Authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong have threatened the defense attorney of a social media user jailed for two years after he called President Xi Jinping by a forbidden nickname on social media.
Zhu Shengwu, who represented defendant Wang Jiangfeng after he used Xi's nickname "steamed buns" online, said he has been told he is under a disciplinary investigation, meaning that his license to practice law could be revoked at a hearing on Sept. 21.
"The investigation didn't directly touch on the Wang Jiangfeng case, but I think that's what this is about," Zhu told RFA on Wednesday. "Because they shut down my access to social media after my defense statement."
"The hearing will be held on the 21st."
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 word 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.
An online supporter of Zhu's said the entire case against Wang had been orchestrated by the government at the highest level.
"This whole affair, from the laying of charges, to the investigation and the indictment and trial, was directed by state agencies," the supporter said.
"If you get rid of [a person's right to a defense], then you only have a working prosecution."
Rights lawyers advocacy group
Advocacy group the China Human Rights Lawyers Group meanwhile marked its fourth anniversary this week.
The group was formed as a show of strength for the country's embattled legal profession in the wake of more than 300 detentions, summons, travel bans and restrictions imposed on rights lawyers and law firm staff since July 2015.
Li Wenzu, wife of "disappeared" rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang, who hasn't been heard from since his detention during that crackdown, said lawyers like her husband are hugely valuable to Chinese society.
"This group of lawyers is pretty amazing for China, because they are putting their lives and safety on the line in all of the cases they represent," Li told RFA.
"Their personal liberty could also be jeopardized; they could be deprived of their freedom at any time," she said. "But they just keep on doing it; they keep representing clients in sensitive or controversial cases."
"They are standing up against the fear and terror created by the detention of so many lawyers, and they are speaking out."
Group member Yu Wensheng said the group had come through "many storms" in the years since its inception.
"The authorities have been trying to beat us down this whole time, but we haven't given in," Yu said. "We have clung onto existence in mainland China, and we are continuing to grow bigger and stronger."
"Our very existence proves that there is likely still hope for the rule of law in China," he said. "We represent the fight for justice in China, and we are its protectors, while the authorities are seeking to destroy the rule of law and human rights."
Xi imposes further controls
Fellow member Lin Qilei agreed.
"The human rights situation may have gotten much worse these days, but we will continue to do our work in spite of the difficulties," Lin said. "Because we are human rights lawyers."
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.
Among those ordered to attend 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.
The Communist Party under President Xi Jinping is increasingly using allegations of involvement by overseas organizations to target peaceful dissidents and rights activists.
Xi has repeatedly warned against "hostile foreign forces" attempting to overthrow Communist Party rule by infiltrating China with "western" religious practices and ideas like democracy, constitutional government, and human rights.
Reported by Xin Lin and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.