why? It’s largely because I met Guo Feixiong. Because we’d talked a lot about these things, about how to handle cases. He’s someone with academic interests, as am I, so we have a lot we can talk about. As for his experience, even though he isn’t a lawyer by training, he really is a legal expert, and a lot of the things we talked about were very useful to me. Basically, I didn’t have to figure it all out from scratch, to fumble around, so I could grasp everything quickly. My relationship with Guo Feixiong has always been that of both a student and a friend. He played a huge role in getting me started as a human rights lawyer.

Guo Feixiong in 2013.

YC: Guo Feixiong was arrested in 2013. Did you represent him in court?

Sui: Yes, Lin Qilei (蔺其磊) and I were his first defense attorneys. Because of his irreplaceable role and value in the Chinese human rights movement, and the connection I have to Guo, there was hardly another person better suited to represent him. Everyone has his own shortcomings, whatever differences we have, there is no denying of his importance. Because someone like him is very rare. In a society like China’s, he is a man of rare bravery and talent. Many people in this community are talented, but they’re timid; others are brave, but they aren’t well-educated. But he stands out in both regards. There are few like him among us.

He studied philosophy, and to be honest, I don’t like his style of writing very much. But it doesn’t matter, he just has a different writing style. I largely agree with many of his views. For example, I very much concurred with his ideas on the relationship between reform and revolution, and found it very insightful. But on the other hand, he’s also a resourceful doer. I think such a person belongs to the true elite of the country. Because objectively speaking, I think that while most of the elites are in the establishment, and there are still quite a number of elites among the people, I think Guo must be considered an elite among elites. There is no doubt about this.

There’s a small anecdote I haven’t talked about before. One year, after Guo had been detained for a couple years, I got a call from a man saying that he had just been released from the Tianhe Detention Center. The man said he did time for theft and had been held in the same cell with Guo Feixiong. Later I invited him for a chat at McDonald’s. He had memorized what Guo wanted him to tell me. At that time, I was very moved when I heard it, because that person had no education, yet he memorized Guo Feixiong’s words.

Sui Muqing wearing a “Free Guo Feixiong” T-shirt.

YC: What did he say?

Sui: I don’t remember the content, and it doesn’t matter. The key point is that a person with no education could memorize something and remember it for such a long time. I thanked him sincerely, and do you know what he said? He said, “Every one of us wants to do something for him, we really admire him. He dares to do what we dare not do. He defends our rights in the detention center. Because of his presence, many rules in the detention center began to change.”

This is amazing. Only in this way can we see a person’s strength, especially when you consider how frequently his cellmates are changed.

As far as I know, some others have done similar things. Liu Shaoming (刘少明)[9] told of this, as did Chen Yunfei (陈云飞)[10]; when Chen was locked up, he staged resistance too. But Guo Feixiong could be so successful that everyone who spent time with him became devoted to him. I know hardly anyone else like that.

Chen Yunfei in Xinjin detention center, Sichuan, in 2017. Photo taken by Sui Muqing.

YC: Guo Feixiong indeed helped pioneer the use of legal channels in the rights defense movement. Where is he recuperating now?

Sui: Yes, after he was released, some friends and I went and did the equivalent of the work that the police ought to do, that is, carry out some “stability maintenance” for him. I hope he can rest well for two years, or at least not to participate in public affairs and discourse too much. He’s onboard too and can accept our opinion. He is not a stubborn person. But we also know that human nature is difficult to change. He will try his best to lay low, but for some important things, he will still come out to speak.

There are many people in this circle who were very flashy with their activities at first, but once they encountered some real setbacks and losses, they immediately shied away. Guo’s style is not flashy. He’s very pragmatic, but very tough. I’m honestly not sure where he is now, it’s been a long time since I was able to reach him. And he’s reluctant to disclose his precise location, probably only very few people know.

YC: How is his health? He’s been through a lot.

