Chinese Lawyers’ ‘Original Sin’ — Speech by Lawyer Li Fangping on the 6th China Human Rights Lawyers Day

Li Fangping, July 9, 2022

Li Fangping in 2014.

Li Fangping started practicing law in China in the mid-1990s, first in Jiangxi and then in Beijing. Over the years since the onset of the rights defense movement in the early 2000s, he has been one of the leading human rights lawyers and has defensed clients in nearly all types of human rights and public interest cases, including political prisoners, activists, rights defenders, victims of food contamination, victims of workplace discrimination, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, and Tibetan Buddha Buramna Rimpoche. I was in a messaging group with Mr. Li a few years ago and remembered to this day what he once said there: “The police have visited my parents in Jiangxi more times than I have.” He and his family recently arrived in the U.S. via Hong Kong. — Yaxue Cao

Ladies and gentlemen, guests and viewers, it is an honor to take part in this year’s Human Rights Lawyers Day. As a Chinese lawyer of nearly 30 years, I am pleased to share with you the evolution of the legal scene in contemporary China, and discuss the future of China’s human rights lawyers.

By nature, the bar is a system designed to respect rule of law, limit government power, and protect civil rights. Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the new regime was antagonistically disposed to lawyers who continued to practice as they had during the republican era. In December 1950, the Ministry of Justice announced the termination of the old lawyer system. The 1954 Constitution stipulated the right of defendants to legal defense, setting up the new regime’s own lawyer system.

However, less than three years later, the “Anti-Rightist Movement” of 1957 once again threatened China’s lawyers with full-scale crackdown.

According to a dataset published by the All China Lawyers Association, in 1957, at least 30 percent of lawyers were classified as “rightists,” perhaps the highest percentage of any profession.

The reasons for so many lawyers being criticized as rightists can be broadly summarized as follows:

First, they were accused of attacking the judicial system and judicial organs of the “people’s regime”; second, their ideas that lawyers are supra-class and independent was a refusal to recognize that lawyers are part of the apparatus of the “people’s dictatorship”; third, they insisted on presumption of innocence; and fourth, they confronted and opposed the people’s procuratorate.

So it’s clear that, from the beginning of the PRC’s establishment, the authorities regarded lawyers with hostility, whether lawyers from the republican era or those who began practicing under the new regime.

In 1979, with the launching of “reform and opening,” China re-introduced the bar, the nation’s lawyers entered this new era bearing an “original sin.”

First and foremost, the reintroduction of the lawyer profession was a matter of consensus among the authorities following 30 years of social disorder.

Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen, leading officials in the Communist Party who had both been severely persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, pointed out that, to prevent such a calamity from happening again, China needed to “improve the socialist rule of law.” In 1980, Deng Xiaoping took this further, saying, “The workforce of lawyers needs to be expanded; we have to implement rule of law.”

While rebuilding the bar, China promulgated and implemented the Criminal Law and the Criminal Procedure Law, beginning a process of normalized court defense.

But in 1983, China launched a “Strike Hard against Crime” campaign, dealing the first major blow to court defense by attorney. The “Strike Hard” campaign required the legal system to crack down on crimes fast and hard, overwhelmed the intermediate courts, and resulted in the Supreme People’s Court to delegate the power of capital punishment to the lower courts.

My maternal uncle worked as a lawyer at the local government’s legal advisory office, and during the “Strike Hard” campaign, he was transferred to an intermediate court to be a judge to participate in the campaign.

This “strike hard” campaign model ended up becoming a perennial occurrence, causing Chinese lawyers great difficulties in defending their clients.

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour remarks brought some thaw to the frigid state of the society in post-1989. The legal profession joined the overall society with market-oriented reforms. Prior to that, lawyers were state employees; in the 1990s, lawyers transitioned into partnership law firms, gradually gaining more autonomy.

Over the decade of 1990s, China promulgated the Administrative Procedure Law and the Civil Procedure Law. In 1996, the Criminal Procedure Law was implemented, which abolished the detention and review system, and allowed lawyers to defend their clients during the investigation phase.

