Dozens of Chinese lawyers have written to the country's parliament calling for an end to legal requirements that they join their professional association, amid an ongoing crackdown on the embattled legal profession.
The letter calls for the repeal of Clause 15 of China's Lawyers' Law, in a gesture of protest at the government-backed lawyers' association that they say has been instrumental in putting heavy political pressure on its members.
"This clause seriously contravenes Clause 35 of the Constitution [of the People's Republic of China], and the right to freedom of association," the lawyers wrote, amid an ongoing crackdown on rights lawyers and their associates by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"The registration of the so-called All China Lawyers' Association (ACLA) [also] contravenes the law on social organizations, Clause 2, which states that they should be formed from the free association of Chinese citizens, and therefore was made in error and should be regarded as void," the letter said.
Yunnan-based rights lawyer Wang Longde, who is among nearly 50 signatories to the letter, said the document would be formally presented to the National People's Congress (NPC) by the end of the week.
"Right now we have more than 40 people who have signed, not quite 50," Wang said. "In two days' time, we will give a printed version of our opinion letter to the NPC standing committee."
'Things can't go on'
Wang is also among a group of five lawyers including Xue Zhanyi, Wang Ligan, Mao Xiaomin, and Li Tianlingwho have publicly resigned from the lawyers' association since March.
He said the five had resigned after failing to get their licenses renewed by the association in a process that recently became annual and mandatory.
"We issued a statement saying we were resigning from the association back in March, and we have since shared our opinions with the judicial authorities at municipal level in our local areas," Wang said.
"There are a few of us who haven't managed to get our licenses renewed in our annual review, and our local judicial authority has given us an authorization, so that our work is unaffected," he said.
"We think that if the government is serious about the rule of law, things can't go on as they are," Wang said.
Forced to join
Fellow lawyer Zhang Keke, who engaged in a brief hunger strike last year in protest over his treatment at the hands of the Wuhan branch of the ACLA, said the association should exist to protect the interests of lawyers, not to put them in straitjacket.
"Lawyers are protesting that they are forced to join the ACLA, and yet there is no mechanism for leaving," Zhang said.
"The ACLA should be an organization of freely associating individuals, run by lawyers, but in reality it's run by the judicial departments of government," he said. "It has no independent status."
"This means that it can't stand up for lawyers and their interests; it is on the government's side."
According to the Hong Kong-based Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, at least 288 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists, and family members have recently been detained, questioned by police, forbidden to leave the country, held under residential surveillance, or are simply missing.
While 255 have since been released, the rest remain under some form of surveillance or criminal detention in a crackdown that began with the detention of Beijing-based rights lawyer Wang Yu and her colleagues at the Fengrui law firm on the night of July 9-10, it said.
According to former Chinese judge Zhong Jinhua, who arrived last month in the United States along with his family, the crackdown hasn't only affected lawyers who take politically sensitive human rights cases, but the entire legal profession.
The majority of lawyers are now living in fear of enforced "chats" with China's state security police, Zhong told RFA in recent interview.
Held in secret
Wang Yu's lawyer Wen Donghai said on Tuesday that she is still being held under "residential surveillance" at an undisclosed location, and has been denied permission to see her legal team.
"They are definitely out of line to be doing this, according to our analysis, because if she was back in Beijing, they would have to hold her in her own home [to qualify as residential surveillance]," Wen told RFA.
"But they are in Tianjin, where she has no home, and so they are able to hold her in a secret location."
Repeated calls to the Hexi district state prosecution office in Tianjin, which is believed to be overseeing Wang Yu's case, rang unanswered during office hours on Wednesday.
China’s tightly controlled state media has accused the Fengrui lawyers of “troublemaking” and seeking to incite mass incidents by publicizing cases where they defend some of the most vulnerable groups in society.
Wang is well-known in China's human rights community, with her clients including jailed moderate ethnic Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and outspoken rights activist Cao Shunli, who died after being denied medical treatment in detention.
She has also defended members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual group, as well as forced evictees and petitioners seeking to protect their rights and those of women and children, as well as the rights to freedom of religion, housing, and expression.
Wang has frequently been harassed, threatened, searched, and physically assaulted by police since she began to take on rights abuse cases in 2011.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.
Today’s RFA Burmese TV Program