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The Plight of Chinese Human Rights Lawyers

July 6, 2020


It has been five years since the July 2015 massive crackdown on lawyers and legal advocates in China. In what came to be known as the 709 Crackdown, some 300 lawyers and legal advocates were targeted: they were rounded up, questioned, disappeared; many were charged with criminal offenses and received multi-year imprisonment. The authorities paraded others on television “confessing” their crimes.

In this timely essay, Chen Jiangang, one of China’s well-known rights defense lawyers, tells the story of the campaign waged by the Chinese authorities over the past decade intended to crush the rights defense legal profession.

It is a world in which the authorities—personnel or agents of the police, detention facilities, the procuratorate, courts—use a combination of bureaucratic and procedural roadblocks and illegal tactics to strip defendants of their right to legal counsel and deprive lawyers of their right to practice their profession. These tactics include: pressure on law firms to dismiss or warn lawyers who handle “sensitive” cases to drop the representation; public smear campaigns against the lawyers, their firms, their colleagues, and their families; and threats against family members to force lawyers to succumb. Agents of the state instruct landlords and property agents not to rent to these lawyers and their families, driving them out of their homes.

The authorities also use trumped-up heavy charges of vague politicized crimes against their targets, accusing lawyers of “endangering national security” for daring to appeal unjust verdicts, and convicting  a lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, of “subversion of state power” for just challenging the jurisdiction of a case. Chen also recounts his own story: his whole family was detained—by security agents who pointed guns not only at his head, but also at the heads of his two young sons, ages 6 and 2. Chen himself was accused of “endangering national security.” His “crime”: exposing the torture suffered by fellow rights lawyer, Xie Yang, in the detention facility where he was held after being swept up in the 709 Crackdown.

This is a grim tale of the strangulation of rights defense lawyering in China. It is executed by disparate operatives deployed by an authoritarian regime to bring down one of the key pillars that uphold the rule of law.

The Plight of Chinese Human Rights Lawyers

By Chen Jiangang

[Translation by Human Rights in China]

Gap between China and Asia’s “lighthouse of democracy”

A few days ago I participated in a Radio Taiwan International program to discuss the tenth anniversary of the Chinese government’s revocation of the licenses of two lawyers, Tang Jitian and Liu Wei, and reflect on the changes in the Chinese judicial system and human rights situation during that decade. On that program, I learned something interesting about the legal profession in Taiwan. For one thing, once you get your lawyer’s license in Taiwan, it basically means you will have a profession for life; the government won’t revoke your license, much less subject you to annual inspections or assessments. Lawyers also receive professional protection against the government in litigation. For example, during the final few years of the martial law period, such as when lawyers were opposing the government’s case during the Kaohsiung Incident (1979), lawyers were only facing the ordinary pressure of handling a complex case—they were not at risk of being sent to jail. In fact, the lawyers handling that case have all become widely recognized public figures today, like former president Chen Shui-bian, current premier Su Tseng-chang, and lawyer Kuo Chi-jen, who remains a committed human rights advocate today despite his advancing age. And further, in 2014, the lawyers who very publicly wore their robes while meeting with and protecting students occupying the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Student Movement were all safe, without risks to their profession or, more importantly, their person.

On the program, I noted that the environment for lawyers in China today is continuously deteriorating. One manifestation of this is that government organs are recklessly trampling on the law, without remorse or any need to hide what they are doing. For example, we’ll often encounter personnel from public security, the procuratorate, and courts who will openly say to lawyers, “Don’t talk to me about the law; I just listen to the leadership.” Further, in court, judges will even announce that there is no need to respect the law—something that sounds absurd, but I assure you, this is as real as the ground you stand on.

In April 2015, lawyer Li Chunfu and I were representing our client in a court in Feng County, Jiangsu Province. In accordance with the principle of presumption of innocence under Chinese law, we argued that during court proceedings, our client shouldn’t be restrained by handcuffs and shackles. I clearly provided the legal basis to the judge, requesting respect for the defendant’s rights, as treating the defendant this way was illegal. What happened was that the judge, Sun Wuzheng, declared: “So what if it’s illegal? Stop bringing this up.” I immediately said that the prerequisite for a fair trial is fair courtroom procedure, which must not contravene the law. The ending of this story was sad. Judge Sun immediately instructed the bailiffs to physically restrain me by twisting my arms behind my back, remove me from the courtroom, and lock me up in a defendant’s cage.

This little story really shocked the host of the radio program. In Taiwan, this absolutely could not happen, much less could a person in any position of public authority, even a social worker, hold the law in such contempt. This is because respect for the law is the bottom-line ethical requirement, the most basic principle in maintaining social order.