Sui: He’s definitely not doing that well, but I feel that he was born strong. It’s not a stretch to imagine that someone without his strength would be dead by now. He’s probably suffering from a lot of minor issues.

5. Representing human rights cases

YC: From your resume, I can tell you are a “high-intensity” human rights lawyer. What does that mean? You took on a new case almost every month, starting in April 2012 until the 709 crackdown, when you were interrupted for nearly a year, then resumed work in June 2016, continuing until early 2018 when your license was revoked permanently, you had new cases on a monthly basis. And as we know, a case doesn’t last only one month that is to say that at any given moment, you have several human rights cases on your hands, hence “high-intensity.” Obviously we can’t go over every one of them in detail, so I’d like to ask you to give an overview of your career as a human rights lawyer. First, as we just mentioned, you’d been a lawyer for nearly 20 years, and over a decade if we just count the years in Guangzhou, before you became a human rights lawyer. How would you compare these two phases in your career? Or is there not much point in asking this?

Sui: Yes, it’s a meaningful question.

Regarding the high intensity of human rights cases, I did review them myself later. Over the years, I may have handled about 50 cases, which is indeed a lot, but in fact, I declined even more because there were too many requests. Since my license was revoked, I’ve gotten healthier. Before that, because of poor rest, I gained weight, and now I’m slowly losing weight. Liu Zhengqing (刘正清)[11] also had the same problem. I repeatedly said that I needed to take a break, but I couldn’t help it. Now that my license is revoked, my livelihood immediately became a problem. It was a big mistake for me not to have done some money-making cases in those years.

Being a human rights lawyer is very different from working as a business attorney. Before I became a human rights lawyer, I was not commercially successful like some people imagine. I made enough to put food on the table, but it was very tough.

I want to say that I am very grateful for my experiences as a human rights lawyer. It liberated me, only then did I realize you could lawyer this way. And later, every time I showed up in the courtroom, I felt the task becoming more and more in control and myself becoming more at ease. What was it? Setting myself free.

YC: That must be a terrific feeling.

Sui: Actually, I was disbarred when I felt I was at my best as a lawyer. I have found that once you liberate yourself, your performance may also receive a massive boost. Once there was a lawyer who went to a hearing with me. At first his argumentation was terrible, but on the last day, it was like he had become a different person, he was extremely eloquent. I guess some of my influence rubbed off on him, and he became more confident. Maybe he had released his inner potential.

So in fact, for me personally, I’m grateful for my experience as a human rights lawyer, though for which I’ve paid a price. I have suffered loss, but I gained more, because it set me free, and I experienced myself because of it. That is, from then on I have had a different life experience, and very clearly it offered me something far more precious than the directionless career of my past.

YC: Finding yourself is the best experience one can have, perhaps the most fundamental experience in life. I see that a lot of human rights cases, in a country like China, are unsuccessful. That is, no matter how well you defend them, the client will still be sentenced. Does this impact your sense of accomplishment?

Sui: These so-called failures of result are normal for defense attorneys in such human rights cases, because these cases are simultaneously legal cases and political cases. As a Chinese lawyer, if you want to see the same results as your counterparts in Europe, America, or Hong Kong, that is impossible, a fantasy.

Therefore a Chinese human rights lawyer has to define his or her role clearly. What is your role? What does a human rights lawyer aim to achieve? First, you must defend the client the best you can when he is incarcerated, you must defend his rights to the greatest extent possible. The idea is to help his conditions under persecution a little, to alleviate the harm done to him, this is where the lawyers can be effective, it’s one aspect. Another aspect is bringing the truth of the case to light. Instead of just making complaints to the authorities, we also want to inform society about the truth of the case. Additionally, if the client is a man with a cause, or let’s say he’s someone like Guo Feixiong, Xu Zhiyong, or Tang Jingling, people who have sacrificed their self-interest, what else do you do? You help boost their good reputation.

