Human rights lawyers in China say spaces for activism are shrinking as they mark the sixth anniversary of the 709 crackdown

Friday marks the sixth anniversary of the “709 crackdown,” but some of the human rights lawyers that were arrested back then were still serving jail sentences. Additionally, while many of them have been released, the government has revoked their licenses, which makes it hard for some of them to raise their families.

While many human rights lawyers arrested during the “709 crackdown” have been released six years after the mass arrest, Yu Wen-sheng, who was the defense lawyer for several of them in 2015, is still serving his jail sentence at the Nanjing prison.

According to his wife Xu Yan, he has multiple health problems, including trembling and powerlessness in his right arm, which causes him to lose the ability to write, brush his teeth or pick dishes with chopsticks with his right arm. Additionally, he also suffers from high blood pressure, spine issues and kidney stones.

“In fact, his health condition isn’t really good and usually, he would already qualify for compassionate release, but the prison hasn’t approved my application for almost a year,” she said.

Xu said even though she continues to demand the prison to take Yu Wen-sheng to doctors for treatment, authorities at the prison have only taken him to the doctor twice in more than three years.

“He’s only been to the doctors twice in more than three years and the authorities still haven’t allowed him to get dental implant surgeries for the four teeth that he has lost,” she said. “If he fails to get dental implants for too long, it will start affecting his ability to eat food and other teeth nearby might start to get looses too.”

When the Chinese government initiated the “709 crackdown” six years ago, they arrested and detained hundreds of human rights lawyers, activists and their family members across 23 provinces in China. Yu Wen-sheng became the first lawyer to openly sue the government for the mass arrest on July 30.

Xu Yan can still remember the night when dozens of police broke into her house in the middle of the night to subdue and arrest her husband. To her, the Chinese government has increased the crackdown on human rights lawyers and their family members over the last six years. Some of the human rights lawyers’ wives have also been summoned or arrested by police.

“The mass arrests in 2015 were cruel but the crackdown has never stopped,” she said. “In a way, the subsequent crackdown is even crueler than the initial arrest. Some human rights lawyers’ licenses have been revoked and they have experienced different kinds of obstacles in life. In fact, the mass-arrest has never stopped over the last six years.”

Even though Yu is expected to be released from prison on March 1, 2021, since some human rights lawyers continue to be put under de facto house arrest after they were released from prison, she worries that similar things could happen to him. “They may decide not to release Yu or not to let him return to our home in Beijing,” Xu said.

Wang Quan-zhang: the space for advocacy continues to shrink in China

Wang Quan-zhang is another human rights lawyer that gained international attention after he was arrested and imprisoned during the “709 crackdown.” He was released from prison last April and during the last year, Wang said he witnessed how the Chinese government continues to crack down on the human rights lawyers by revoking their licenses or putting them under de facto house arrest. He said these crackdowns have created a chilling effect among human rights lawyers.

“The chilling effect will make it more unlikely for human rights lawyers to speak up and others may decide to be more careful since they want to preserve their licenses,” he said. “The government’s tolerance for advocacy continues to shrink and they also use different ways to squeeze the space for activism in the country.”

Over the last year, Wang says he spent a lot of time adjusting his physical and mental conditions and he is also slowly developing his own career. Since authorities in Beijing revoked his license in November 2019, he is no longer able to work as a human rights lawyer.

“The Supreme People’s Court in China passed a judicial interpretation in 2018, which bans human rights lawyers without their licenses to handle cases or work as defenders in court,” he said. “This is a major restriction on human rights lawyers whose licenses were revoked because they can no longer work as defense lawyers in court anymore.”

However, Wang said there are still some spaces for legal professionals like him to work in relevant fields. He mentioned that some human rights lawyers who have lost their licenses decide to become legal consultants and some have even opened their own legal consulting firms, which mainly handle some non-litigation legal affairs. He says these are all the possibilities that he is considering.

“Some friends have been seeking my opinion on some cases so I have gradually begun to develop my own career again,” he said. “I’m offering them some professional support as some of these works need to be done by legal professionals. I think there might still be room for me to work.”

Is China’s society experiencing a power imbalance?

Even though Wang Quan-zhang said some human rights lawyers tried to continue their legal career by opening up legal consulting firms, some human rights lawyers have actually been notified by the government that they can’t apply for opening up consulting firms because they have been blacklisted.

Xie Yan-yi, another Chinese human rights lawyer who was arrested during the 709 crackdown, said China’s civil society is experiencing a “power imbalance” caused by the negligence of rule of law and the unlimited amount of authorities that the government enjoys.

“Under such abnormal circumstances, there continue to be cases of miscarriage of justice in China and some human rights activists have been sentenced for their speeches,” he said.

Even though the reality is tough and cruel for human rights lawyers in China, Xie thinks these are all part of the sacrifices that Chinese people need to pay during the process of a social transition. At a time when many human rights lawyers are being persecuted, Xie thinks the community needs to keep focusing on their situations.

“Human rights lawyers like Yu Wensheng, Zhang Zhan, Ding Jiaxi, and Chang Weiping continue to be illegally persecuted, so we need to keep paying attention to their safety and other cases of injustice,” he said. “Paying attention to these injustices is paying attention to ourselves. In every unjust case, human rights lawyers can try to fight for the rights and dignity.”

Xie admitted that many paths for human rights lawyers to earn a living have been blocked as the government revokes their licenses, bans them from leaving the country and bans them to start their own companies by blacklisting them. However, he still thinks that human rights lawyers have the obligation to make the general public realize that all the illegal oppression is a crackdown on the overall rights of society, instead of the crackdown on some specific individuals.

“If this society no longer cares about rule of law and human rights, then no one can truly feel safe here,” he said. “Human rights activists and human rights lawyers need to keep emphasizing that they are fighting for everyone’s rights and dignity so the general public needs to all try to preserve and follow the rule of law. Establishing a China that honors human rights, peace, democracy, and rule of law is in everyone’s interest.”

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