In October 1998, the Chinese government signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In March 1999, the term “governing the country according to law” (“依法治国”) was enshrined in the PRC Constitution. Exchanges with the international legal community were ushered in as Sino-Western relations improved, bringing with them the concepts of rule of law and human rights from the developed countries. These concepts were then introduced into China’s criminal legislation. In April 1999, China applied to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and in 2001, China joined the WTO.

Because of reform at home and external opening, because of the calls to integrate China with the world, the call for rule of law also became louder. Legal education was greatly expanded, the number of lawyers rose substantially, and the whole society regained vitality.

Entering the 21st century, the internet arrived in Chinese cities, offering citizens unprecedented access to information and communication. Market-oriented media outlets had grown in number and influence.

In the spring of 2003, SARS swept across China, popularizing awareness of public health issues. The “Sun Zhigang Incident” in February 2003 activated people’s awareness of civil rights, and legal practitioners began regularly getting involved in high-profile public affairs.

Soon after the new leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took office, it abolished the regulation on “Custody and Repatriation of Urban Homeless Beggars”. 

Following the success of the Beijing Olympic bid, in order to improve the regime’s image at home and abroad, the authorities in March 2004 wrote the line “the state respects and protects human rights” into the Constitution. On April 5, 2007, the State Council promulgated and implemented the Regulations on the Disclosure of Government Information.

In those years, newly emerged rights lawyers participated in many public events to defend people whose rights had been violated, such as villagers in the recall of village officials in Taishi Village, Guangdong; the private entrepreneurs in Northern Shaanxi Oilfield lawsuits; victims of brutal abortion in Linyi, Shandong; victims of the melamine-tainited milk powder; the campaign to directly elect the Beijing Lawyers Association; the Deng Yujiao case; the Southern Weekly incident; Hepatitis B anti-discrimination campaign; the case of the three netizens of Fujian; Ai Weiwei’s tax case; the abolition of the re-education through labor system; campaign for equal access to education for migrant children, and the like.

It is clear that the emergence of human rights lawyers during this period was neither a matter of coincidence, nor an import from overseas. It was a self-driven product of the times, brought about by legislative development, growing awareness about civil rights, implementation of more laws, and the state’s promise to protect human rights by law.

But ever since the beginning, the government has kept guard against, and suppressed, lawyers who defend human rights. During the “Jasmine” arrests in 2011, more than a dozen rights lawyers across the country, including myself, were forcibly disappeared and subjected to torture.

In 2012, the director of the Institute of U.S. Studies, under the state-run China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, published an article in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, in which rights defense lawyers were singled out as the primary force endangering China’s social stability.

In order to prevent rights lawyers from growing in number, the Beijing Municipal Justice Bureau expressly set prohibitive bureaucratic thresholds to prevent lawyers from other parts of the country from practicing in the capital.

Despite the variety of measures taken to guide public opinion and control legal practitioners, including disappearance and torture, human rights lawyers continued their activities, and more lawyers joined their ranks to defend clients in human rights cases.

Since 2013, however, all spheres of society have been subject to intensifying state control and surveillance, including the media, higher education, and online speech.

It was in such a political environment that the “709 crackdown” unfolded; it amounted to a “Strike Hard” campaign against lawyers, but harsher and more brutal.

Immediately after 709, a large number of lawyers handling various human rights cases had their licenses revoked. Their everyday freedom of movement, including the freedom to travel outside China, was restricted.

Examining the 709 trials, you will see that the charges rolled out against human rights lawyers were much the same as the charges levied against lawyers during the Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957, with the addition of “acting as proxies of foreign forces.” In essence, nothing has changed since the beginning of communist rule.

Following the 709 incident, the regime continues to tighten control across the society. Starting in 2017, the authorities have issued strict regulations to manage and crack down on various sectors, from CCP cadres’ online behavior and that of Chinese netizens generally, to school libraries and in the entertainment industry. This process continues to this day.

But we must not lose sight of the fact that more Chinese citizens are waking up to defend their rights, despite the draconian state repression that blankets society. For example, during the Shanghai lockdown, residents made loud and clear calls for liberty, rights, and the rule of law. We are witnessing not only a growing awareness of rights among people from all walks of life, but also countless people taking action to defend their rights.

On the surface, the civil society in China today seems to have been beaten down and scattered, but just like a prairie fire cannot destroy the grass, it will grow back stronger when the spring breeze comes.

Thank you.

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