Why The Case For China’s Lawyers Doesn’t Look Good

Why The Case For Chinas Lawyers Doesnt Look Good

On May 13, Beijing lawyer Li Chunfu went to the southwestern city of
Chongqing with a colleague to meet with the family of a
man who died in a labor camp. While meeting with the family, Li
and lawyer Zhang Kai were detained by police. Li was chained to a
chair and punched, while Zhang, also roughed up during their
arrest, was locked in a cage. Their transgression? They were
representing the family of Jiang Xiqing, a man who belonged to the banned Falun Gong
spiritual movement. After a few hours of questioning, the Jiangjin
district police released them around midnight. “We were scared, but
the people [we represented] were even more scared,” says Li. “So we
went back the next day.”

Violence has not stopped Li and his fellow human rights lawyers
from doing their jobs, but bureaucracy might. On June 1, the law licenses
for Li and more than a dozen other prominent rights lawyers expired.
The annual renewal is generally considered a formality — a matter of
filing out forms and paying a fee. But this year Li and other top rights
lawyers were shut out. They say they are being punished for simply
doing their jobs. See pictures of the Pakistani lawyers’ movement.

When Deng Xiaoping led China on the path to reform thirty years ago,
one of the key declarations he made was that the country would be
ruled by law. Since then China has made dramatic headway in developing
a legal system, but the application of the law has been choppy.In recent years a small group of independent lawyers around the
nation has been attempting to force the state to uphold human rights. The lawyers have been
subject to arrest, violence and even, in the case of one prominent
advocate, disappearance. But this month’s apparent disbarment of the country’s
top rights lawyers could permanently damage legal reform efforts. “You
can’t pretend you care about legal reform and the rule of law if you
let the vanguard of legal reform be decapitated overnight,” says
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The disbarred lawyers believe they are being punished for taking cases
seen as contrary to the interests of the Communist Party. “The
domestic security police tell the Bureau of Justice, ‘These lawyers
don’t listen, they keep doing these kinds of cases,'” says Jiang
Tianyong, a Beijing human rights lawyer. “We say this is what’s
permitted under the law. But they say we have no right to argue that
these defendants aren’t guilty. So when it comes time for our annual
assessment, our licenses aren’t renewed.”

The sensitive cases these lawyers have handled include illegal land
seizures, representing victims of faulty products, such as in last year’s tainted milk scandal,
defending Tibetans accused of agitating for independence and, as in Li’s case,
followers of Falun Gong. “Lawyers no longer serve only as instruments
of political control like how they were expected to perform from the
1950s to the 1970s,” says Albert Ho, a Hong Kong solicitor and
chairman of China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. “With the
opening and liberalization of China, it needs to build a system of law
and a sound legal system. The government and the governing party shall
abide by the law. But they are very, very concerned that the law may
cause an obstacle to the control of the people.”

Human rights activists worry that by disbarring these lawyers, the
government will turn a group of people working within the system into
a group of outsiders. “If they don’t have many avenues to protest what
has happened to them, then it can easily turn into a situation where
they will be seen as dissidents,” says Bequelin. And once they fall
into that category, the lawyers will lose whatever marginal
protections their profession once gave them.

One prominent rights attorney, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in February,
shortly after his family fled to exile in the United States. He is
believed to be in police custody. Gao, who had defended underground
Christians and Falun Gong members, released an open letter describing
extensive and grotesque torture he had been subjected to by state
security officers in 2007. He said he was threatened with death if he
ever revealed the details of the abuse he suffered. When asked about
his case in March, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Gao was not a
victim of political persecution and his case was being handled “in strict
accordance with the law.”

Human rights experts note that Gao, who was once named one of China’s
top ten lawyers in 2001, also lost his legal license in 2005. They worry
that the latest group of lawyers could be similarly ostracized and mistreated upon
being disbarred. In that case, the authorities might lose as well. For
all their work on cases that the Communist Party would rather have
disappear, the lawyers are working within the system, rather than
outside it. “These lawyers are not advocating a fundamental change to
the political system. They are not asking the Communist Party to step
down and introduce a western model of multiparty rule,” says Ho. “They
are only asking the government to fulfill its promise within the law.”

See TIME’s pictures of the week.