But more broadly, what does this kind of anecdote really amount to? The survival of Chinese human rights lawyers is a far more serious problem than what this little story reveals. Taiwan, Asia’s “lighthouse of democracy,” transitioned to democracy several decades ago. Young people today can hardly imagine what “high political pressure” means.

The view from seven years ago

In July 2013, in Xiamen, noted criminal defense lawyers Zhou Ze and Li Jinxing put out a call to invite lawyers to come together in “cool and comfortable” Guiyang for a conference to exchange experiences in criminal defense on the occasion of the first anniversary of the “Guiyang Xiaohe” case. A newcomer at the time, I was honored to attend the event but sat in the back.

I remember that during the meeting, lawyer Li Jinxing of Zhangqiu District, Shandong Province, acted as the facilitator, and introduced some of his own reflections and thoughts on the practice of criminal defense. He presented his “Ten Strategies for Criminal Defense”: 1) Make every legal provision come to life, mobilize every clause; 2) Drive the public towards the courts, and make more people attend court proceedings; 3) Publicly reveal police torture during criminal investigations, and let the defendants’ parents, children, friends, and loved ones all know about what happened; 4) Turn courtroom examinations into reenactments of investigations, and attach importance to questions posed during hearings; 5) Always challenge prolonged detentions of individuals that exceed the lawful limits; 6) Always investigate and collect witness testimony—lawyers who do not do investigative work are frauds; 7) Lawyers should bear life-long responsibility for cases of miscarriage of justice they have handled; 8) “Desensitize” cases, as there are no “special” cases; 9) Bravely dedicate yourself over the next decade to the “muckraking movement” to seek redress for cases of miscarriage of justice[1] ; 10) Dedicate yourself to cases involving death penalty appeal.

Now seven years have passed, and just last year, a final end was put to Li Jinxing’s career when he was inducted into the “Ex-Lawyers’ Club.”[2]  Looking back on his “Ten Strategies for Criminal Defense” now, of course, makes one want to sigh and weep. This whole affair made me think of a lunchtime exchange I had with lawyer Ding Jiaxi before Lunar New York in 2013, when he talked about his hopes for the future: the construction of civil society, with every person putting his/her words into deeds by doing at least the minimum but in an open way. As Ding himself emphasized, “The work is completely legal; there’s no legal risk whatsoever!” But the result? In April 2013, Ding was detained. The work he had called “completely legal” was classified into two separate crimes in a court verdict: The crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” For these offenses, Ding was locked away for three-and-a-half years. And three years following his release, he was picked up again (in December 2019); this time, not even his lawyers have been able to see him.

During the six years following 2013, putting his words into deeds, Li Jinxing did not stop exploring and expanding the practice of criminal defense in China. The vast majority of famous cases that involved redress for injustice bear his illustrious signature. He has become, by public acclaim, China’s foremost lawyer for overturning unjust verdicts. However, by throwing himself completely into the “completely legal” pursuit of defending human rights and overturning mishandled cases, he was accused of “endangering national security” and was stripped of his license to practice law. In fact, when I think back to the attendees of that conference, I could write an entire list of those who later were targeted as criminal suspects, sentenced to jail, and/or tortured—including, for example, Li Heping, who said not a word at the event but merely went to observe and learn.

Whether or not it’s legal, whether or not it’s practical, whether or not it’s risky—while the red five-star flag flies over China, can the law ever be the basis for a judgment? Can common sense and the will of the people ever be the bases for judgments? As Montesquieu says in The Spirit of the Laws, “the governors and the governed each occupy a separate geography”—it’s hard to dispute the truth of this observation.

Taking stock of the ideals of time past

Over the past decade, by dedicating themselves to the construction of the rule of law and human rights defense work, what results have China’s human rights lawyers achieved at the price of their own blood?

One can make an initial tally by looking at Li Jinxing’s proposals.

(1) “Make every legal provision come to life, mobilize every clause.”

We can cross this proposal out completely. It doesn’t work.

