Dozens of Chinese lawyers have been detained or interrogated over recent days in what seems to be a co-ordinated roundup.
The crackdown has targeted those who take on cases involving free speech, human rights and abuses of power, presenting many of them as motivated by greed and a reckless disregard for social order.
A statement from the Ministry of Public Security said suspects included lawyers, social media celebrities and petitioners but that lawyers were the core.
It accused a group led by the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm, of illegally hiring protesters and swaying court decisions in the name of “defending justice and public interests.”
It went on to accuse the group of organising more than 40 controversial incidents and severely disrupting public order. It gave an example in which it had allegedly presented a legitimate police shooting at a railway station as a murder conspiracy.
Since last Thursday at least six lawyers have been detained and more than 50 taken in for questioning by police in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
It is not clear how many are still in custody. Some of those questioned had signed a letter asking authorities to release Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer who vanished from her home last week and is now believed to be in detention.
Ms Wang worked for the Fengrui law firm. Another Fengrui lawyer, Zhou Shifeng, disappeared the day after one of his clients was released last week. State media have confirmed that six people including Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng are in criminal detention for “seriously violating the law”. The People’s Daily said Mr Zhou was suspected of serious crimes.
It also attacked another employee of the firm, online activist Wu Gan, saying he had exploited his fame and exaggerated sensitive incidents for profit. Mr Wu has been in detention since May and earlier this month was charged with “inciting subversion”. The People’s Daily denounced what it called a “major criminal organisation” which “seriously disturbed social order”.
Last year saw reforms designed to make courts less corrupt and less embedded in local politics. There were promises to exclude tainted evidence, torture and coercion. But at the same time, President Xi said the rule of law would be “a knife whose handle was in the hands of the party and the people”.
Any campaign to promote the rule of law which thinks lawyers are part of the problem rather the solution is in trouble. But this is the direction of travel in China. Groups that cannot be co-opted become pariahs. And lawyers who assert a set of values outside the narrowing space allotted to them by the state are no exception.
There would be no constitutionalism, judicial independence or separation of powers. And clearly no lawyers or law firms who put their client’s interests ahead of those of the party.
“Such an unprecedented nationwide crackdown can only have been sanctioned from within the central government,” said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International. “This coordinated attack on lawyers makes a mockery of President Xi Jinping’s claims to promote the rule of law.”
Xi Jinping came to power nearly three years ago vowing to tackle corruption and promote judicial fairness. But now lawyers are in police sights, with the state news agency Xinhua saying “the detainees are suspected of illegally organizing paid protests, hyping public sentiment and fabricating rumours on the Internet to sway court decisions”.
The US State Department condemned the detentions saying: “Over the last few days we have noted with growing alarm reports that Chinese public security forces have systematically detained individuals who share the common attribute of peacefully defending the rights of others, including those who lawfully challenge official policies.”
It’s not just lawyers. In the name of security, and the need to protect against hostile foreign forces, the overall climate for civil society is worsening, with churches, women’s rights groups and labour activists all under attack. The internet faces ever closer supervision and communist party cells are being established in high profile private companies.
Any discussion of universal or alternative values has become taboo, a measure of the Party’s sense of its own fragility. For a party which fears its own overthrow, any group, any idea, any individual, could become, in the words of Chairman Mao, “the spark that lights the prairie fire”.
To protect the party against such sparks, and inoculate the public against contending narratives, President Xi has the “Chinese dream”, a catchall slogan to embrace a mix of national pride, pursuit of wealth and adherence to a special form of modernity in which love of country can equal love of the Communist Party.
It’s the logic of the Chinese Dream that drove many aspects of last week’s stock market intervention and which put graduating students at China’s top university under orders to chant the slogan “Revive A shares, benefit the people!”
No great surprise then that China’s parliament should have just passed a new security law which conflates the Communist Party’s monopoly on power with national security.
But a recent Freedom House report claims that despite heightened repression, fear is diminishing. “Activities that the authorities have invested tremendous resources in suppressing have continued and even expanded.”
I find that hard to judge. I also find it hard to predict the effect of the detentions and interrogations we’ve witnessed in recent days.
But there can be no doubt that the irony of all of this is not lost on the defence lawyers who are now sitting in cells hoping for a visit from their own defence lawyer.
For many years they tried to advance a “rule of law” agenda within the system and could have been forgiven for hoping that when President Xi declared his own determination to pursue the rule of law their cause might prosper.
Where do China’s lawyers go from here? And who will be the defence lawyer when so many of them are behind bars?
China says that by locking up lawyers it is defending the rule of law
SOME were taken from their homes in the middle of the night. Others had their offices raided, or were summoned to “take tea” at the local police station—a euphemism for being interrogated. According to Amnesty International, around 120 lawyers, as well as more than 50 support staff, family members and activists, have been rounded up across the country since the pre-dawn hours of July 9th. Many have been released, but as The Economist went to press at least 31 were still missing or were believed to remain in custody.
The round-up has been remarkable for its speed, geographic extent and the number of people targeted. Teng Biao, a Chinese lawyer and activist currently in America, says it includes nearly all of China’s civil-rights lawyers. They are a harassed lot at the best of times, but this is the most concerted police action against them since such lawyers began to emerge in the early 2000s as defenders of the legal rights of ordinary people in cases against the state. In the past few days state media have vilified them, describing them as rabble-rousers seeking “celebrity and money”.
The police have focused particular attention on Fengrui, a law firm in Beijing. It was set up in 2007 and is known for defending dissidents as well as suing on behalf of people forcibly evicted from their homes and victims of miscarried justice. The police have accused some Fengrui staff of being part of a “major criminal gang” whose members stirred up discontent about the government in more than 40 incidents of “public disorder” in the past three years. They cite the case of a “lawful” police shooting in the north-eastern province of Heilongjiang in May, which they accuse Fengrui’s lawyers of “hyping up” through social media and by organising a demonstration against it. Wang Yu, the first lawyer to disappear (her husband and 16-year-old son were taken too), worked on this case.
Civil-rights lawyers in China often publicise disputes because they do not trust the legal system. The judiciary is not independent, judges are often beholden to local interests and the law is not applied even-handedly. Popular sentiment can help to sway court decisions. Since taking office in 2012 Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has stressed the need for the “rule of law”, but has made it clear that he means something different: shoring up the party’s control, not holding it to account. Several years ago the party tolerated civil-rights lawyers. Now it treats them as seditious. Some of those detained recently were warned not to get involved in “sensitive” cases. Veiled threats were made to their families.
The sweep follows a particularly dispiriting few months for civil rights in China. Earlier this year five feminists were held for five weeks for campaigning against sexual harassment on public transport (several of their lawyers, who include Ms Wang, are among those interrogated in recent days). This month a bill was passed which could provide a legal basis for the government to define almost anything as a threat to national security. Finding a good lawyer in China may become harder.