Soon-to-be-released Chinese rights lawyer could face months of further restrictions

Zhou Shifeng, who once headed the now-shuttered Fengrui law firm in Beijing, will be released in late September.
By RFA Mandarin
2022.09.22
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Soon-to-be-released Chinese rights lawyer could face months of further restrictions
Photo: RFA

Concerns are growing that a prominent Chinese rights lawyer -- due to be released at the end of a seven-year jail term for subversion -- will instead be placed under house arrest ahead of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) congress next month.

Zhou Shifeng, 57, was the director of the now-shuttered Beijing Fengrui law firm, which took on sensitive political cases, defending dissidents, the banned and persecuted Falun Gong spiritual sect and others who challenged the authorities.

The firm was the main target of a nationwide crackdown that saw more than 300 human rights lawyers and associates detained beginning on the night of July 9, 2015.

Zhou is scheduled for release from the Tianjin No. 1 Prison, but a date has yet to be confirmed with the family, a person close to the family told RFA on Thursday.

"The prison notified Zhou Shifeng's younger brother in their hometown of Anyang, Henan around the end of August, beginning of September, that he should get ready to pick him up [from prison] in late September," the person said.

"It was very mysterious, because they refused to disclose the actual date, but said they would call in advance when the time came [to release Zhou]," the person said. "According to my calculations, it should be Sept. 24."

At Zhou's 2016 trial, the prosecution alleged that the lawyer had been influenced by "anti-China forces over a long period of time," which allegedly gave him the idea to "overthrow" China's current political system.

It accused him of "gathering in public to cause trouble, attacking China's legal system, and using public opinion to incite hatred of the government among people who didn't know any better."

'Conspiring to subvert state power'

Zhou, alongside fellow rights activists Hu Shigen, Zhai Yanmin, and rights lawyer Li Heping, was also accused of "conspiring to subvert state power" and "seriously endangering national security and social stability,"

He pleaded guilty at the trial and was handed a seven-year jail term for "subversion of state power," as well as five years' deprivation of political rights following release.

Zhou's associate said the lawyer will likely be forcibly returned to his hometown in Henan after his "release" from prison.

"During the [five years] when he is deprived of his political rights, state security police will still be in frequent contact with him, and even have him under restrictions or surveillance," the person said.

"If he tries to travel, he will be under very tight restrictions ... and they will prevent him from being in any contact with the outside world," they said, adding that the strict house arrest now being imposed on released political prisoners is against even China's laws.

Zhou's jail term was likely shortened by his willingness to plead guilty, but his "crime" was to hire outspoken and fearless defense attorneys like Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang, the person said.

"That's why the government clamped down heavily on Fengrui."

Time of tightening controls

Zhou's release comes at a time when police across China are tightening controls on dissidents and critics of the CCP ahead of the CCP's 20th National Congress, which opens in Beijing on Oct. 16.

Dissidents and rights activists have been informed they are to leave Beijing under police escort in the next few days, with similar measures reported in Tianjin, Hunan and Jiangxi provinces.

"[Zhou] will be subject to very strict controls for at least the next six months, with people following him, and no contact with the outside world," Zhou's associate said.

U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao said Zhou was "very enthusiastic" about public interest lawyering, and supported his colleagues both morally and financially.

"His law firm became an important platform for rights lawyers and the rights protection movement," Teng said. "In the eyes of the authorities, he was a core figure in that movement, judging from the sentence he received."

"His long jail sentence was an affirmation of his work ... we all regard this sentence as a badge of honor conferred on him by the CCP," he said.

Zhou started practicing law in 1995. In 2008, he sued the Sanlu Group on behalf of the victims of the melamine infant formula scandal.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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