China has extended a crackdown on its embattled legal profession in recent days, holding and questioning more than 100 public interest and human rights lawyers across the country by Monday, lawyers and rights activists said.
In addition to the confirmed detentions of five top attorneys with the Beijing-based public interest firm Fengrui, authorities in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chongqing, as well as smaller cities across China have moved in an unprecedented nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers, the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG) said in a statement posted to Google Docs.
“We have never seen such a huge detention operation before,” CHRLCG convenor Kit Chan told RFA. “If the government takes this sort of attitude to lawyers, regarding them as the enemy … then it will remove the legal system as an option, which goes against their claim to run the country by rule of law.”
“The methods they are using are all [in themselves] against the law,” Chan said.
Last week’s raid on the Fengrui public interest law firm in Beijing, in which rights lawyers Wang Yu, Zhou Shifeng, Huang Liqun, Liu Sixin and Wang Quanzhang had been accused by police of deliberately fomenting social unrest, was just the beginning of a much wider operation that has left the Chinese legal profession in a state of shock.
“This has caused a good deal of anger and a lot of fear,” rights lawyer Lu Zhoubin told RFA. “They detained them all in one fell swoop, and it is a time of great danger.”
The move comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party intensifies a clampdown on all forms of civil society, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in an apparent bid to cleanse Chinese of foreign influence.
Frequently singled out
Rights activists are frequently singled out for criticism in China’s tightly controlled state media for using social media to undermine social stability, and sometimes even national security.
Many who seek to help others defend their legal rights are accused of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” and sometimes the more serious national security offense of “incitement to subvert state power.”
Zhejiang rights lawyer Chen Zongyao said he received a summons for questioning on suspicion of “obstructing official duty” on Saturday.
“It was about the recent detentions of lawyers. They warned me not to post or retweet information about certain things,” Chen told RFA on Sunday. “They threatened me … saying that if I continued to retweet such things, they would target my son for rectification.”
“It was pretty scary, actually. Things have got pretty difficult here these last couple of days,” Chen said.
“The entire police force is detaining people right across the country, and it’s very serious,” he said. “They have also warned a lot of people, mainly about tweeting or retweeting [sensitive information].”
“And if threatening you doesn’t work, they threaten members of your family, to take it out on them.”
But Chen said the crackdown wouldn’t work.
“What we do is an archetypal process, and it’s not going to stop even if you stop us doing it.”
In the central province of Hunan, rights lawyer Wen Donghai said he had been called in for “a chat” with state security police, but had refused to go.
“I told them that they can’t just order me around, so they said they’d get a summons,” Wen said. “I said I’d wait for their summons, which requires some legal procedures … I think that they will take this further.”
He added: “I have totally lost any faith in the legal system. I think that China has already lost any sort of rule of law, and has already become a police state.”
Taken in for questioning
Among those taken for questioning in recent days and then released include Sichuan-based Ran Tong, defense attorney for Sichuan-based rights activist Chen Yunfei, Henan-based Chang Boyang, who defends a member of the “Guangzhou Three” rights activists, Yuan Xinting, and Guangzhou-based Ge Wenxiu, who represents one of the five feminists detained ahead of International Women’s Day, Wei Tingting.
Shanghai-based lawyer Li Tiantian, a prolific and outspoken social media blogger, Shandong-based Liu Shuqing, who has represented feminist Wu Rongrong, and Beijing-based lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who has represented members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, were also held and released, the CHRLCG said.
It said top Guangzhou-based rights lawyer Sui Muqing, defense attorney for detained rights lawyer Yang Maodong, better known as Guo Feixiong, is currently under “residential surveillance,” indicating a strict form of house arrest.
Many of those detained had signed a joint statement on Friday to protest against Wang Yu's arrest.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong activists on Sunday took to the streets in protest at the crackdown.
Chanting “Rights lawyers are innocent!” and “Release all rights lawyers!” the group marched to Beijing’s Central Liaison Office in the former British colony, with some lawyers dressed as if for court.
“The large-scale detentions of rights lawyers are an unprecedented disaster for the legal profession,” rights lawyer and pro-democracy politician Albert Ho told RFA on the sidelines of the demonstration.
“It’s also a major disaster for any last vestige of reliable rule of law in [China’s] judicial system. How can there be any public trust in the system left?”
Ho said many of those detained are the best-known rights attorneys in China.
“Their fame doesn’t come from earning large sums of money … but from all those human rights cases that they work on,” he said.
The U.S. State Department called on Beijing to cease targeting rights lawyers in a statement on Sunday.
“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 said.
Repression and coercion are routinely used by Chinese authorities against activists, ethnic minorities and law firms that took on sensitive cases, according to a State Department report last month.
Reported by Yang Fan and Xin Lin for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Ka Pa and Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.