The “709 crackdown” has become a permanent and ongoing process
Five years ago, the Chinese government began a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers. Today, even though most human rights lawyers targeted back then have completed their jail sentences, many remain under tight surveillance and control from the government. Prominent legal scholar Jerome Cohen said over the last five years, the crackdown has become a “permanent and ongoing process.”
Question: It’s been five years since the “709 Mass Arrest” and we have seen more lawyers and activists being targeted by detention or revoking their licenses. Do you think these are signs that the Chinese government has intensified its crackdown on human rights lawyers?
Jerome Cohen: I don’t think the scale and intensity of the 709 crackdown has increased since 2015 but surely what was originally thought to be a campaign of limited duration, like other “crackdowns”, has now became a permanent, ongoing process. This is because the original crackdown has not wiped out its targets, despite the grievous losses it has caused to human rights lawyers, their clients and their families. It is also because of the increasingly tense political and economic circumstances confronting the Xi Jinping regime at home and abroad, circumstances that motivate the regime to suppress any attempt to dissent from or even question its policies.
Question: As for lawyers who were targeted in the “709 Mass Arrest,” even though Jiang Tian-Yong and Wang Quanzhang have both been “released” after completing their designated jail sentence, Jiang remains in 24/7 police surveillance at his parents’ home in Henan while Wang was only allowed to reunite with his family in Beijing after his wife suffered an acute appendicitis. How do you view the ongoing surveillance or restriction on personal freedom imposed on these lawyers who are supposed to be free man after completing their jail sentence?
Jerome Cohen: 709 has demonstrated the extent to which the regime has perfected what I have called the “non-release release”. It gives the public the impression that convicted human rights lawyers are being treated leniently and freed following criminal convictions and long jail terms, while actually the conditions of their release impose continuing harsh restrictions on their freedoms. “Release” usually has meant permanent silence under constant surveillance and harassment and the continuing threat to impose imprisonment again if the supposedly released person seeks to exercise his or her supposed freedom. What ever became of the famous lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who disappeared after his “release” before 709 and has not resurfaced in recent years?
Question: With the increased crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, it seems like the space for lawyers to challenge the government and shine lights on unjust treatment of minorities in Chinese society has also shrank a lot. Under such circumstance in China, what are the ways for lawyers in China to uphold their values and vision?
Jerome Cohen: The recent “release” of Wang Quanzhang is an unusual case since he has, after a brief period of uncertainty, been allowed to meet certain human rights lawyer-friends on a limited basis and to give a few media interviews to foreign journalists. He is attempting to obtain a review and reversal of his unjust conviction and a condemnation of the long incommunicado torture that led to conviction. Nothing has been heard about him of late, however, so it is difficult to know whether his efforts will prove successful.
Lawyers in China have an extremely narrow space to pursue human rights protections now. They are always fighting with at least one arm tied behind their backs and under the sword of Damocles. Yet they have to try to continue to provide defense without overstepping the red lines that hedge them in absurdly and violation of which leads to disbarment and criminal conviction. They now seldom can resort to the media, domestic or foreign, but can only hope to get their stories out informally to interested foreign lawyers, observers and other organizations that might better inform the world of their plight.
Question: Since the imposition of the national security law, many legal professionals in Hong Kong are worried that Beijing could be applying similar tactics that they use in China to target human rights lawyers and activists in Hong Kong. How likely do you think such scenario would happen in Hong Kong under the national security law? Could we potentially see the tactics used to target human rights lawyers in China reappear in Hong Kong?
Jerome Cohen: Hong Kong lawyers must now begin to live in fear of similar mistreatment. Many are already adjusting their strategies and tactics to avoid becoming ensnared in what will be a tightening political net.
This interview first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.