Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong on Thursday stripped a defense attorney of his license to practice after he defended a social media user jailed for two years after he called President Xi Jinping by a forbidden nickname in an online post.
Zhu Shengwu, who represented defendant Wang Jiangfeng after he used Xi's nickname "steamed buns" online, was summoned to a hearing run by the Shandong provincial government's justice department, which decided to suspend his license to practice as an administrative punishment.
The hearing found that Zhu had made comments that "endangered state security," and "targeted the socialist system," as well as "harming the professional standing of lawyers."
"Both I and my representative were able to make our arguments clearly, and the attitude was fairly respectful during the hearing," Zhu told RFA after the hearing ended.
"Our view was that any political criticisms come under the aegis of freedom of expression, and don't add up to endangering state security," he said. "We also made the point that the punishment handed down by the justice department was illegal, and based on insufficient evidence."
"The convenors of the hearing expressed their hope that I would make some sort of concession," Zhu added.
Law firms in China are required by law to "support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party" and to comply with any investigations or supervisory practices, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Lawyers are prohibited from expressing opinions that “reject the fundamental political system” of China or may "endanger national security," it said in a statement on its website this week.
A number of fellow rights lawyers and activists tried to attend the hearing, but were prevented from entering the chamber.
Activist Xu Qin, who heads the Wuhan-based China Rights Observer group, said only people on a list held by court police were allowed through.
"Nobody who wasn't on that list was allowed in," Xu said. "They said they were only following orders from higher up, and that there was no way to give feedback."
"Lawyers Shu Xiangxin and Ma Wei from Tianjin were denied entry as well," he said.
Zhu had told RFA in an earlier interview that while the hearing didn't directly mention the Wang Jiangfeng case, he believes that this was the trigger for the proceedings against him.
Wang Jiangfeng was sentenced by the Zhaoyuan People's Court on April 12 after being found guilty of "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
He was accused of referring to the head of the ruling Chinese Communist Party as "Steamed Bun Xi" in a group message to the social media platforms WeChat and QQ.
"Steamed Bun Xi" has been a banned phrase on China's tightly controlled internet since the president ordered the buns during a visit to a Beijing restaurant in December 2013, prompting petitioners to gather outside toting a placard that read "President Xi, I'd like to eat steamed buns too" in a bid to get their grievances against the government heard.
The incident sparked an online meme in which Xi was referred to jokingly as Steamed Bun Xi, in a pun on the name of a legendary Song dynasty official who fought corruption. Censors later banned the meme, deleting social media posts that contained references to it.
According to HRW, China's Ministry of Justice has launched probes into human rights lawyers and law firms in a least six provinces and municipalities since the beginning of this month.
Judicial officials in Beijing, Guangdong, Guangxi, Henan, Hunan, and Yunnan have begun a series of probes into at least seven law firms, with the help of the government-backed All-China Lawyers Association and police, the group said in a statement on its website.
In some cases the officials came for “chats” asking about the management of the firms, the number of criminal cases they have undertaken, their management, and the fees that they charge, it said.
In one case, a lawyer was asked to show officials all his contracts and receipts.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party recently ordered dozens of lawyers to endorse a "declaration" accepting further controls on the legal profession at a compulsory "symposium" in Beijing in late August.
More than 70 lawyers with a history of defending vulnerable groups in cases considered politically sensitive by the government were told to attend, where they were told that a "Western-style" separation of powers and judicial independence isn't suited to China.
The group said the latest campaign shows that there may be no let-up in the government’s "abusive campaign" against rights lawyers, which has seen more than 300 rights lawyers and activists detained, questioned, or placed under travel bans or other restrictions along with their families since July 2015.
"While China’s human rights lawyers are no strangers to official harassment, these sudden, invasive probes send an alarming message," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said.
"Yet again, China’s authorities are putting lawyers on notice that they are subject to the whims of the government," she said. "The Ministry of Justice should drop this campaign of intimidation immediately."
Crackdown on lawyers
The administration of President Xi Jinping has intensified political pressure on China's legal profession since he took power in 2012, sending a number of prominent rights lawyers to jail, including Xu Zhiyong, Pu Zhiqiang and Tang Jingling.
The Ministry of Justice and its lower-level offices habitually revoke or deny lawyers’ licenses, which are issued annually, if authorities disapprove of the kinds of cases they defend.
Lawyers have also reported being beaten, intimidated, and detained in their work by police, while family members of detained lawyers say they have been subjected to torture and mistreatment while in detention.
Among those ordered to attend the "symposium" were the former attorney of late Nobel peace laureate and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, as well as lawyers who represented the families of children who died or were made sick by the 2008 tainted baby milk scandal, and those who defended fellow lawyers in the July 2015 crackdown.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.