From the articles in the Constitution protecting human rights (or the right to vote) to those in the Criminal Procedure Law—none of it holds. In the anecdote I recounted earlier, my being physically removed from the courtroom and forced into a cage was due to the simple act that I tried to activate the legal clause that reads “during hearings in the courtroom, the accused should be removed from restraints.” In an even more serious case, following the 709 Crackdown on lawyers and legal advocates in 2015, lawyer Wang Quanzhang was detained. As part of a smear campaign the authorities waged against him, CCTV produced a program that featured an interview with a judge from a certain court in the northeastern region who had this to say about Wang’s alleged “major” crime resulting from a case that Wang handled: “This was a case with hardly anything to dispute, but when the lawyer [Wang] repeatedly applied for a reconsideration of the jurisdiction of the case, this seriously disrupted court order. . . .” Determining jurisdiction is the prerequisite for a court to try a case. Lawyers can indeed challenge jurisdiction, as is clearly written in the relevant articles of the Criminal Procedure Law. It is the judge’s right to permit the change of jurisdiction or not, but the lawyer has the right to put forth a challenge of jurisdiction as a matter of procedure. But, in activating this article of law, the price was the blue-chip political crime of “subversion of state power.” For this, Wang Quanzhang received a four-and-a-half-year prison term.

(2) “Drive the public towards the courts, and make more people attend court proceedings.”

This proposal we can also cross out completely, as it doesn’t work either. Actually this suggestion has never really worked. The courts have always carefully managed and controlled the ability of the public to attend court hearings. In practice, even family members [of the accused]—let alone the general public—may not be allowed to attend court proceedings. When courts show mercy, they may give a couple of seats to the family. Chinese trials have already become “secret” trials. As evidenced in internal court materials, the central judicial system already has clear strategies and methods for controlling courtroom attendance. What we see frequently is the court arranging for a group of government workers or persons controlled by the government, such as neighborhood committee personnel, to occupy courtroom seats. In particularly special cases, the central authorities would arrange for an outsider to fly in from elsewhere and attend the proceedings, and then do press interviews.

(3) “Publicly reveal police torture during criminal investigations.”

Writing this, I can’t help but laugh, as I myself—lawyer Chen Jiangang, who revealed the torture  of 709 lawyers—have become an object of intense surveillance; and I, along with my wife and children, five-year-old and one-year-old sons, have been added to the blacklist of those who “endanger national security.” In May 2017, when my whole family was detained, shiny black gun barrels were pointed at my head as well as those of my children. My older one was not yet seven, and the younger one not yet three. As to all the threats and torment I have suffered at the hands of the people in the Bureau of Justice and domestic security ever since my torture exposé on January 19, 2017, I will tell you about them if there is time in future.

When a gun is pointed at you, we’ll see who will dare reveal torture.

(4) Turn courtroom examinations into reenactments of investigations, and attach importance to questions posed during hearings.

This is also impossible in most situations. From my own personal experience, there has not been one single case where lawyers were permitted to resurface the case investigation during courtroom proceedings, and judges would use every excuse to interrupt lawyers’ questions—even to the point of insulting them or kicking them out of the courtroom. Case after case, I remember vividly, such as the New Citizens cases (2014), the judge’s gavel would rudely interrupt a lawyer’s questions—every single hearing was like this.

(5) Always challenge prolonged detentions of individuals that exceed the lawful limits.

This, too, can be crossed off. It doesn’t work. Of all the lawyers who supported these kinds of legal challenges, none was more persistent than lawyer Cheng Hai. In just about every case, he would raise procedural challenges. And just about every time I saw him, he’d be fixing a drink and admonishing other lawyers: “Lawyers who don’t raise challenges are lazy lawyers, and incapable of defending their own rights.” But the result of his own efforts was, first, being shut down for a year, then having his own law offices’ license canceled, and, finally, his lawyer’s license to practice canceled.

(6) Always investigate and collect witness testimony—lawyers who do not do investigative work are frauds.

When it comes to this proposal, it depends on the case. Many lawyers will seek out witnesses for the defense, but the usual result is that once lawyers produce a list of witnesses, those witnesses are immediately exposed to the risk of being detained. In the best case scenario, they’ll be threatened, sometimes to the point where they do not dare appear in court. How many people have been arrested or sentenced for testifying—there is no way to tally the figures. But if you ask the big-name criminal defense lawyers, they all have their blood-drenched cases to show.

(7) Lawyers should bear life-long responsibility for cases of miscarriage of justice they have handled.

I admit that many lawyers have done this; Li Jinxing has done that, and I certainly have as well. But Li Jinxing had his license revoked, and I had mine canceled.

(8) “Desensitize” cases, as there are no “special” cases.

This is exactly how we position ourselves: we calmly, conscientiously, and bravely handle sensitive cases. But the consequence of doing this is that lawyers themselves become “sensitive” persons, leaders of the “New Five Black Categories,” suspects of “endangering national security,” who are monitored and controlled along with their families. The final case that resulted in Li Jinxing’s joining the rank of “ex-lawyers,” after all, was the one involving Wu Xiaohui, the husband of Deng Xiaoping’s granddaughter. Fittingly, The New York Times headline for the story of the case, read “Why Did China Detain Anbang’s Chairman? He Tested a Lot of Limits.” Whether or not a case is sensitive, whether or not a case is steered and controlled as a sensitive case—the string is never in the lawyer’s hands.

