Until two years ago, I lived in Beijing and belonged to a loosely organized group of legal professionals known among ordinary Chinese as weiquan lushi, or rights defense lawyers. The government called us “a criminal gang” that disturbed social order because we openly challenged the way the Communist Party controlled China’s legal system. Most of the people we helped were seen by officials as troublemakers: petitioners whose houses had been forcibly demolished, political dissidents, members of Christian house churches, Falun Gong practitioners, and migrant workers bullied by their urban employers.
In 2013, I came to the United States as a visiting scholar and continue my advocacy through research and writing. Most of my friends and fellow rights lawyers have chosen to stay in China and fight social injustices. Earlier this month, more than 200 of them were detained and interrogated, or placed under residential surveillance, in the most severe crackdown on the legal profession we have ever seen. Many of the lawyers were brought to secret locations; several have been pressured to confess their “criminal activities” during their incarceration.
The scope of the repression offers a glimpse of a grave situation. The public is questioning the government’s ability to manage the slowing economy, particularly the recent stock market dips, and President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign has caused deep divisions within the Communist Party. In this context, the increasing popularity of human rights lawyers, especially among the disgruntled and oppressed, and their rising influence on social media, has scared our leaders to such an extent that they felt it necessary to carry out the current wave of nationwide arrests.
A series of high profile cases this year has confirmed the leaders’ fear that the party might lose control and their legitimacy might crumble.
On May 2, the police in the northeastern town of Qing’an fatally shot a petitioner, Xu Chunhe, during a scuffle in front of his elderly mother and three young children at a train station. When local officials cleared the police of wrongdoing, a team of defense lawyers sued on behalf of the family. Through social media, they obtained video from witnesses and accused state media of doctoring surveillance tapes to cover up police brutality. The case stirred a groundswell of public anger toward the government.
Because there are no conventional independent media, we lawyers play a critical role in exposing abuses by law enforcement agencies and the courts and pressure them to reform.
In May, activists and lawyers staged a sit-in outside a Jiangxi Province court, calling attention to four people who they say have been wrongfully imprisoned for more than a decade for robbery, rape and murder. Even though a suspect in a different case claimed responsibility for the crimes, the court has refused the defense lawyers’ request for a retrial and denied them access to their case files. More than 40 human rights lawyers wrote to President Xi, and their extended protests generated a firestorm online. (The government later detained key organizers and the case remains unresolved.)
In our effort to promote justice, we pursue success in individual cases and build on each one to awaken people’s awareness of their basic human rights. The fact that many have gone on to become activists in their own right has also worried the government.
Li Huanjun, a former kindergarten teacher in Beijing, sought our help after officials colluded with developers and demolished her house. We taught her how to use existing Chinese laws and social media to defend her rights. She has since become an ardent activist and helped other petitioners. She was recently involved in a campaign that called government officials to reveal and register their assets.
The threat of detention and imprisonment is nothing new to us. While in Beijing, the police monitored me, summoned me for interrogation, detained me for hours at a time and threatened to throw me in jail. The authorities set up all kinds of obstacles for us because we follow the letter of the law, rather than toe the party line.
In the short term, the current crackdown will bring the government temporary peace. Out of fear, fewer legal professionals will take up activism, at least for a while. Without rights lawyers to advocate for them, petitioners and political dissidents will hesitate before they take to the streets.
But Mr. Xi and the Communist Party leadership fail to realize that suppression could eventually lead to their political demise. In China, rights lawyers serve as a pressure valve, directing citizens’ anger and discontent into proper legal channels and giving them a voice. Hundreds of protests break out across the country each day as Chinese people show discontent with corruption, land seizures and other injustices associated with the country’s rapid development.
Suppression of moderate dissent in a volatile society jeopardizes China’s chance to peacefully transition toward more democracy and could explode into massive and violent social unrest or even a political coup. If President Xi Jinping were to lose power in a coup, he and his friends will find themselves without an independent defense lawyer.
Many of my fellow lawyers choose to continue their fight despite having been imprisoned and tortured. At the moment, several lawyers who have been recently released from government custody are organizing petitions and have volunteered to defend those still held by the police.
During an interview with a Japanese newspaper in November 2012, a reporter asked my friend Jiang Tianyong, a rights lawyer who had been tortured while in detention, “Would you consider quitting due to the tough political environment?”
Mr. Jiang’s response reflected the resolve of most of the other rights lawyers: “What happened to me in jail shows that something has to be done to change the system. I will not quit, even for the sake of my child.”
Xiao Guozhen is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. This article was translated by The New York Times from the Chinese.