China is clamping down on its embattled legal profession as many civil rights law firms struggle to renew their licenses, lawyers and rights groups say.
Many rights lawyers whose licenses are up for renewal this week say they are still waiting for approval to continue in professional practice this year.
"We have to submit to an annual inspection," said Beijing-based public interest lawyer, Han Zhiguang.
Han said his law firm had yet to have its license, which expires on Friday, renewed.
"This year I accepted some cases that involved practitioners of the [banned] Falun Gong [spiritual movement]," Han said. "I think this is what's holding things up."
A second Beijing-based rights lawyer said he was in a similar situation.
"They said we had to wait for approval from the municipal government," said Liang Xiaojun. "I don't understand why it's taking so long this year."
"If I fail to get my license at such short notice it's going to be a real problem, because there are a number of cases on which I will be refused permission to see my client," Liang said.
A third lawyer, Li Dunyong said his firm was also waiting.
"We have tried to hurry them up a few times," he said. "I have just been there today."
"[The official] told me that they would decide after they came to inspect us tomorrow."
Chinese lawyers have to show a valid business license before gaining access to court documents or clients in custody.
The authorities have previously revoked the business licenses of top law firms or individual attorneys whose work is deemed too sensitive.
Reining in lawyers
According to Amnesty International, the Chinese government has unleashed an uncompromising series of measures intended to rein in the legal profession and suppress lawyers pursuing human rights cases.
"Human rights lawyers are subject to escalating silencing tactics—from suspension or revoking of licenses, to harassment, enforced disappearance or even torture," said the group's Asia Pacific deputy director Catherine Baber.
Rights groups say the government has detained dozens of dissidents and lawyers amid fears of a "Jasmine" revolution inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.
This year also marks the 90th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Chinese Communist Party on July 1, with the authorities ordering a slew of patriotic TV programs and public celebrations.
"The Chinese state is attempting to wield and manipulate the law to crush those it perceives as a threat," Baber said.
“Human rights lawyers are being targeted as they try to use the law to protect citizens against the excesses of the state. The government must release all those detained or forcibly disappeared for exercising, or even protecting, fundamental rights," she added.
A form of state control
Patrick Poon of the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers' Concern Group said the annual inspection was just a form of state control.
"The so-called annual assessment system is just there to give trouble to certain lawyers," Poon said. "These are top lawyers with a huge breadth of experience."
"They are also the ones that have been working on rights-related cases."
Poon said the government had never published the requirements for passing an law license annual assessment.
Amnesty said in a statement on its website that the extreme pressure placed on rights lawyers in China meant that very few were willing to take on such work.
"Out of more than 204,000 lawyers in China, only a brave few hundred risk taking on cases that deal with human rights," the group said.
In addition, new rules introduced in the past two years ban lawyers from defending certain clients, and leave them vulnerable to being charged themselves with subversion if they defend sensitive cases.
The clients most likely to get a lawyer in trouble are Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetan or Uyghur dissidents or protesters, victims of forced evictions, or those who challenge the government's response to natural disasters or food safety issues.
"Amnesty International calls on the government to restore licenses to practice to lawyers suspended or disbarred for defending human rights cases," Baber said.
Reported by Fung Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese service and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.