(9) Bravely dedicate yourself over the next decade to the “muckraking movement” to seek redress for cases of miscarriage of justice.

The general idea of the “muckraking movement” that lawyer Li referred to was to reveal the truth of criminal defense and expose the darkness of the judicial system to sunlight, especially with regard to past cases of miscarriage of justice. He dreamed of ten years for this, but only six years after articulating this, his license to practice was taken away. In the face of despotism, “we are all just ants before the wheels of reality.” Those lawyers who have tried to tell the truth of China’s judicial system have all walked toward license revocation, one after another.

(10) Dedicate yourself to cases involving death penalty appeal.

Death penalty appeals rarely succeed. For example, the cases of Zeng Chengjie, Xia Junfeng, and Jia Jinglong had all captured the passion and expectation of many lawyers. But in the end, trees have grown tall over the graves of their clients, who have all become ancients.

Ambushed from all sides

Of course, in the face of the Chinese judicial system, what we have lost, and what we are dispirited about, is this: We have lost not only the possibility of striving for fairness and justice, but also our work, and the safety of ourselves and our families. The plight of the Chinese human rights lawyers must be hard to imagine for our Taiwanese friends, who were born into and live in a democracy—not to mention those in Europe and America, who live in countries practically run by lawyers and are separated further from us by language barriers.

As someone who has personally experienced these things, let me go through the hidden dangers surrounding today’s Chinese human rights lawyers and let us have a look at what they face.

One. First and foremost is the annual inspection of a lawyer’s license, the chief operators of which are the Bureaus of Justice and lawyers’ associations.

The annual lawyer’s inspection has become a yearly exercise for a lawyer to pass a professional examination and obtaining an administrative approval. In fact, it is a means by which the authorities control lawyers. It also poses a Catch-22 for lawyers: If a lawyer refuses the annual inspection, then that lawyer can no longer practice, and is effectively deprived of his right to work; and if you don’t oppose the annual inspection, then every year you will have to subject yourself to the humiliation of crawling between the legs of the authorities and you’ll have to pay a fee for the pleasure of doing so. Actually, the Beijing Lawyers’ Association rakes in nearly RMB 100 million every year from the annual inspection fees alone.

Prior to 2011, the annual inspection of lawyers was handled by Bureaus of Justice; following that, it was implemented by lawyers’ associations, with the Bureaus of Justice stamping an annual inspection seal on the licenses of those lawyers who pass the assessment.

In name, lawyers’ associations are self-governing professional organizations. But China has no true self-governing organizations—everything is organized by the Communist Party of China (CPC). Anyone holding an official position within lawyers’ associations is examined and approved or appointed outright by Bureaus of Justice. As for the so-called elections of lawyers’ association presidents or vice-presidents, they are “elections with CPC characteristics.” But even a president elected in this way holds no real leadership power—when has the CPC ever fully trusted a lawyer?

In a lawyers’ association, it is the general secretary who holds real power, and that position is occupied part-time by a civil servant who works full-time for the Bureau of Justice. The whole system is thus controlled beyond any doubt by the CPC’s Bureaus of Justice. Of course, this is not to say the people who hold positions of presidents and vice president cannot do evil things. In many situations, they are precisely the ones who come out to do the most harm to human rights lawyers. For example, on many occasions, the president of the Beijing Lawyers Association, lawyer Li Dajin, openly said he wanted to “knock over some lawyer’s rice bowls.” In 2008, the lawyers who proposed the direct elections of officials in the Beijing Lawyers Association were stripped of their licenses one by one. They were: Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Wen Haibo, Tong Chao, and others. When I was in Beijing, it was the lawyers’ association’s vice president who surveilled me and held regular “chats” with me.

The annual task of lawyers’ associations and Bureaus of Justice in the context of the annual inspection is to torment and persecute lawyers. In order to continue to work, all human rights lawyers must subject themselves to this humiliation. Take Beijing as an example, just about all human rights lawyers have experienced this kind of torment. But at the same time, Bureaus of Justice and lawyers’ associations occasionally yielded unexpected results, for it is through the process of enduring these injustices that some human rights lawyers are able to get to know and embrace one another. For example, lawyers Jiang Tianyong and Xie Yanyi met while they were each on the way to a mandated “chat” with the Bureau of Justice.

Two. The case reporting system: Another shackle placed on the legal profession.

