China intensified its sweeping crackdown on human rights lawyers and legal activists on Tuesday, as the country’s state media shrugged off growing international condemnation and lawyers under threat warned that the country’s already fragile rule of law would be further weakened.
The mass arrest drive that opened with a raid on the high-profile public interest law firm Fengrui last week deepened as rights lawyers across the country – including some who had advised the earlier batches of detainees -- were summoned, detained or questioned.
The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG), a Hong Kong-based non-profit organization, said that as of Tuesday evening, 169 lawyers, legal staff or activists had been detained, arrested, subject to forced disappearance, held incommunicado or questioned and released. In some cases the lawyers’ drivers and even children were caught in the police net.
Guangdong rights lawyer Wang Quanping, who recently set up the July 10 Justice for Defense Lawyers group, said in an online statement that the ongoing detention of attorneys is "the worst thing to happen to the rule of law in China, in the past or in the future."
"It's like a modern version of book-burning," Wang wrote. "This retrograde step by the government will condemn them to notoriety for the next 10 millennia."
Lawyers across China braced for a late night knock on the door, but some remained defiant.
"I was surrounded [by police] who handed me two sheets of paper. I guess that was the summons, requiring me to go to the local police station,” Suzhou-based rights lawyer Ben Bo told RFA.
“I refused to cooperate. Over my dead body. I don't cooperate with those people. My friends and family are all here [at my place] now to keep watch," he said.
Ben said the standoff had continued into the evening Tuesday.
"I don't rule out the possibility that they will come in the middle of the night and take me away, but I'm not going with them voluntarily," he said.
Beijing lawyer Su Chifeng said she is making mental preparation for a visit from state security police.
"For now, they have just been in touch to warn me; it hasn't got as bad yet as it has for other people. But I am making preparations [to be summoned or detained] at any time. I don't think any of us feels safe right now," she told RFA.
Beijing-based rights lawyer Cheng Hai said China’s legal community needed to stand together and use their legal skills to defend themselves against state lawlessness.
"Lawyers need to mobilize in every possible way, to sue the state and some police officers for illegal actions," he told RFA on Tuesday.
Lawyers have already reported having threats made against their family members' jobs and children's schooling, as China brings maximum pressure to bear to prevent them speaking out about injustice.
The U.S. State Department has voiced concern about the crackdown and the draconian new national security law recently passed by China’s rubber-stamp parliament under which the roundup is apparently being carried out.
“We are deeply concerned that the broad scope of the new national security law is being used as a legal facade to commit human rights abuses,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said in statement issued Sunday night in Washington as reports of the detentions were confirmed.
“We strongly urge China to respect the rights of all of its citizens and to release all those who have recently been detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens.”
The U.S. appeal fell on deaf ears in Beijing, which used state media to taunt Washington and denounce the lawyers as “rabble rousers” and part of a “criminal gang” – statements experts saw as a sign that Beijing had already reached a verdict on the lawyers without any trial.
“The latest U.S. statement will have no real effects except making Chinese people feel slightly uncomfortable,” said the Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece known for nationalistic rhetoric.
“The crackdown of the criminal gang involving several rights lawyers is a step toward realizing China's social stability,” it said.
Writing for the “ChinaFile” column in the U.S. journal Foreign Policy, Eva Pils, an expert on Chinese human rights lawyers, called the mass arrests the latest step in President Xi Jinping’s “apparent campaign to eradicate independent civil society and to concentrate power.”
“ It manifests his neo-totalitarian ambitions — trying to reclaim control of all aspects of society, which requires that all social activities must be reconceived and reorganized along corporatist lines, and under the firm leadership of the ruling party,” wrote Pils, a reader in transnational law at the Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London.
The crackdown inspired Chinese activists around the world to launch a campaign to get 100,000 people to sign an online petition to the White House demanding that President Barack Obama cancel Xi’s scheduled visit in September.
In China’s southwestern region of Guangxi, meanwhile, rights lawyer Yang Zaixin said he couldn't comment much under what he said was the worst pressure the legal profession has been under since he became a lawyer more than 20 years ago.
"I have received a directive telling me to shut my mouth, so it's not convenient for me to comment," Yang said.
"They say that a gentleman should die a hero's death, and that if he can't do that, he shouldn't die. But why should he have to die? Perhaps even if he did, nothing would be gained by it."
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Paul Eckert.