A sexual assault case in April involving a licensed lawyer who was also a senior executive of a Shandong province oil enterprise prompted China's Ministry of Justice to launch a mass purge of lawyers that has removed more than 660 lawyers in Hunan province, legal sources said.
The accusations against Bao Yuming – vice president and chief legal officer of Shandong Yantai Jereh Group, China's largest oilfield services company – were serious: He had sexually assaulted his adopted daughter since 2015. Jereh and the ZTE Corporation, where he was an independent non-executive director, announced his resignation as soon as the case was exposed.
It was not Bao’s alleged sexual misdeeds that China's Ministry of Justice was targeting, however, when it launched a large-scale purge of lawyers, an unfolding nationwide campaign that led to the revocation of the law licenses of more than 660 lawyers in central Hunan province in August alone.
The purge of commercial and other lawyers, which comes three years after Beijing targeted human rights attorneys, is targeting full-time lawyers violating rules on holding two or more positions concurrently, signing labor contracts with firms other than law firms, and practicing as full-time lawyers while holding foreign passports and concealing the revocation of Chinese nationality, lawyers said
"The legal profession must be given time to carry this work properly. The requirements should be more stringent. The lawyer management department has issued a lot of licenses that should not have been issued, especially in out-of-the-way places where exams were not administered before issuing licenses,” said attorney Wu Kuiming.
“Many were Chinese nationals, who were licensed after passing the exam, but now they are foreign nationals," he said, describing chaos in the legal profession in China.
According to the judicial notification, the affected lawyers must take the initiative to report to violations of bans on part-time employment or the loss of Chinese nationality.
On August 20, 2020, the Hunan Province Justice Department revoked the law licenses of 467 lawyers. From April 7 to August 27, 2020, 1,267 lawyers’ licenses have been revoked for doing part-time work and holding foreign passports, in a pool of more than 16,000 lawyers in the province
'Forced to act and forced to be quoted'
Beyond Hunan, all provinces and cities across the country have conducted similar large-scale purges, law sources say.
Authorities claim these lawyers had their licenses revoked on their own initiative, but Hunan human rights lawyer Xie Yang said he believes that most of them were forced to comply.
"The Chinese Communist Party monopolizes all social resources in China. If you don't comply with license revocation, you will bear consequences that you are unwilling to bear. The authorities will impose harsh blows on you from other angles. These so-called 'initiators' are forced to act and forced to be quoted," Xie said.
Xie was among 300 lawyers, law firm staff and rights activists detained, questioned and otherwise harassed during a July 2015 crackdown on human rights defenders. He was accused of "inciting subversion of state power," and recently disbarred on the grounds that he disrupted court order while trying his case.
In an era when many Chinese lawyers – especially those who practice from Hong Kong – have qualifications to practice abroad, and even have foreign passports, Xie says holding a foreign passport or doing part-time work does not run counter to the professional ethics of lawyers.
"Attorneys are knowledge professionals. As long as you have the ability to obtain a law license from the People's Republic of China without violating the law, then no one should revoke this license,” he told RFA.
“This is the Ministry of Justice exceeding its authority, even going so far as to revoke the licenses of lawyers holding more than one position at the same time," Xie added.
He said that the authorities' rectification of the national legal profession will inevitably affect human rights lawyers.
“Purging human rights lawyers is not the starting point. But in the rectification process, it will definitely affect lawyers who support human rights, even if they are not prominent, and revoke their law licenses,” said Xie.
July 9 marked 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.
More than 200 people were detained as part of the 2015 crackdown, and China Human Rights Lawyers Group lists at least nine rights lawyers who remain behind bars, including Li Yuhan, Yu Wensheng and Qin Yongpei. Detentions and harassment of lawyers continue across China, the group says.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Scott Savitt.