China's embattled legal profession on Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of a nationwide crackdown targeting more than 300 law firms, human rights attorneys and associated activists that began with the arrest of lawyers Wang Yu and Bao Longjun and colleagues at the now-shuttered Beijing Fengrui law firm on July 9, 2015.
"The course of these five years can be described as a journey through thistles and thorns–– treacherous and dangerous," the China Human Rights Lawyers Group said in a statement marking the anniversary.
"Many people were taken into custody and sentenced; many people experienced long-term detention, and the licenses of many human rights lawyers were permanently revoked or canceled," it said.
"As for being harassed by the authorities through summonses for 'chats; and the obstruction by various entities of lawyers’ normal professional practice––these tactics [became] even more commonplace," it said.
While some didn't actually lose their freedom, they have still spent the past five years in constant fear that they could lose it, the group said.
"This is a group of dancers on the edge of a precipice," it said, dating the crackdown back to an article in the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official People's Daily newspaper listing "rights attorneys" as among five categories of people deemed to pose a threat to the regime.
The statement said that while many Chinese rights lawyers simply want a constitutional democracy for China, with respect for "individual rights and fundamental freedoms," they aren't interested in subversion of the current government.
"We will, as always, maintain a moderate and rational, not radical, posture in our work," it said. "We will not deliberately please anyone, nor do we have any intention of challenging anyone, let alone subverting anyone."
"For those like-minded lawyers who are still detained, we will not give up; for those citizens who have lost their freedom because they exercised their rights guaranteed by the Constitution, we will not give up; we will unceasingly pay attention until they have gained their freedom," the statement said.
Nine lawyers still behind bars
It listed at least nine rights lawyers who remain behind bars today, including Li Yuhan, Yu Wensheng and Qin Yongpei.
Meanwhile, detentions and harassment of lawyers continue across China. In the western province of Ningxia, lawyer Ma Wanjun remains incommunicado after he was taken away by police on June 17.
"This has to do with something he posted to his friend circle [on WeChat]," the source said. "He was detained on suspicion of 'picking quarrels and stirring up trouble'."
Ma, 45, a Hui Muslim, was initially held under administrative detention, which was later converted to criminal detention. He has since been allowed a video meeting with his defense attorney.
The Ningxia justice bureau will hold a hearing on Thursday to have Ma's license to practice as a lawyer revoked, the source said.
Meanwhile, authorities in the southern province of Guangdong have targeted a law firm that had wanted to hire women's rights and labor rights attorney Wang Shengsheng.
Wang accepted a job with the firm last August, but hasn't been able to take up her post because of objections from the municipal justice bureau, which is unhappy with her high-profile human rights work. The firm recently terminated the contract under pressure from officials.
"She has been involved in several labor rights protection cases in the past," Wang's husband Chen Yijian told RFA on Tuesday. "Chinese laws are meaningless ... [the government] just does whatever it likes."
Hong Kong lawyers could be next
The U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China, which has designated July 9 as International Human Rights Lawyers' Day, said it would honor detained legal scholar and rights activist Xu Zhiyong with its annual award this year.
"The July 9, 2015 crackdown five years ago was a watershed and a milestone for China's human rights lawyers, and showed how strong their struggle had been," the group's founder Zhou Fengsuo told RFA. "Xu Zhiyong is an outstanding example of that struggle."
"He has refused to stay silent in the face of every kind of persecution during his fight to promote values like democracy and the rule of law [in China]," Zhou said. "He also called in a very strong voice for Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping to stand down during the coronavirus pandemic."
Hong Kong rights lawyer Albert Ho said lawyers in Hong Kong could also soon be targeted under a draconian national security law recently imposed on the city by China's National People's Congress (NPC).
"Human rights lawyers in Hong Kong feel that the situation here is getting to resemble that in mainland China more and more closely, and that we will see an integration [of our legal systems]," Ho told RFA.
"Hong Kong may also see its own July 9 crackdown in the not-too-distant future," he said.
U.S.-based legal scholar Teng Biao agreed.
"The national security law means that lawyers in Hong Kong could soon meet the same fate as those in mainland China," Teng said.
Chinese rights lawyer Tang Jitian said the legislation, which targets anyone in the world, was tantamount to a declaration of war on the international community.
The New York City Bar Association expressed "ongoing concern about the continued harassment, intimidation, and persecution of lawyers in China for doing no more than performing their professional duties," in a statement marking the anniversary.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.