Beijing collides with China’s new community of human rights lawyers

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs   
July 17, 2015 

Having used his anti-corruption campaign to remove any challengers to his power atop China’s Communist Party, President Xi Jinping is now bent on crushing increasingly assertive and publicly influential human rights lawyers.

China’s top leaders have directed the party and state response to work stoppages. Xi Jinping, Chinese president and CP leader, is   intolerant of dissent and inclined to silence it with violence. Angélica Rivera Hurtado, Mexico’s first lady, photographed Xi when he visited her country in 2013. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Xi Jinping, Chinese president and CP leader. Angélica Rivera Hurtado, Mexico’s first lady, photographed Xi when he visited her country in 2013. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Last weekend, in an extraordinary demonstration of Xi’s determination to squash dissent, nearly 200 lawyers and associates involved in China’s civil rights movement were detained and interrogated for “seriously disturbing social order.”

The arrests occurred in 24 cities and provinces around the country, and while most people were released after questioning, some of those appear to have been detained again. At least six – four of them lawyers – are facing criminal charges for “incitement to subvert state power” by representing people petitioning for redress of grievances against the government. Over 30 people are still unaccounted for and seem to be victims of China’s opaque and malleable detention regulations.

What marks out this crackdown – unmatched in its severity in recent years — is the publicity given it in state media. The denunciation in official newspapers and television news reports of human rights lawyers and non-governmental advocacy groups in the last few days is clearly intended to be a very public and loud warning that under President Xi such activities will not be tolerated.

The other side of that coin, of course, is the tacit acknowledgement by the Communist Party that China’s swelling community of about 300 human rights lawyers, their associates and like-minded advocacy groups have become a serious challenge to the one-party state.

Since the student-led demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 led to a country-wide uprising against Communist Party corruption and mismanagement, China’s leaders have been swift to destroy any movement that might grow into national organization. The Communist Party’s fear of the seething discontent with authority among China’s 1.3 billion people unifying under one opposition banner has fuelled continuing persecutions in the last 26 years. Efforts include the banning of the Falun Gong health and spiritual movement, the party’s determination to control all religious activities, massive establishments to censor and manipulate the Internet and social media, and the crushing of any movement outside the party that dares to advocate political reform.

But lawyers and non-governmental organizations have, thus far, managed to slip between the cracks. They have germinated into a significant political force on the seedbed of Chinese people’s traditional right to petition government for redress of their complaints. This right has been critical in a country where administrations throughout its 5,000-year history have never accepted or acknowledged the rule of law. And as Chinese people have become in recent years ever more enraged at the corrupt and predatory instincts of local Communist Party officials, the petition system has become overburdened with millions of people waiting outside government centres around the country seeking justice.

In May last year President Xi, who came to power in late 2012, banned the petition system and tried to make local courts the forums for redress of grievances. But on issues deemed politically sensitive or where the influence of powerful people is brought to bear, the decisions of Chinese courts are dictated by Communist Party officials. Thus an unintended consequence of the ending of the petition system was to focus public attention on the inequity of the judicial system. This has enhanced the stature of China’s small but dogged and often very courageous community of lawyers willing to take human rights cases or stick up for the under dog.

Last weekend’s assault on the community of human rights lawyers may, however, be too late to insulate the Communist Party against a storm to come. A few days ago Ge Yunsong, associate professor at the Peking University Law School in Beijing, gave a fascinating speech at the commencement ceremony for this year’s graduating class.

Ge began by talking about how in Nazi Germany ordinary and usually moral people were sucked into the totalitarian regime and committed horrendous acts they would not normally have contemplated. This was an extraordinary jumping off point for the professor’s address, coming at a time when more and more of the most knowledgeable and supportive of China’s observers are saying that President Xi heads a fascist regime.

Ge said it is very easy for ordinary people to fall into the trap of supporting an authoritarian regime that claims to be pursuing noble aims, and to obey cruel and evil commands as a result. The professor urged the graduating lawyers never to shirk the burden of moral responsibility. If they do, he warned, they may turn into someone they don’t recognize; someone cruel and indifferent to others.

“Dear students, I hope you never forget to think, never lose the ability to think,” Ge said.

He warned the graduates that after the freedom of university they are entering the adult world in China where “obedience to authority is a necessary condition for society to operate.”

“But, please, do not forget to think. Please, do not lose the ability to think. Do not simply obey.”

Ge said he hoped the new graduates would earn decent incomes, become respected by their communities, and that their families would live in peace and without fear. But he imagined that would not always be the case.

