HONG KONG—Chinese authorities in Beijing have closed a legal research center and revoked the licenses of more than 50 attorneys in a bid to exert greater control over activists.
Some 20 officials from Beijing’s Civil Affairs Bureau arrived early Friday at the Open Constitution Initiative [in Chinese, Gongmeng] rights organization’s legal research center.
The officials questioned employees about their work and confiscated computers from the center’s offices.
The legal center researches public welfare and offers legal aid, including recently representing the parents of children sickened by milk tainted by the industrial chemical melamine.
The center was shut down two days after Beijing’s Tax Bureau fined the Open Constitution Initiative 1.4 million yuan (U.S. $200,000), claiming the group had not paid taxes, which the group denies.
Lawyers have arranged a hearing with the bureau and say that the full amount of taxes has been paid.
Tian Qizhuang, chief executive officer of the Open Constitution Initiative, said the group neither provided the tax bureau with fake bookkeeping nor intended to evade taxes.
“Their accusations suggest that there were funds that were not recorded and reported as income. The fact of the matter is the fund they were referring to just arrived, and we didn’t even have time to do the bookkeeping.”
“We never intended to hide any income records,” Tian said.
Both the State Administration of Taxation and the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau refused to comment.
Lu Jun, a member of another Beijing-based NGO, said authorities were making an example of the Open Constitution Initiative.
“We have discovered as we have been doing our job that the authorities neither trust nor like the NGOs, especially those that are independently operated,” Lu said.
“The closure of the Open Constitution Initiative is purely a crackdown and retaliation with political motives. This is meant to send a warning message to similar independently run NGOs,” he said.
The Beijing Justice Bureau also posted a list of 53 local lawyers on its Web site last week, saying it had revoked their licenses for failing assessments by their firms or failing to register with the bureau.
One of the listed lawyers, Jiang Tianyong, said in an interview that he was never notified about the cancellation in person and learned about it only through the bureau’s public announcement.
“Since authorities have said that this was only the first group, there might be a second and a third group. Of course by releasing the names of the first group, the authorities might just want to issue a warning to other lawyers,” Jiang said.
He recently defended a Tibetan charged with concealing weapons in an area of China where anti-government protests occurred.
“Also, this is the first time that authorities have made such a highprofile announcement of this kind,” he said.
Another listed lawyer, Li Heping, said he was frustrated by the license revocation because the disbarred attorneys had been working hard to “safeguard the rule of law.”
“They truly embraced the rule of law, and they truly had a belief in the rule of law,” Li said.
“If these lawyers are sacked, the message from authorities could be interpreted only as saying that our legal system is bogus: ‘Don’t ever trust us, or this kind of outcome could be your destiny,’” he said.
An employee at the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau Law Enforcement Unit, reached for comment, said he wasn't authorized to comment.
Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the crackdown.
“There are only a tiny group of lawyers left in China who are brave enough to take the risk of representing victims of human rights violations," said Roseann Rife, the group's Asia-Pacific deputy director.
“A further crackdown against human rights lawyers is a major blow not only to these legal professionals but to the human rights defense movement in China.”
Human Rights Watch called the closure of the Open Constitution Initiative and the disbarment of the 53 Beijing lawyers "a sharp intensification of official efforts to silence China’s human rights defenders."
“The attack on OCI marks a new low in the Chinese government’s campaign against human rights defenders,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
“This is precisely the kind of organization whose work the government should value, as it helps ease grievances and minimize unrest.”
Original reporting by Xin Yu for RFA’s Mandarin service and by Ji Lisi and Li Ruoqing for RFA’s Cantonese service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translation by Xiaoming Feng. Written for the Web in English by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.