Chinese government revoked human rights lawyer’s license after she harbored a dissident
Yang Bin let Xu Zhiyong stayed with her family while he was on the run in February, and she was questioned by the police for more than 20 hours as a result. And in August, she was informed that her license had been revoked. Despite being repeatedly oppressed by the Chinese government, she doesn’t have any fears in her mind.
Chinese human rights lawyer Yang Bin still remembered that it was raining really hard in Guangzhou on February 15. She was resting with her family on the second floor of her house when she suddenly heard noises coming from downstairs. Then her phone rang. When she picked up the phone, the staff from the village claimed they need to do some inspection work at her house due to the severe COVID19 pandemic that was raging through China at the time.
Yang went upstairs to inform Xu Zhiyong, prominent human rights activist in China who had been staying with her family for several days at that time. When her husband went downstairs to open the door, they realized there were many police from Guangdong province and Beijing City standing outside. “They were coming for Dr. Xu, and me, my husband and my son were also taken to the local police station,” said Yang. “We were interrogated for more than 20 hours before the police let us go home.”
At the time, police accused Yang of “harboring a wanted suspect,” and the police also confiscated Yang’s cellphone and personal computer. At the police station, they kept asking Yang about Xu Zhiyong. “They asked me how did Dr. Xu arrive at my house and how did I know him,” Yang said.
“They also wanted to know why I decided to let him stay with my family. I told them that Dr. Xu is a free man to me. I know he had been imprisoned before but he was released later. To me, he is a free person so it’s normal for me to let him stay with us. I also told them that I really admire Dr. Xu.”
In fact, Yang had only met Xu Zhiyong once in Beijing, but Xu knew where she lives. After attending a private dinner in Xiamen City in December, 2019, Xu and other dissidents had been wanted by the Chinese government. He was on the run when he arrived at Yang’s house. It was also at the peak of the COVID19 pandemic in China.
“We didn’t talk much when he stayed with us,” Yang said. “He would normally be reading on the third floor while me and my family lived on the second floor. He would only come down to eat with us during meal times.”
Yang’s license got revoked
In fact, this is not the first time that Yang got into trouble with the government. In May 2019, Yang published an article about a case in Yunnan that she has been handling through her WeChat account. The case was about over a dozen farmers in a village who were arrested and sentenced for organizing a welcoming ceremony for several farmers who were released after being imprisoned for a few years. In the article, Yang argued that these farmers’ behaviors didn’t violate any law.
Not long after that, she received calls from the justice department and the law firm that she worked for, and both of them asked Yang to delete the article. She refused to comply and got into an argument with the owner of the law firm. “He thought I didn’t respect him so a few days later, he told me that my contract has expired and he had decided not to renew my contract,” Yang said. “He asked me to find other law firms who might be willing to take me in.”
Yang decided to try her luck with law firms in Beijing, and she soon found a law firm that was willing to take her in. However, since the Beijing lawyers association has several requirements for lawyers who want to transfer to Beijing, Yang spent six months preparing for all the materials that were required to secure her work permit in Beijing.
“It took me six months to get the residents’ permit in Beijing and I sent all the application materials to the Beijing Lawyers Association before Chinese New Year in 2020,” Yang said. “I began to wait for them to notify me about the time for an interview, but after more than seven months, I still haven’t heard back from them. By now, I know my wish to transfer to the law firm in Beijing has fallen through.”
Then in August, the justice department in Guangdong Province informed Yang that since she didn’t renew her contract with her former employer since May 31, 2019, the department decided to revoke her license based on Article 23 of the Lawyer’s Regulation.
Yang said she plans to apply for administrative review and administrative litigation, but she doesn’t have too much hope for the outcome. “I want to finish the whole legal process, and I hope the general public can pay more attention to the oppression that lawyers in China are experiencing,” Yang said. “I still need to express my own opinions.”
From a prosecutor to a human rights lawyer
Unlike most human rights lawyers in China, Yang was a state prosecutor for more than 20 years before she quit the job to become a human rights lawyer in 2015. She began to handle different kinds of cases. She said one of the main reasons why she left the job as a prosecutor was because of her longing for freedom.
“I have to deal with too many small things within the government’s system, including passively trying to learn about politics, even if I didn’t like it,” Yang said. “After becoming a human rights lawyer, I have a lot more freedom.”
However, Yang also noticed many existing problems in China’s legal system since she became a lawyer. “Even though China has improved the overall quality of its judges and prosecutors through a standardized test, but it has only been making slow progress in terms of its legal system and the spirit of rule of law,” Yang said. “We won’t be able to change the fundamental problems in China, and we can only try to make some superficial changes. I begin to have doubt about whether these cosmetic changes can really make a difference or not.”
Yang thinks China’s society is in a very oppressed state right now, and there is almost no room for civil society to elaborate. She said most people in the government system are very careful with their words and behaviors, and they always follow the government’s rules. “Everyone is wary of the potential danger within the system, while everyone outside of the government’s system is trying to self-censor,” Yang said.
Since she became a human rights lawyer in 2015, Yang has also realized that lawyers can only do so much under the current legal environment in China. “Many clients want me to represent them, but I usually turn them down in most cases,” Yang explained. “I don’t think I can make a difference to the injustice that they are facing, and that makes me feel hopeless and helpless.”
“I have nothing to hide”
Before Guangdong Province’s Justice Department revoked her license, Yang has been warned by the Chinese government on several occasions. In 2019, she wrote a short piece about the pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, and it went viral on Chinese social media. She was warned by the Chinese government soon after that. And in the beginning of the COVID19 outbreak, she also signed an online petition that asked the government to restore COVID19 whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang’s reputation.
Despite facing repeated oppression from the Chinese government, Yang never does things under the table. “One thing that I learned from working inside the government’s system for years is that there is no personal privacy under the big data surveillance state in China,” Yang said. “I don’t think too many people can match my level of openness and transparency.”
When Xu Zhiyong showed up at her house in February, Yang had already prepared herself for the worst case scenario, which was to be questioned by local police for 24 hours. She thought she could handle such consequences. “Many people were unwilling to help Dr. Xu when he was on the run, because they worried that helping him would get them into trouble,” Yang said. “But I wasn’t afraid of helping him.”
Even though other human rights lawyers in China have been warned not to take any interviews from foreign media, Yang thinks she won’t turn down any interview requests. She thinks taking interviews and expressing her opinions about certain things are within the proper parameter of freedom of expression in China.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with doing interviews with foreign media, so I naturally feel safe to talk about certain issues in public,” Yang said. “I guess that just means I don’t have that much fear in my mind.”
This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.