“If you feel the torment of conscience, hold on to that torture because it is the best evidence you are alive. Do not become the docile tool of any person or any organziation.”

However, as activist Chinese lawyers have found in the last few years, bucking the system, especially such a deeply entrenched authoritarian system such as in China, is never easy. The country’s human rights lawyers often adopt courtroom theatrics in order to bring attention to their clients’ petitions, and sometimes they have even used social media to rally support on the streets for the plaintiffs.

It was an incident along these lines which appears to have sparked last weekend’s crackdown and round-up of lawyers, their associates and activists. However, this was a government push-back waiting to happen and only looking for the right opportunity.

This story began on May 2 at the train station in the north-eastern town of Qing’an where Xu Chunhe, a 45-year-old man accompanied by his daughter and 81-year-old mother got into a fracas with a policeman, Li Lebin. Somehow things got out of hand and policeman Li drew his pistol and shot Xu dead.

The police story was that Xu was drunk, assaulted the policeman and attempted to take his gun. The other story, more readily believed by the general public, is that Xu had a long running dispute with local authorities and was on his way to seek redress from more senior officials in the Heilongjiang provincial government. Policeman Li, acting on behalf of local Communist Party officials, was attempting to stop him.

At any rate, Li was quickly exonerated by officials of allegations of using excessive force. But this only excited a public outcry and a couple of weeks later a high-profile human rights activist, Wu Gan, used social media to offer the equivalent of $21,000 to anyone who could provide cell phone video footage of the incident. At the same time several lawyers backed public calls for an independent inquiry into the shooting. At least one of the lawyers was beaten up by unidentified thugs, and several were detained for questioning by local security officials.

Fellow lawyers from around the country rallied around their colleagues and over 600 signed a petition calling on authorities to back off.

The authorities’ first response two weeks ago was to arrest Wu, who is also known by his online pseudonym “Super Vulgar Butcher.” He has been charged with “inciting subversion” and “provoking trouble.” Wu may be a colourful figure who sometimes uses tactics with which not everyone may be comfortable, but he is also attached to the Beijing-based human rights law firm Fengrui.

On Thursday last week one of the Fengrui lawyers, Wang Yu, took her husband and son to Beijing’s international airport. Her husband was to take their son to his school in Australia. But when Wang returned home she found the locks on her house had been changed. She managed to phone a friend with this information before she was detained. And at the airport, her husband and son were also taken away by police before they could board their flight, though the boy was released later.

The following day, Friday last week, police raided the offices of Fengrui and detained at least five of the firm’s employees, including three lawyers.

The Fengrui roundup by authorities was the opening bell for a nation-wide campaign by the authorities against human rights lawyers, their staff and fellow advocates in various civil society organizations. Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group says that by Sunday night 106 people in 15 centres had been detained and questioned and that 82 had been released after interrogation. Of those, at least three have been re-arrested.

On Sunday, the party mouthpiece “People’s Daily” newspaper trumpeted the crackdown under the headline “Uncovering the dark story of ‘rights defence’.” The story said the Ministry of Public Security operation was to “smash a major criminal gang that had used the Beijing Fengrui law firm as a platform since July 2012 to draw attention to sensitive cases, seriously disturbing social order.”

That sentence says all that needs to be known about the Communist Party’s attitude towards the rule and an independence judiciary. Eight hundred years ago Magna Carta enshrined the concept that the sovereign – whether a king, president or political party — just as much as ordinary citizens, is subject to the rule of law. But China’s Communist Party knows it cannot survive as a one-party power if it accepts that notion. So the persecution of uppity lawyers and non-governmental agencies promoting human rights will continue and, doubtless, intensify if there is significant protest.

The purge of lawyers continued through this week, with Amnesty International reporting on Thursday that it knows of 177 lawyers and human rights activists who have been detained or questioned and that 31 are still missing or known to be in police custody.

Xi’s crackdown has excited an unusually strong response from the international community. The United Nations human rights office issued a statement on Thursday criticizing Beijing for what it said was a breech of both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and China’s own constitution. The European Union also chastized China for what it called the “systemic” detentions, and called for the release of those being held.

In the United States the Congressional-Executive Commission on China issued a scathing report on Tuesday questioning whether Xi’s crackdown against lawyers makes him “deserving of a red carpet welcome in Washington” when the Chinese President visits the U.S. in September.

The commission’s report says the roundup of lawyers and other human rights activists is “just the latest example of President Xi Jinping’s intolerance for dissent and mockery of the rule of law.”

Let’s see how the new graduates from Peking University Law School adapt to and perhaps change this climate.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America. 

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