Falun Gong practitioners place emphasis on “clarifying the truth.” They know that engaging lawyers doesn’t get them very far in terms of legal end results, or the results are miniscule. Sometimes we do see some success. But the importance of revealing the truth is something Falun Gong is very cognizant of. In fact, we are also revealing the truth, because our clients are unable to, they must rely on the lawyers to speak the truth for them. Of course, the authorities dismiss this truth-clarification as hype, but it’s exposing the truth. Why did I write? Why did I take pictures of my clients? Let’s say the client is a rapist, why should I take a picture of him? He’s shameful enough. When I take a picture of a political prisoner and send it out, it gives him recognition. I want my clients to be recognized, they are making sacrifices for society and the nation. This is why human rights lawyers are valuable.

Furthermore, as a human rights lawyer, you have to criticize and rebuke. You can also make recommendations. What we’re doing isn’t humbly offering advice, it’s more like petitioning the authorities, making demands. For example, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, shouldn’t you amend this law? Or making demands at various levels of government: Can you change this or that? Can you make this a little better? This is a reformist approach that can be used.

YC: The law has always been a sham under one-party rule. Among all your clients and human rights victims, which of them has committed a crime? Against such a backdrop, discussions about the right concept of law, what the law is, what the soul of the law is—isn’t it a little like, to give a bad analogy, a eunuch talking about sex?

Sui: Being a human rights lawyer in China is a bit similar to Don Quixote’s battling with the windmills, but precisely because the reality in China is like this, it’s even more necessary to talk about it, because in China, the law basically—whether intentionally or unintentionally—obscures the spirit of justice, it lacks this universal value. If I were in the United States or Hong Kong, I wouldn’t discuss these issues, because they are reflected in many details. But in China, it’s particularly necessary to talk about natural law and natural justice. I have always believed in the idea of the so-called middle road, that is, a kind of principled realism. But in China, realism is divorced from principles, or it could be said that the moral bottom line is too low, so there are huge problems in applying the law. As a matter of fact, I have always been against China’s legal positivism. Positivism has run amok, that is, the concept of justice that underpins the law has been totally ignored. As you know, legal education in China holds that the law is an implement of the ruling class, this is the approach they take. But the core of law, the issue of justice, is something that many lawyers ignore. This problem is extremely severe in mainland China.

In general I’m against deliberately expressing my political opinions and giving myself a political label, but if there is a political issue, I don’t flinch from it, I will make myself heard. For example, if a case is a case of political persecution, I will tell you this is political persecution.

YC: Things seem to be going from bad to worse. For example, during the New Citizens Movement, family members could still receive notifications about the case within a period as prescribed by law, and lawyers could still meet their clients. Now things are completely opaque, with neither notices sent nor meetings with attorneys allowed. They force political detainees to dismiss their lawyers and then hold them for a long time without trial. What has your experience been like these years?

Sui: Looking at China’s present situation, I think that the country may be doomed to follow the historical cycle [of dynastic change], similar to the fate of the old Qing empire. This is a sobering thought, because the collapse of a dynasty always involves a period of chaos. The damage wrought to the people and society in this process is too great. Ideally, things would improve normally, but I don’t see much hope for that anymore.

Tocqueville said in The Old Regime and the Revolution that the rulers reach its moment of greatest peril when it attempts reforms. Probably this line of his has our current authorities sacred to death. But trying to clamp down on dissent may be even more dangerous. Why is there this downward cycle of increasing repression and political regression? Because the fall of the Soviet and Eastern European communist regimes had a great impact on the Chinese authorities. Various establishment intellectuals, studying the lessons from various failed regimes backward and forward, have arrived at some strange conclusions. This includes, for instance, Beijing’s constant attempts to evict the “low-end” population and make the city smaller by removing people. People were also being expelled from Paris before the French Revolution, as too many people posed a threat to the regime.

