Chinese lawyers have launched a signature campaign against moves by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to formalize recent curbs on their profession and punish lawyers acting "outside of professional boundaries."
In an open letter begun this week, lawyers are calling on the head of the party-backed All-China Lawyers' Association Wang Junfeng to resign over controversial new rules.
The association under Wang is currently drafting new clauses to add to official regulations governing "professional boundaries" and "punishment for actions transgressing professional boundaries."
The result will be a large-scale infringement of the civil and political rights of lawyers, and Chinese citizens in general, the letter said.
The proposed changes to regulations affecting lawyers have caused an outcry among China's embattled legal profession after they were leaked and began to be circulated online.
Liu Weiguo, a lawyer in the eastern province of Shandong, said he would also sign the letter. "We have already made a statement via our microblog account that we would like to see the head of the association removed from office, or resign of his own accord," he said.
"Not only is the association not serving lawyers; it's actually aiding the government in the illegal suppression of lawyers who are doing their job," Liu said.
"A lawyers' association should serve the interests of lawyers above all else."
He said all of the newly proposed measures had been judged illegal by members of the lawyers' association.
"If this draft gets through, then lawyers will have no teeth any more, and will have to confront the vast public security machinery with no weapon in our hands," Liu said.
He said police would be given a say in disciplinary matters involving lawyers.
"If the police say that a certain lawyer is a problem, then the lawyers' association will have to discipline them," he said. "But the lawyers' association is supposed to represent private interests as a check and balance to state power."
"If we invite them of our own accord to sanction lawyers, what is the point of our association?"
Beijing-based lawyer Hu Guiyun said she planned to oppose the changes.
"I just saw this, but I haven't had chance to read it through in detail yet," Hu said. "I will definitely take part, because this touches on the rights and interests of lawyers."
"As a lawyer myself, I have to work hard to protect them, and if anything illegal happens, I will certainly speak out."
But she was less certain about whether Wang should step down as head of the association. "That's not easy to say," Hu said.
Liu, meanwhile, said many lawyers are now calling for Wang to step down, and for the next association chief to be directly elected.
"Lawyers have the right to choose the head of their own organization," Liu added. "It's wrong that [the government] should appoint them. The association is supposed to serve lawyers, not regulate them."
High profile cases
The dispute comes amid growing tensions between China's nascent legal profession and law enforcement agencies, who have denied lawyers the right to visit clients in detention in a number of high-profile political cases in recent weeks.
Last Friday, Beijing's public security bureau said that Pu Zhiqiang, one of China's best-known advocates, has been formally arrested after being detained since May while attending a small private event to mark the 25th anniversary of the bloody suppression of Tiananmen Square's pro-democracy protests in 1989.
Pu had been a lawyer for popular Chinese artist Ai Weiwei during his own detention on tax evasion charges several years ago.
On Monday, lawyers Zhao Yonglin and Chen Jiangang were detained by police in the eastern city of Xuzhou after they tried to visit their client, civil rights activist Zhang Kun, who is under criminal detention for "picking quarrels and stirring up trouble."
"The Xuzhou police had done a great deal of preparation ahead of time, because the Zhang Kun case is so sensitive, and they had taken great care to ensure that his family couldn't get in touch with a lawyer, especially not with us two," Chen told RFA in an interview on Tuesday.
"They weren't allowed to take our calls, and his parents had been totally brainwashed by them, and wouldn't have anything to do with us," he said.
He said the lawyers had been denied permission to meet with Zhang in spite of handing in a complete set of paperwork, and then held for five hours in an operation which appeared to have been pre-planned.
"They called the state security police the moment we arrived at the detention center, and the plainclothes police were already at the entrance waiting for us when we came out," Chen said.
"They forced us into their vehicle and into Wangchang police station in Gulou district, where they detained us for five hours," he said.
Civil rights activist Zhang Kun was also detained ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary amid a widespread crackdown on government critics ahead of the date.
He had previously been held earlier in the year on similar charges, for a total of two months.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.