One of the elements of the annual inspection is the reporting of significant cases. Bureaus of Justice mandate the case reporting system, stipulating that lawyers handling cases involving national security, religious belief, or group incidents must report them to Bureaus of Justice to be put on file. Actually, the case reporting system is a type of monitoring and control in disguise, in effect camouflaged restrictions placed on the legal profession. Because of their sensitivity, many law firms do not dare to accept these types of cases and require lawyers not to represent these clients to avoid trouble or being targeted by the Bureau of Justice. Even after the cases are reported, a Bureau of Justice may directly intervene, monitor, command, or otherwise interfere in the lawyer’s management of the case. Take the 2013 An Guo case in Dalian, which involved several lawyers from Beijing. After the court set the hearing date, the head of the lawyers management office of the Beijing Bureau of Justice personally led staff to monitor these lawyers, and to interfere with their handling of the case.

Of course, looking back from today’s perspective, that was actually a golden age of development for Chinese human rights lawyers, because lawyers could still go to court. Today, clients can no longer retain or have family members retain lawyers to represent them.

Three. A lawyer’s use of media is tightly monitored and controlled.

The CPC uses the grand-sounding edict of “no sensationalizing” to restrict a lawyer’s reasonable use of media to speak out and to suppress commentary and criticism of the judicial system. Even when authorities are behaving outrageously, lawyers must keep their mouths shut, to maintain a false sense of harmony, stability, and peace. Together, the Supreme People’s Court and Ministry of Justice issued a document clearly requiring lawyers “not to use the Internet to issue statements, open letters, or appeals, in their own names or others’, to the media, or us other methods to sensationalize cases.” Lawyers who persist in speaking out would end up having their WeChat accounts restricted, their Weibo functions limited, or their accounts shutdown outright. They are threatened with not being able to pass their annual inspection, and even with the revocation of their law licenses as punishment. For example, Lawyer Ge Yongxi was fined RMB 30,000 for making a Weibo post; Li Jinxing was forced to stop practicing law for a year for posting on Weibo information about his case. And when he was reinstated, because he once again posted information online, his law license was permanently revoked.

Four. Public security, the procuratorate, courts, detention facilities, and other departments directly deprive lawyers of opportunities to work.

In recent years, the CPC has prevented lawyers from working on so many cases that it has become its own trend. The method is as follows: Prevent a defendant from meeting with a lawyer, prevent the defendant or his family from retaining a lawyer, and force the defendant to accept a lawyer appointed by the state. Even if the family has retained a lawyer, the CPC may still require the defendant to dismiss that lawyer. There have been too many cases like this to count. How can this be achieved? Stripped of all contact with and information from the outside world, and being subjected to torture, the defendant loses all free will. In this situation, there is nothing the CPC cannot achieve. Most often seen is that the unit managing the case gives the defendant’s family or the lawyer retained by the family a piece of paper which states the [defendant’s] refusal to accept, or outright dismissal of, the lawyer retained by the family. Of course, there are cruder methods, in which the person handling the case simply conveys to the lawyer that “the suspect has said that he did not ask for a lawyer, and he will not see a lawyer.” These cases, including those in the 709 Crackdown, are too numerous to count. The most recent instance of this occurred in the handling of the three Changsha Funeng staff members who have been accused of “subversion of  state power.” The accused, Wu Gejianxiong, Cheng Yuan, and Liu Yongze, simultaneously “dismissed” the six lawyers retained by their families, including lawyer Wu Youshui, father of the defendant Wu Gejianxiong.

There is a saying in Chinese, “Under the three torturer’s tools, what can you not obtain?” The realities of the current moment speak to the brutal truth in this ancient observation.

Making defendants to give up on retaining lawyers, dismiss their lawyers, or retain an “official lawyer” arranged by the authorities has become the normal practice over the past five years. This has in effect abolished the criminal defense system, because defendants will not be able to access real criminal defense. Instead, defendants, as well as officially appointed lawyers, ambushed by public security, the procuratorate, and the courts, are just carted off to prison, one by one. The only goal of these “official lawyers” is to communicate with defendants, threaten the accused to confess their crimes and accept punishment, and get them to listen to directions, obediently sit through trials, and calmly go to prison.

Almost all of the defendants in the 709 Crackdown encountered these “official lawyers” and were strangulated by the joint efforts of these lawyers and the entire system. They include Li Heping, Li Chunfu, Jiang Tianyong, and others. Official lawyers not only do not communicate the details of the case with defendants’ family members but have even threatened the families. In the last few years, the CPC has vigorously nurtured these official lawyers and codified their role in the amended Criminal Procedure Law (2018).[3]

Five. Public security, the procuratorate, courts, detention facilities, and other departments obstruct the legal profession.