I generally don’t like to talk about notions of historical inevitability. For example, were it not the current government, but a more open government, then China’s reforms would be better than Vietnam for all we know. Sometimes you get better luck when you get a certain leader, for example, the Soviet Union got set on a path with better opportunities because they had a Gorbachev, when the social foundation for change was ready. 

6. 709, five years on

YC: Amidst the events of 709, you were the only lawyer in Guangdong who was arrested and put under “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL). Like the other lawyers detained in connection with 709, you suffered torture. It’s been five years since then. Looking at those events now, what do you want to say the most?

Sui: 709 was a landmark event. Lawyers are considered partially in the establishment. Such a large-scale arrest of human rights lawyers by the authorities as though they were class enemies was really an extraordinary move. This reflected the new normal that society had entered, that the mass suppression of the people had reached a new height.

YC: Why did they come down so hard on the human rights lawyers?

Sui: The authorities keep lawyers under particularly close watch. Beginning roughly in 2014, after the authorities carried out a major crackdown, there was a long period during which lawyers were the only group willing to speak out, to the point that for one stretch, my impression was that among grass-roots activists, everyone was asking lawyers to take the lead, act as the vanguard, and so on. I said, “What are you thinking?” Being saviors and the vanguard isn’t the lawyer’s role. Everyone has his own take on it, some lawyers like doing this kind of thing, and I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not that kind of person.

Lawyers are actually a relatively conservative and restrained group both in terms of their views and their role in social action. That the authorities would come down with such a heavy hand on this group, I didn’t expect it myself, to be honest. They clearly see us as a priority. I talked to Wang Yu (王宇)[12] and others; nobody thought that we were that important, we weren’t powerful. Maybe we lacked a clear understanding of our own role and value; we ourselves certainly didn’t think too much about it.

There were also human rights lawyers in Eastern Europe, and there were “Formosa lawyers” in Taiwan, which may have factored into the Chinese authorities’ fear.

Sui Muqing and his two attorneys walking into the Guangdong provincial Justice Department for his license revocation hearing. SWAT was deployed outside.

YC: You were disbarred in early 2018. Permanent revocation of license (吊销执照)[13] is the worst punishment for lawyers, which means you are prohibited for life from being a lawyer in China. After 709, the authorities may also feel that it is not cost-effective to catch people, so they disbar you one after the other. I have tried in many ways to call attention to the seriousness of this problem, but the international community is like this: when you talk about torture, the reaction is strong, but when you talk who is forbidden to leave the country or whose lawyer’s license is revoked, their response is subdued. But I have always talked about this issue. I said that a large number of human rights lawyers have their licenses suspended or revoked. This problem is very serious.

Sui: Yes. According to my cursory studies, the situation Chinese human rights lawyers are in is probably worse than that of South Korea and Taiwan during their eras of authoritarian rule. At that time, at least lawyers in Taiwan did not seem to have been arrested for practicing, nor had their licenses revoked. I don’t know South Korea that much, but at least from how things are depicted in the movie The Defender, you certainly feel that it was less harsh than China today.

YC: Have you thought about why the authorities treated you in particular the way they did?

Sui: I analyzed the problem with some friends. I suspect that the authorities have a big data ranking, determined by things like the content of your posts. After I was released at the end of 2015, I started handling cases again in June 2016, taking on a lot of new work. What’s important is not how many cases you take, nor which clients you represent, but how you do it. For example, if you do not post anything online about this case, there won’t actually be any problem. Even if you speak eloquently in the court, there is no problem, even confrontations are okay as long as they are behind closed doors. What is most taboo for the authorities? To voice things publicly, or publish writings. Therefore, in addition to the number of human rights cases handled, how you handle them is especially important. I think I have been handling human rights cases in accordance with the standard.

First page of Guangdong provincial Justice Department’s decision to permanently revoke Sui Muqing’s license.

