Three years after the ruling Chinese Communist Party launched a nationwide operation targeting human rights lawyers, a top former rights lawyer has handed in his resignation as a party member in protest.
Wen Donghai announced his withdrawal from the ruling party on Tuesday after being told that the party branch embedded in the state-backed Hunan Lawyers' Association was about to begin disciplinary procedures against him, and expected him to "cooperate."
Wen, who has already been stripped of his legal business license, leaving him unable to practice law, said the authorities have continued to target him through other means, even though he can no longer represent clients.
"The Hunan Lawyers' Association has launched a public smear campaign against me, posting anonymous articles about me online," Wen told RFA on Tuesday. "They are trying to humiliate me at a personal level by publishing libelous information that has no basis in reality."
"This is just another round of persecution now that I have lost my license ... It seems that there is nothing they won't stoop to," he said. "Such is my disappointment with the behavior of this party branch that I feel that I must withdraw [from the party]."
Shanghai-based rights lawyer Peng Yonghe told RFA that it is highly unusual for card-carrying members of the Chinese Communist Party to withdraw from its ranks.
"This is a political act, because to withdraw your membership of the party is a rejection of the party ... because you no longer want to be part of it," Peng said. "In China, the party controls everything, and politics takes precedence over the law in many things."
"That includes whether or not you can leave the country or come back here, or even where your sons and daughters get their education, and what sort of activities you are allowed to participate in," he said.
China's embattled human rights lawyers mark the third anniversary this month of a nationwide crackdown on their profession, law firm employees, and associated activists.
More than 300 lawyers have been detained, questioned, held incommunicado in secret locations, prevented from leaving the country, with some convicted of subversion in connection with their work.
Others have been held under house arrest, with restrictions and punishments targeting their loved ones as well as themselves.
According to Bob Fu, president of the Christian rights group ChinaAid, the crackdown on rights lawyers hasn't really ended.
"The persecution has continued throughout the three years since July 9, 2015," Fu said, in a reference to the date of the first raid on the now-defunct Beijing Fengrui law firm that saw top rights lawyer Wang Yu detained on subversion charges.
"Wen Donghai was facing so-called disciplinary punishment from the Communist Party, and now he has been able to detach himself somewhat from their vice-like grip."
While Fengrui's boss Zhou Shifeng was handed a seven-year jail term for "subversion of state power," Wang, lawyer husband Bao Longjun, and the couple's teenage son were held under lengthy house arrest on "bail" after making video confessions.
They have not been allowed to return to work, and their son's education was interrupted.
Respect for gesture
Fellow rights attorney Pang Kun said he had a lot of respect for Wen's gesture.
"His public statement is a form of nonviolent disobedience, and we very rarely see such statements made publicly in China," Pang said. "If nobody spoke out, we'd be completely and utterly sunk."
Pang hit out at the Hunan Lawyers' Association, saying it had "gone too far."
"But that is the work of its bosses in the justice department," he said.
Rights lawyer Lin Qilei, who was himself targeted in the July 2015 crackdown, said the targeting of rights lawyers had normalized the "stability maintenance" domestic security regime in China.
"This model of the one-party state has showed its cruelty, arbitrariness, and lack of thought for the consequences ever since July 2015," Lin told RFA.
"They are really going for stability maintenance over everything, and we are now experiencing this for real," he said. "Such methods would have been unthinkable before."
Support for the party
China's justice minister Fu Zhenghua called on a July 1 congress of the legal profession in Beijing to ensure that lawyers' associations prioritize building strong support for the Communist Party over any other tasks.
The organizations should "firmly uphold the authority of the party Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping as the core and centralize and unify leadership," Fu Zhenghua was quoted as saying by state media.
Lawyers should also obey the party, ensure they are traveling in the correct political direction, and never allow "inappropriate words and deeds" to take place, he said.
Lawyer Zou Huili said the targeting of lawyers is a step backwards for China, citing the recent revision of regulations governing the legal profession by President Xi Jinping's administration.
"They feel it is necessary to strengthen party control over lawyers, indicating that China’s democracy has not progressed, but has instead become more and more retrogressive," Zou said.
Since the crackdown began, rights lawyers who accept politically “sensitive” cases, or who are publicly outspoken on behalf of vulnerable groups, have also been prevented from practicing law because their business licenses are being revoked during a new annual review process.
Lawyers who defend clients held on suspicion of crimes ostensibly linked to “state security” or "stability" concerns are also denied permission to meet with their clients, or are replaced by government appointed lawyers amid threats and pressure on the people who hired them.
Reported by Yang Fan and 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.