In some cases, especially those involving fundamental human rights issues, if a lawyer insists on defending their clients in accordance with the law or challenging the illegal actions of the state in accordance with the law, that lawyer will be immediately viewed as “anti-Party” and subjected to repeated attacks. Not only will the authorities compel the defendant or the family to dismiss the human rights lawyer, there are other coordinated strikes they can launch. For example, they can prevent the lawyer from meeting with the defendant for any reason, deny the lawyer access to case documents, prevent the lawyer from making statements in court as part of the client’s defense, or force the lawyer to undergo invasive security checks and body searches, or even bar the lawyer from entering the courtroom altogether. They can also beat up the lawyer, illegally seize the lawyer’s equipment, or illegally detain him, torture him, frame him, or even convict him and send him to prison. There are countless cases like this.

Six. Mobilize law firms to control lawyers.

Should the Chinese government wish to control a given law firm and a lawyer’s work opportunities or credentials, usually, it is much easier to apply pressure on a law firm or its director than the individual lawyer. A Bureau of Justice will instruct law firms and their directors to apply severe pressure to control “sensitive” lawyers, restrict the cases they handle, confiscate the lawyers’ fees, and leave them no option to work. Nearly every lawyer who has been pressured has personally experienced this.

Seven. Directly prohibit lawyers from handling cases.

This type of situation is relatively rare. Only in very special situations would the CPC employ such a simple, crude, and naked method. For example, during the 2020 epidemic, because of the CPC’s abuse of power and dereliction of duty, a huge tragedy unfolded in Hubei and across the whole nation. Many of those afflicted could not obtain medical treatment and died, and many more have reportedlyhad their legs broken for leaving the house, and had their teeth knocked out for talking back” in the government’s severe crackdowns. Some were reportedly beaten to death. As the epidemic in China gradually stabilized, some families have demanded state compensations, and have sought to retain lawyers to defend their rights. When the CPC caught wind that some people might be filing lawsuits, just at the moment it was facing global opprobrium for concealing the early stages of the epidemic and thereby facilitating its spread around the whole world, the claimants for state compensations immediately became political criminals. At once, in every province, the CPC dispatched representatives of  Bureaus of Justice to “chat” with human rights lawyers and pass along directives from Beijing. Called the “Three Moratoriums and Six Prohibitions,” they include the following: Prohibition on participating in signature campaigns or joint statements; prohibition on creating disturbances (制造事端) through filing lawsuits, open government information requests, or applications for state compensations; and prohibition on joining lawyers’ groups formed to work on claims involving the new coronavirus.

As a member of a group of lawyers working on these kinds of claims, every day, I closely follow developments among victims and their families. But in an era where the rule of law has been abandoned, lawyers and their clients face this double strangulation: clients have lost their lawfully guaranteed right to request compensation, and lawyers have lost their right to represent them.

Eight. Cancel lawyer’s professional licenses.

The CPC’s preferred mechanism of control is to first mobilize a law firm to apply pressure on a lawyer, so that the lawyer cannot represent cases and is dismissed from his  firm. It then threatens other firms to prevent them from hiring that lawyer. This puts the lawyer out of work as he cannot find a law firm to employ him. Unemployment for a period of longer than six months will immediately be used by the Bureau of Justice as basis for cancelation of that lawyer’s license to practice. This has become a very common method for persecuting lawyers. Of course, there are also cases where a lawyer’s license is canceled without any justification whatsoever. I am such a case. My lawyer’s license was canceled by the Beijing Bureau of Justice without any any kind of reason. It never even notified me.

This is the method the CPC uses to strip most lawyers of their licenses—by depriving them the opportunity to work. These lawyers include Jiang Tianyong, Wen Haibo, Tong Chaoping, Yang Huiwen, Zhang Lihui, Li Subin, and so on. Lawyer Cheng Hai’s case was comparatively  unusual, as he was the head of his own law firm, and its only lawyer. In his case, the Bureau of Justice could not get him to decide to dismiss himself, , and so had to first cancel the firm’s license, and then cancel his license to practice.

Nine. Revoke professional licenses and dissolve law firms.

So many lawyers have  had their licenses revoked, including Gao Zhisheng, Tang Jitian, Liu Wei, Liu Zhengqing, Wen Donghai, Sui Muqing, Pu Zhiqiang, Xie Yanyi, Li Heping, and Yang Jinzhu. And so many law firms have had their licenses canceled.

Ten. Frame the target with false criminal charges, convict them, torture them, then parade them on CCTV to smear them.