The Guangdong provincial Justice Department (广东省司法厅) gave two reasons for revoking my license. One was the Ding Jiaxi trial in 2013, and the other is the case of Chen Yunfei, of whom I took photos. Because I took a photo on the first day and posted it, they were very vigilant the next day. I took another photo the next day and was caught. They were even preparing criminal detention for me. If there was no timely solidarity on the internet at that time, I would definitely have been detained. These things are particularly sensitive for the authorities, because you know, everyone knows that an authoritarian closed society is maintained by lies and violence. What are human rights lawyers actually doing? Their work is debunking the lies. Once the lies are revealed, the power of violence is weakened accordingly.

YC: I interviewed Chang Ping (长平)[14] not long ago. He remarked that behind lies lies violence. What he means is that lies can be spoken outright and unimpeded, because they are supported by violence; people know that it is a lie, and they have to accept it or even support it, because if you don’t, violence will befall you.

Sui: That is well-said. Why do officials dare to lie publicly? Many lies, everyone knows it is a lie at a glance, but because he has a gun in his hand, others dare not call him out. If they dare to say he’s lying, they will arrest you. If everyone debates openly and fairly, this kind of lie can’t stand up to scrutiny, so the lie must be supported by violence. But once a lie is exposed, it also has a weakening effect on the utility of violence. For example, public opinion can cause some cases to be dealt with more fairly, which weakens the threat of violence. After all, there are still certain rules in this world. On the surface, China also has the so-called socialist values, freedom, and democracy and so on.

YC: A total of 24 words.

Sui: Right. It must pay lip service to these things, just as every person, no matter how evil, must also admit that kindness is good.

YC: What are your classmates of the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPSL) doing?

Sui: Most of them went into public security, the procuratorates, or courts, but quite a few later became lawyers. In the past, there was a saying that among those who graduated from the law departments, half were arrested and the other half were the ones doing the arresting. Just like that female prosecutor who I said was very similar to Yao Ning, she was one of my fellow alumni, but I didn’t know it back then.

Some alumni of the CUPSL have become directors of the provincial high courts. When people like us are arrested, they are the ones overseeing our trials. But the feeling is like, our 1980s generation that studied at CUPSL was influenced by the liberal zeitgeist, so at least among my former classmates and alumni group, they will not ostracize me. My high school classmates shunned me and kicked me out of their WeChat group, however. But you shouldn’t think that they are uneducated, since the high school I went to were the so-called key high schools, and almost everyone there went to college.

In the 1980s, the seeds of freedom were sown in the minds of many people, the only question was how many of them sprouted and bore fruit. That was a time that left a huge impression.

7. Recent developments

YC: Please describe your present situation.

Sui: I should say that I have been bereft of income since being disbarred. I’ve also had some health problems for a long time prior, so after losing my license I’ve become a lot idler. Being disbarred means that it’s become very troublesome to take or help someone handle their case, or even impossible; not to mention the number of clients looking to engage you is far smaller. It’s tricky looking for ways they can pay you, and sometimes you can’t get paid. So I’ve been basically unable to consider taking cases. For a while I tried writing posts online, but my WeChat account was quickly blocked.

YC: They revoked your license and then silenced you. What are your future plans?

Sui: I’ve been reading nonstop, and in future, on the one hand I think, whether or not I can post articles and be read by others, I still want to write something. Also, if there are some public interest events, I should take part. For example, if there are suitable cases, I should get involved. Like this, reading, writing, and taking part in cases, that’s about the most I can do, because I can’t leave the country. Originally, I had thought…

YC: Yes, that’s what I’d wanted to ask just now. You still can’t travel abroad?

Sui: Correct, it’s been six years now since an exit ban was imposed on me in 2014. Among the practicing human rights lawyers, I’m probably the one with the longest exit ban, because most of the lawyers I know were blocked from leaving China after 709 [in 2015]. I have always wanted to study abroad, because I have always been interested in seeing how the Anglo-American system of common law works in practice in Hong Kong and in other countries. I think that if I could study abroad, I would get a chance to see it. It would satisfy my curiosity on the one hand, on the other hand it could be useful for China’s political transition in the future. But I don’t have the opportunity.

