When Sui Muqing became a lawyer in 1993, he couldn’t imagine that 25 years later he would become a “post-lawyer” (lvshihou), a self-deprecating term often used by lawyers in China who have been stripped of their license to practice.
The authorities accused Sui Muqing of confronting a trial judge and separately of taking a picture of his client, dissident writer Chen Yunfei, when visiting him in detention. This was enough for the Guangdong Provincial Department of Justice to formally revoke his license, after a heavily guarded hearing in early February this year.
However, it is more likely the authorities’ motivation was to neuter a vocal and effective human rights lawyer. A thorn in the side of the government, Sui Muqing defended many activists and victims of human rights abuses, including representing high-profile human rights defenders like Guangdong activists Guo Feixiong and Wang Qingying and Falun Gong practitioners. Together with other lawyers, he had written statements on the difficulties for lawyers in sensitive cases, ranging from not being allowed to meet clients to challenges in defending their clients in court.
Sui Muqing’s experience exemplifies how much pressure a lawyer in China faces now if he or she takes up human rights cases considered sensitive by the authorities. Since the crackdown against more than 200 human rights lawyers and activists which began in July 2015, that sparked international condemnation, the authorities have increasingly deployed bureaucracy to stifle these determined voices.
These courageous lawyers have often eschewed more lucrative and less controversial roles and instead chose to help people forced from their homes, religious believers facing persecution and many other victims of human rights violations. They only form a small group among China’s 340,000 lawyers but their role in defending human rights is essential. Without these lawyers, many victims of violations will be left without a champion to stand up for their rights.
At least half a dozen human rights lawyers have had their licences revoked or their annual license registrations declined since the crackdown. The tactic has attracted little international criticism so far but has nonetheless been devastatingly effective.
The government’s actions are in clear contravention with international standards that recognize the crucial importance of lawyers in the administration of justice. The UN Basic Principles on the Role of the Lawyers clearly state lawyers should be able to carry out their work without fear of intimidation or harassment, or be threatened with sanctions. The principles also underline a lawyer’s right to freedom of expression.
Yet the authorities use the most tenuous reasons to disbar those lawyers they see as troublemakers. Shandong lawyer Zhu Shengwu’s license was revoked in September 2017 simply because he used the nickname “steam buns” online, which is used by many netizens to ridicule President Xi Jinping. Zhejiang lawyer Wu Youshui was “under investigation” for his online comments criticizing the government and the Communist Party in August 2017 and was suspended from practicing for nine months. Beijing lawyer Cheng Hai’s law firm is running into difficulties with its annual registration which means he needs to find another firm if he is to continue his work.
Their mistreatment strikes at the very heart of the role of defence lawyers in China’s legal system. Is it to defend their clients’ rights or merely to acquiesce to the government’s will? If the latter, lawyers in China are reduced to mere agents of the state. As the number of “post-lawyers” increases, the Chinese government’s claims of “rule of law” ring hollow, exposing the favoured concept of “rule by law with Chinese characteristics” for the sham it is. It is evidenced in former Minister of Justice Zhang Jun’s commentary in the People’s Daily in January 2018 in which he said strengthening the Chinese Communist Party’s role among lawyers is “the core part and fundamental measure” in deepening the reform of the legal system. It bluntly puts the Party above the law.
Two weeks before Sui Muqing’s license was revoked, Beijing lawyer Yu Wensheng was informed his license had been suspended. The authorities didn’t stop there. A few days later he was detained by police, while taking his son to school.
Yu Wensheng stands accused of “inciting subversion of state power” and has been placed under “residential surveillance in a designated location”, a de facto incommunicado detention for charges of “endangering national security”.
While it’s still unclear why he was detained, his friends believe that Yu Wensheng was targeted because of an open letter he wrote in October 2017 in which he criticized Xi Jinping as not being a good leader of the country. Sadly, the authorities are still prepared to arbitrarily use the law with full force against those that dare offer an opinion that differs from the government’s line.
Yu Wensheng’s family are concerned he will be subjected to torture in detention as he was the last time he was incarcerated for 99 days in late 2014 and early 2015 after he showed support for the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong.
Many human rights lawyers say that the problems they face in the annual registration of their licenses or their law firms ending their contracts because of government pressure, is only the beginning of their nightmare. In some cases, like Sui Muqing and Yu Wensheng, their family members are also subjected to harassment, not to mention the financial hardship of losing their livelihood.
These dedicated lawyers have become outcasts in China’s legal community. The government-approved All-China Lawyers Association has joined the authorities’ effort to discredit them, instead of protecting lawyers as outlined in its charter. The semi-official association has accused human rights lawyers of breaking laws and regulations. It has attempted to marginalize them as “troublemakers”. However, the intimidation has not scared off these and other brave lawyers in taking up human rights cases or in exercising their own rights.
More than a decade ago, there were less than a dozen known lawyers who took up human rights cases. The number of lawyers taking up human rights cases now, not to mention those who take up the less sensitive public interest cases, has grown to a few hundred, if not a thousand.
Their sheer effectiveness in protecting the human rights of others resulted in the harsh backlash from the authorities. With the government tightening its grip on the legal profession and civil society in general, there are sadly likely to be more ‘post lawyers’ in China. Yet there is hope, for despite everything the government throws at them, these remarkable lawyers remain resolute.