There are dozens of people who have been falsely accused of crimes by the CPC for their participation in human rights cases, such as Gao Zhisheng, Zheng Enchong, Zhou Shifeng, Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang, Xie Yang, Li Chunfu, Xie Yanyi, Yu Wensheng, Jiang Tianyong, Wang Yu, Bao Longjun, and others. All of the lawyers arrested in 2015 were tortured.

Of course, there is an even dirtier trick—get human rights lawyers to “be prostituted.” The most recent victim of this was lawyer Zhang Tingyuan of Chongqing.

Eleven.  Take family members hostage to control lawyers.

The CPC controls lawyers through concerted actions among different government departments. In addition to Bureaus of Justice and lawyers’ associations, they include public security bureaus, domestic security units, customs bureaus, neighborhood committees, village committees, and other organizations in all parts of the country. The authorities even demand family and friends to exert pressure on the individual.

In the process of persecuting lawyers, the CPC uses control of family members, particularly by taking the children as hostages, to control the actions of lawyers themselves. This has actually become a very common tactic, as we shall see in the following examples. The son of lawyers Wang Yu and Bao Longjun, Bao Zhuoxuan, was detained, beaten, and imprisoned before being subjected to monitoring and control. Lawyer Li Heping’s wife, son, and daughter were all deprived of their right to obtain passports, with the result that his son, Li Zeyuan, had to delay his studies. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang’s wife and son were prevented from leaving the country. Lawyer Xie Yang’s wife and two daughters were prevented from leaving the country. Lawyer Xie Yanyi’s wife and three children were prevented from leaving the country.

And finally, in my own case, in the spring of 2015, my family of four people, including my two young children, aged five and one, were all prevented from leaving the country. The reason: we were all suspected of the crime of “endangering national security.” In May 2017, during a vacation, our whole family was detained. In the following two years, domestic security units in Beijing placed our entire family under round-the-clock surveillance. This was a shameless act of using control over my family, especially my children, to control me. Of course, there are many lawyers who have been persecuted this way.

The use of hostages, especially children hostages, to control sensitive persons does not aim only at human rights lawyers. People in the “New Five Black Categories” are all victims of these crimes against humanity. In a case that happened just in the past few days, domestic security wanted to show victims in Hubei seeking state compensation the consequences of their actions by explicitly threatening to harm the ten-year-old daughter of a claimant.

As Montesquieu lamented in Spirit of the Laws: “Nothing but the very excess and rage of despotic power ordained that the father’s disgrace should drag after it that of his wife and children: they are wretched enough already, without being criminals.” How tragic that 270 years after Montesquieu wrote these words there is a political regime even more evil than the one he described!

Twelve. Those who do not obey do not eat.

The CPC controls everything in China. With regard to human rights lawyers who refuse to obey, the most common methods of persecution it will use is cut off their income and apply economic pressure by prohibiting them from handling cases and interfering with their handling of cases. Under normal circumstances, human rights lawyers have mastered the legal profession to the exclusion of other things. Once the CPC threatens their income, the majority of lawyers are immediately trapped, because behind each person is a family.

Thirteen. Those who do not obey do not live.

To make lawyers obey, the CPC will destroy the lawyer, the lawyer’s family, and everything they have, immediately forcing them into dire straits. A common tactic includes threatening the lawyer’s landlord or property agent to prevent them from renting to the lawyer and the lawyer’s family, or ordering them to withdraw an already-rented residence to force the lawyer and family to move. Authorities may also cut off the lawyer’s family’s water, electricity, gas, Internet, or phone line. They may threaten all of the relatives of the lawyer and the lawyer’s wife, to force them to exert pressure on the lawyer, to the point where all the relatives are also persecuted and view the lawyer as the enemy. They may also threaten the schools to prevent them from taking in the lawyer’s children. There are additional, evil methods for exerting pressure. Among the 709 cases, in those involving Wang Yu, Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang, Xie Yanyi, myself, as well as other lawyers, our children and our homes were all greatly interfered with—to the point where our children were not able attend school in a normal way.

Those lawyers who have experienced being forced to repeatedly move from place to place understand how exhausting and miserable it is. A few years ago, I was chatting with lawyer Li Chunfu. We discussed being forced to move multiple times, dragging along our wives and children and all our worldly possessions, all of us anxious and displaced like stray dogs. In such a situation, even men would cry. When lawyer Jiang Tianyong and his family were in Beijing, just to cause him trouble, domestic security operatives squeezed superglue into his apartment door lock four times in just one month. Just imagine a small family, a husband and wife and a young daughter, unable to enter their own home! They had to change the lock multiple times. How can one live like that?