YC: Now that you’ve been disbarred, you can’t handle cases. Why do they still want to keep you from leaving China?

Sui: I don’t know. I have also talked to the police many times about this issue. I am willing to make compromises, but maybe they do not believe me. The Guangdong police have indicated that only Beijing can make a decision on my ability to travel.

YC: I remembered a question I wanted to ask. During the sham “Global Lawyers Forum” held last December, the then British Chair of the Bar Richard Atkins met you in Guangzhou. What was it like when he met you? How was your conversation?

Sui: The British Consulate contacted me at the time and said that Mr. Richard Atkins wanted to meet me. I briefly introduced the current situation of some Chinese lawyers. I said that since you are participating in this kind of meeting, if possible, I hope you would speak for us to the best of your ability.

The venue [of the Global Lawyers Forum] was a very high class hotel in Guangzhou. The area was closed off, and a lot of police were deployed. I was unable to get close at all. For any uninvited lawyer who wanted to attend the forum, there was no way you could get in. This Lawyers Forum was too obviously intended to whitewash the regime. I drove to a place near the forum, and when Atkins came out, we sat down for a talk in a small neighborhood restaurant.

I have met a lot of Europeans and Americans over the years, and honestly I don’t expect much from them. One reason is the gulf in information, and another is that the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda has been quite successful. Many foreigners do not understand China. Moreover, ordinary people in Europe and the United States, unless they are particularly concerned about international politics, do not understand China, which I think is only normal.


[1] Pu Zhiqiang is a prominent human rights lawyer. 

[2] Guo Feixiong is a pioneer of the rights defense movement that arose in the early 2000s. He was imprisoned from 2006 to 2011 and again from 2013 to 2019.  

[3] Ge Wenxiu is a human rights lawyer in Guangzhou.

[4] Tang Jingling is a human rights lawyer in Guangzhou. He was disbarred in 2005 for his role in helping Taishi villagers remove corrupt local officials. He was imprisoned from 2014 to 2019 for “inciting subversion of state power.”

[5] Ding Jiaxi is a commercial lawyer-turned-activist and a leader of the New Citizens Movement. He was jailed from 2013 to 2016. He was again detained on December 26, 2019 and placed under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL). Visit China Change’s interview: From a Successful Lawyer to a Civil Rights Activist — An Exclusive Interview With Ding Jiaxi.

[6] Li Wei is a Beijing activist and a New Citizens Movement detainees. He and Ding Jiaxi were tried together in the same case.

[7] Zhang Keke is a human rights lawyer in Wuhan, Hubei Province.

[8] Ye Kuangzheng is a Beijing-based poet and commentator. 

[9] Liu Xiaoming was a labor activist incarcerated from 2015 to 2019.

[10] Chen Yunfei is a 1989er and a human rights activist imprisoned from 2015 to 2019. 

[11] Liu Zhengqing is a human rights lawyer in Guangzhou. He was permanently disbarred in January 2019.

[12] Wang Yu was the first lawyer to be detained during the 709 crackdown on July 9, 2015.

[13] There are two types of disbarment in China. “Diaoxiao” (吊销) is permanent, while “zhuxiao” (注销) is when a lawyer is removed from the Justice Bureau’s list of active lawyers, but can be reactivated by the Justice Bureau.

[14] Chang Ping was the former news director at the Southern Weekly in Guangzhou. Visit China Change’s 2016 interview: The Fate of Press Freedom in China’s Era of ‘Reform and Opening up’:  An Interview With Chang Ping.

Yaxue Cao is the editor of this site. Follow her (@YaxueCao) and China Change (@ChinaChange_org) on Twitter.

One response to “Interviewing Sui Muqing: As a Human Rights Lawyer, I’ve Sacrificed a Lot, But Gained Even More”

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