UPDATED at 9:34 A.M. EDT on 2018-09-19
Three years after police launched a nationwide crackdown, raided law firms, and detained hundreds of lawyers and activists, China's embattled human rights lawyers are increasingly left without any way of practicing law.
A group of former rights attorneys who have lost their "business license" at the hands of local justice departments, and may no longer represent clients in court, have formed a company called the China Lawyers' Club in the southwestern region of Guangxi, RFA has learned.
Based in the regional capital Nanning, the club seeks to find employment and income for dozens of experienced litigators who no longer have an income in the wake of the crackdown.
"The judicial environment in China is in a terrible state right now, and lawyers are facing a lot of chaos and hard times," one of the club's founders, Tan Yongpei, told RFA. "Through this club, we are able to carry on ... surviving, and help even more people."
The club is a legal services company, and signs lawyers in a manner similar to the way sports teams sign big stars, he said.
We have it a lot easier than a lot of lawyers, because we don't have any organization in charge of us, and we have fairly large resources to draw upon, both in the media and online, as well as the nationwide recognition and support of the legal profession," Tan said.
Founder member and Guangdong-based lawyer Sui Muqing, who lost his license in January after he ignored official warnings not to take on politically sensitive cases, said lawyers don't need a business license to advise on complaints cases.
"Basically, you do not need a license for a complaints case ... because this isn't the same thing as criminal defense work," Sui told RFA. "If you need a lawyer with a license, you can hire one."
"There are also demolition and forced eviction cases, legal advice and consultancy and so on," he said. "The biggest need is for help with planning strategy for cases, so there's not much need for a license."
Sui said the club members will still have to operate within certain limits, however.
"Now that I don't have a business license, I can't appear in court or visit a client [in detention], particularly not in politically sensitive cases," he said. "So, I think it would be hard for me to take on such cases, for example, defending political dissidents, in future, even if I wanted to."
"It would also be hard for me to take on cases representing petitioners," he said.
The China Lawyers' Club will be formally established on Sept. 29 by around a dozen founder members, he said.
‘Human rights forum’
The club's founding comes as the ruling Chinese Communist Party holds its own "human rights forum" in Beijing, focusing on poverty alleviation, rather than on protecting citizens from abuses of state power.
Beijing-based rights activist Hu Jia said the government only wants to admit that its citizens have a basic right to exist and pursue an economic life.
"China has been very strong on this point, especially at the United Nations Human Rights Council, talking about the right of third-world countries to exist, and to develop," Hu said.
"But at the very moment that they are shouting their propaganda about human rights, they are depriving you of your rights," he said. "In reality, they are saying that if you don't ... submit to me entirely, then I can totally destroy you."
"They're not just monopolizing all economic and political resources; they are also monopolizing all rights to expression, so they can pretend that everything is going well," Hu said.
China's embattled legal profession continues to be targeted in the wake of a nationwide police operation that has detained, questioned and otherwise restricted the freedom of more than 300 rights lawyers, law firm staff and rights activists and their family members since July 2015.
Reported by Gao Feng and Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wong Lok-to for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
Correction: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the number of years in the first paragraph as five instead of three.