Experts worry the space for defending human rights no longer exist in China after three lawyers lost their licenses

Over the last month, authorities in China have revoked the licenses of at least three human rights lawyers. Experts think the series of crackdown shows that Beijing doesn’t want anyone to challenge the party system through sensitive cases, and the human rights lawyers’ space to operate will continue to shrink.

Since the beginning of 2021, the Chinese government has increased its crackdown on human rights lawyers, as at least three human rights lawyers lost their licenses for supposedly taking on sensitive and high profile cases.

After the justice department in Sichuan Province and Henan Province revoked the licenses of human rights lawyer Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu, who both took on the case of the 12 Hong Kong people, human rights lawyer Xi Xiandong also received a notification from the justice department in Shandong Province at the end of January, letting him know that the department plans to revoke his license for “violating regulations in the lawyer’s law.”

Based on screenshots of the notification, the Shandong Provincial Justice Department claimed that when Xi took on a case in Zhejing Province, he “disobeyed the instructions from the judge several times, interrupted the judges and the prosecutors while they were speaking, began to speak when he wasn’t given the time to speak, intentionally interrupted the court proceedings and insisted on doing it despite numerous warnings from the court.”

As a result, the department determined that he had violated regulations in the lawyer’s law and decided to revoke his license as an administrative punishment.

Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao said the most recent series of crackdowns on human rights lawyers shows that Beijing is increasing its pressure on rule of law and human rights initiatives in China.

“The crackdown on human rights lawyers and civil society has never stopped during Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao’s era, but after Xi Jinping came into power, the crackdown on human rights lawyers increased on all fronts,” said Teng.

He mentioned the “709 mass arrest” in 2015, saying that more than 300 lawyers were targeted by the Chinese government. Some of them were sentenced, some were tortured and some had their licenses revoked. “The crackdown on human rights lawyers has never stopped since then, and it has become even worse over the last few years,” Teng said.

Margaret Lewis, a law professor at Seton Hall University in the U.S., said the trend of human rights lawyers facing crackdown in China is very disturbing. She pointed out that since Xi Jinping took power, he has been showing the world again and again that he is a leader who resorts to repression.

“I don’t think under Xi Jinping’s rule, the human rights lawyers will be given new space to challenge the government and do their work,” Lewis said. “The move of revoking human rights lawyers’ licenses is directly removing those who are viewed by government authorities as ‘troublesome defense lawyers’ and make sure they can’t work.”

Beijing prevents human rights lawyers from threatening the party system

Teng pointed out that one way that the Chinese government has been cracking down on human rights lawyers is to document every move that the lawyers make and after they accumulate enough “evidence,” they will choose to revoke lawyers’ licenses, arrest them or sentence them.

“Following the ‘709 Mass Arrest,’ fewer lawyers are willing to take on sensitive cases, and those who still try to take on sensitive cases are facing greater risks than before,” Teng said.

He thinks that Beijing is trying to let the world know that they won’t let anyone use sensitive cases to challenge the Chinese government’s methods or political intention by revoking human rights lawyers’ licenses.

“In the Chinese government’s eyes, law is just a piece of paper,” Teng said. “They can easily manipulate the law. Even though Beijing kept claiming that they were ruling the country according to law, they actually are always above the law. When the Chinese Communist Party feels that the human rights movement is threatening its system, they will decisively launch a wave of crackdown.”

Maggie Lewis from Seton Hall University said apart from human rights lawyers who generally focus on handling sensitive cases, there are now some duty lawyers emerging in China. According to her, these duty lawyers are not providing real defense in court. Rather, they are providing advice or counsel.

“The authorities in China want to show that there are lawyers available to defendants but they want to control who those lawyers are and what they can do,” Lewis said. “These lawyers don’t become what I would consider true defense lawyers.”

Human rights lawyers facing risks

As more and more human rights lawyers lose their licenses, Chinese human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi said some human rights lawyers choose to use their professional knowledge and years of experience to provide society and other people some kind of service.

“I don’t think the crackdown will develop according to the authorities’ plan, as they try to completely block the path for development for human rights lawyers,” Xie said. “Such development gives people with strong wills to become more mature and let them fulfill their humanitarian commitment.”

However, Teng Biao pointed out that while human rights lawyers can continue to defend citizens’ rights after losing their licenses, the impact of these attempts is limited because most moves are under the Chinese government’s control.

“Human rights lawyers have to face greater risks after they lose their licenses and continue to engage in works related to defending citizens’ rights,” he said. “When the Chinese government is going to crack down on them again, it won’t just be revoking licenses. Instead, the Chinese government will deprive them of their freedom or use other methods to punish them.”

After Chinese authorities revoked the licenses of Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu, U.S. State Department issued a statement, calling on Beijing to reinstate the legal credentials of both lawyers. Teng pointed out that even though international pressure on certain cases can have certain effects, since Beijing becomes more immune to international pressure, unless western countries fundamentally change。their views on China and use a coordinated way to defend human rights in China, he thinks the effect of these international pressure is limited.

“So far, the international community still hasn’t realized that they need to adjust their policies towards China, and they still have some unrealistic illusions or fear about China,” Teng said. “They still hope China can develop in a positive direction, but they need to review their own perception of China.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

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