Since the 709 Crackdown, wives of the imprisoned lawyers have banded together to support one another to not only defend their rights and fight injustices, but also support one another in moving houses—and they moved continuously. For example, when Xie Yanyi was in prison, his wife had to carry their daughter, not yet a year old, and lead their two boys, around age ten, through the streets in search of new lodgings multiple times, becoming nearly homeless. Just thinking of it fills me with fury.

Of course, the 13 tactics listed here do not fully cover the wide range of measures the CPC uses to persecute lawyers. Since the CPC controls all the organs of power in China, it controls all personal assets and financial institutions. In wielding unlimited power, it possesses unlimited means of persecuting lawyers.

“Who else?”

Just as thunder follows lightning, there were early signs that preceded the CPC’s campaign-styled suppression of human rights lawyers.

On July 31, 2012, an essay in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily accused the United States of using various tactics to stall and interfere with China’s rise in order to insure its own supremacy. It described the tactics as: “Changing the traditional model of advancing democracy through a ‘top-down’ method by raising the banner of ‘Internet freedom.’  Using rights-defense lawyers, underground religious organizations, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders, and vulnerable groups at the core, to put conditions on the transformation of China by infiltrating China from the grassroots level up.” This is the source of what would later be called the “New Five Black Categories.”

Throughout its history, China has always sought to first smear and then persecute groups of people. This practice probably originated with Shang Yang (390–338, B.C.) and Han Fei (280–233, B.C.) the “masters of fear.” Shang Yang wanted to rid China of the “Six Lice,” a slur that referred to twelve types of people dedicated to “rites and music, poetry and history, moral culture and virtue, filial piety and brotherly love, sincerity and faith, chastity and integrity, and benevolence and righteousness,” etc. Han Fei, meanwhile, had his “Five Worms,” the “scholars, talkers, sword-carriers, cowardly conscripts, and merchants and craftsmen.” Or, in plainer language, artists, researchers, protectors of morality, warriors. To him, these kinds of people were lice and worms to be exterminated. Reflecting on the many previous “New China” political movements, it appeared that people were following a similar path to crack down on the “Five Black Categories.” Now, there are the “New Five Black Categories” that need to be cracked down on.

As I write this, I am reminded of the first sentence uttered in Feng Xiaogang’s movie,“Kung Fu Hustle”: “Who else?” In today’s China, if there are no human rights lawyers, no religious believers, no dissidents, no Internet opinion leaders, or people who dare to fight for justice rather than silently endure, and the only ones left are the kneeling, obedient masses—will the abandonment of freedom and diversity of voices bring security? As common sense tells us, of course it cannot.

A final word in response to this disdainful insult of “Who else?” Without the “New Five Black Categories” at the forefront, we know well what despotism will do to the ordinary, obedient masses behind. As it was written in The Lament for the South by Yu Xin (513-581), “They were struck down and cut to pieces, like mere blades of grass.”

Chen Jiangang
May 7, 2020


[1] Editor’s note: This movement, called the “muckraking movement” in Chinese (bafen yundong 扒粪运动), refers to the efforts of a number of Chinese lawyers and legal advocates who seek to overturn cases of miscarriage of justice committed by the state over the past decade or so. The offenses targeted by the movement include addressing or overturning verdicts based on confessions obtained through torture, falsification of evidence, and other instances of misconduct.

[2] Editor’s note: In September 2018, some 30 lawyers whose licenses were revoked because of their right defense work formed the “Chinese Ex-Lawyers Club” in Guangxi Province. The club’s mission was to train and nurture legal talent to fight for justice for the public.

[3] Editor’s note: This refers to Article 36 of the Criminal Procedure Law (amended 2018): “Legal aid agencies may station on-duty lawyers in people's courts, detention facilities, and other places. If the criminal suspect or defendant has not retained defense counsel, and the legal aid agency has not appointed a lawyer to provide defense, the on-duty lawyer shall provide to the criminal suspect or defendant such legal assistance as legal consultation, suggestions on procedural options, application for change of coercive measures, and opinions on the handling of the case.” (Chinese source:; English translation by HRIC.)

About Chen Jiangang

Chen Jiangang is a Chinese human rights lawyer who specializes in criminal defense. He began practicing in 2008 and has represented many human rights cases since 2013, including those involving the proponents of New Citizens Movement, Falun Gong practitioners, victims of demolition of churches, as well as victims of the 709 Crackdown. He also represented the daughter-in-law of Zhou Yongkang, the disgraced former Secretary of the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China. Prevented from leaving China beginning in Spring 2015, he and his family escaped from China in July 2019. In November 2019, his lawyer’s license was cancelled by the authorities.