Lawyer Warned Off Foreign Media

An activist lawyer is told to keep quiet after publicly challenging China's labor camp system.
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A policeman stops a group of petitioners from demonstrating outside a hospital in Beijing, May 7, 2012.
A policeman stops a group of petitioners from demonstrating outside a hospital in Beijing, May 7, 2012.

Authorities in the eastern province of Zhejiang have warned a lawyer based in the provincial capital Hangzhou not to give interviews to foreign media after he spearheaded an online signature campaign to do away with the country's "re-education-through-labor" system.

Wang Cheng, whose campaign has garnered more than 10,000 signatures to date, was questioned by police last week on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."

The move came after he set out to meet a couple of journalists from Hong Kong, which is governed under separate laws from mainland China and enjoys a far higher degree of press freedom.

"This time it was because I had agreed to give an interview to two reporters from Hong Kong's Cable TV, a television interview," Wang told RFA on Monday.

"When the state security police in Hangzhou heard about it, they ... stopped me from leaving home, and told me not to give the interview," he said.

Wang said he had argued that it was his constitutional right to give interviews to the media, and that reforms to the "re-education-through-labor" (RTL) system were already being planned at the highest levels.

After he insisted on being allowed to go to the interview, police took him in for questioning, he said.

In October, Beijing issued a white paper promising reforms to China's judicial system, including the practice of "re-education through labor," but rights lawyers said the moves would have little impact in the absence of judicial independence.

Officials said at the time that the government was working on plans to reform the RTL system, citing "loopholes."

However, they stopped short of attacking the RTL system itself, under which citizens can be detained for up to three years without the need for a trial, saying it had a positive effect on social stability.

Police harassment

Wang said he had already been the target of continual police harassment over the campaign.

"The police have been to see me in August, September and October," he said. "They told me that [the campaign] is legal, but that I mustn't allow myself to become the tool of hostile overseas forces."

Top Chinese lawyers, particularly those with experience of human rights and public interest cases, have repeatedly called for RTL to be abolished outright, saying it is unconstitutional.

Many say the white paper, which also promises greater respect for the rights of lawyers to visit clients and access evidence, doesn't go nearly far enough.

Wang said politicians had been talking about abolishing the system for many years, but that no real changes had taken place.

"I think that more citizens should get involved in public affairs, and start paying attention to matters of public importance," he said. "That's why we wrote our demands into an open letter, in the hope that all citizens would express their opinions."

Wang said he had delivered the letter by courier to China's parliament, the National People's Congress, late last month, bearing a wide range of signatures from people across China.

"We had lawyers from across the country, some private business leaders, and a lot of migrant workers, as well as a lot of people who had been sentenced to labor camp themselves," Wang said.

He said prominent social activists like outspoken artist Ai Weiwei, Beijing rights lawyers Jiang Tianyong, Li Heping, Li Fangping, Xu Zhiyong and legal scholar Teng Biao had also signed.

"There were even a small minority who described themselves as public servants," Wang said.


Wuxi-based rights activist Wu Shiming said the RTL system wasn't the only institutional abuse of citizens' rights in need of abolition, however.

"We are in support of abolishing RTL, but also of abolishing black jails," Wu said, in a reference to unofficial detention centers used to hold citizens who travel to lodge complaints against local officials with higher authorities.

"The re-education through labor system is in breach of China's constitution."

Meanwhile, Xu Yishun, a rights activist based in the northern province of Hebei, said he had been on hunger strike several times during his one-year labor camp sentence, and had received a sympathetic response from the camp's administration.

"They told me they thought it was illegal too, but that it wasn't their decision to make," Xu said.

But he said abolishing the RTL system wouldn't be enough on its own, and called on China's president-in-waiting Xi Jinping and premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang to carry out wider reforms.

"We want the new administration of Xi and Li to carry out political reforms," he said. "Obviously it's not going to turn into the U.S. political system overnight, but we could do what Taiwan and Hong Kong did."

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Hai Nan for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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