Starting from the early hours on July 9, 2015, police across China set out in teams to conduct a series of coordinated raids. Organized by the Ministry of Public Security, these police nabbed people from hotel rooms in the middle of the night. They shut off the electricity at the homes of their targets. They prevented people from boarding flights.
Who were the targets of these secretive actions?
Drug lords? Corrupt officials?
No: The targets were 300 human rights lawyers and activists associated with them. Many of these lawyers were some of the few in the country who dared to take on cases involving civil society, ethnic minorities, detained journalists, religious freedom, government misconduct, controversial business disputes, and other sensitive topics.
As detentions, enforced disappearances and forced TV confessions continued in 2015, the international legal community condemned the actions. Bar associations, law councils, human rights organizations, and governments denounced the crackdown and urged sanctions. Scholars, too, shifted their views on Xi Jinping’s ultimate aim of promoting 依法治国, the “rule of law,” or more accurately translated as “governing the nation according to the law,” which had been the sole topic of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress. U.N. experts and treaty bodies condemned the Chinese government’s actions. The international media covered the crackdown quite extensively.
On the anniversary of the notorious “709 Crackdown,” as it has been subsequently known, we should not just think of it as an important moment in modern Chinese history that has now passed. Rather, the Chinese government has never eased up on its pressure against human rights lawyers, even if it hasn’t carried out a crackdown of a similar magnitude since.
But instead of carrying out an ostentatious show of force against lawyers, which carries the risk of garnering an intense international and domestic criticism, the government has changed tactics and now tends to exert pressure in the shadows: carrying out its repression quietly, administratively, and indirectly.
The First Rule of Fight Club Is You Do Not Talk About Fight Club
In the Chinese criminal justice system, to adapt a line from “Fight Club,” it seems that the first rule of government suppression is that you do not talk about government suppression. Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has documented numerous cases of individuals who have been detained merely for publicly revealing abuses of their friends, family members, or themselves – including torture.
Perhaps the most egregious example of this phenomenon is the case of lawyer Chang Weiping, who was seized from his home on October 22, 2020, just days after he released a video on YouTube in which he described the torture that he was subjected to while he was detained in January 2020. In the video, he said he was strapped to a tiger bench for 10 days straight during interrogation and was tortured so badly that he had lost feeling in two fingers as a result.
Similarly, Chinese women’s rights and labor rights activist Li Qiaochu was detained and put in incommunicado detention after revealing that her partner, legal activist Xu Zhiyong, and former lawyer, Ding Jiaxi, were tortured while they were forcibly disappeared. Peng Jian, the lawyer for Ding Jiaxi who had defended him and made known some details related to his case, also seems to have become a victim of retaliation. Peng said that Beijing Huahuan law firm, which was founded and run by Peng, did not pass the 2020-2021 law firm inspection.
This pattern of retaliation is significant. First, it blatantly goes against China’s international law obligations. China ratified the U.N. Convention against Torture (CAT) and as such, China has an obligation to implement the provisions of the convention, including launching a “prompt and impartial investigation” if it is found that someone has committed an offense with reference to the treaty. Not only has China not launched investigations when such information has gone public, but instead, it has systematically retaliated against those making the accusations public.
Second, because of this retaliatory tendency, it is very likely that the outside world knows only a fraction of the details about the violence that has been inflicted upon human rights defenders and lawyers while in detention.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want?
Like in the case of lawyer Peng Jian, whose law firm did not pass the recent annual inspection, another tool to control lawyers and limit the cases they take is to threaten a lawyer’s livelihood by threatening to suspend or revoke a lawyer’s or law firm’s license.
Often the government’s aim in revoking a lawyer’s license is to punish a lawyer for taking on clients that the authorities would prefer had no legal representation or legal representation by a pliant government-appointed lawyer. The government wants to rein in the lawyers they can’t control. This is especially true in “sensitive” cases in which the government wants to guarantee its preferred outcomes while, at the same time, still displaying a veneer of legality to give its rigged outcome a degree of legitimacy.
In other words, contradicting the Rolling Stones, you can always get what you want, if you’re the Communist Party.
Over the last year, CHRD has documented many such lawyers who stood up to this administrative pressure and paid the price:
Human rights lawyer Lu Siwei had his license revoked in January 2021, after he had represented dissident poet Wang Zang and his wife Wang Li, as well as one of the 12 Hong Kong protestors who were captured by Chinese police at sea while trying to leave the city.
Similarly, Ren Quanniu had his lawyer’s license revoked in February after he defended two sensitive cases: one of the “Hong Kong 12” and citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who had reported and compiled information about the COVID-19 pandemic in Wuhan. However, perhaps in a move to obscure the connection with the “Hong Kong 12,” the Henan Provincial Justice Department claimed that Ren’s revoked license was related to his defense of a case of a Falun Gong practitioner in 2018.
On January 27, lawyer Xi Xiangdong received notification from Shandong provincial authorities of a hearing about revoking his law license, an administrative punishment for “disrupting order in a court.” Xi has over the years represented multiple victims of rights abuses, including a family suing police for the death of a family member from torture while in extralegal detention. He also represented formerly detained human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang – one of the main lawyers at the center of the 709 Crackdown.
On January 29, Shanghai judicial authorities revoked the lawyer license of Peng Yonghe, claiming that no law firm had employed him. In truth, several law firms wanted to hire Peng but authorities warned them not to. Peng had taken on several “sensitive” cases and represented persecuted critics of the government.
Can You “Quarantine” Away Human Rights?
The 709 Crackdown – and the subsequent squeeze on human rights lawyers ever since – should cause the international community to reflect. The Chinese government clearly wants its repression of lawyers to go unseen and unnoticed. It wants to present its legal system as dependable. And there are some who seem to be operating under that assumption. Just this week, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with Xi Jinping, and while they brought up human rights issues, they also expressed hope that a trade deal could be reached between the European Union and China. Obviously, the terms of any deal reached would only be dependable under a secure rule of law.
And yet by suppressing independent lawyers who take seriously the government’s claim of “ruling the country by law,” the Chinese government has shown that its version of the rule of law is one that cannot be trusted. The government is always unconstrained when it engages in unlawful behavior – and no lawyer can challenge it without facing personal or professional consequences.
With China’s concept of national security encompassing not just sensitive political issues but economic affairs and technology, and with recent trade friction stemming from unrelated human rights disputes, the international community should be under no delusions that it can neatly divide “human rights” issues from commercial affairs. “Human rights” issues thus cannot be briefly mentioned by foreign leaders and then mentally quarantined away, since the origin of the violations comes from the Chinese government’s mentality that it has the sovereign right to wield its authoritarian power however it wants – no matter what international law says. This awareness of the Chinese government as an authoritarian power using the law as a tool to aggressively seek its own advantage should inform all aspects of the relationship.
Until the Chinese government provides redress to the victims of the 709 Crackdown, investigates the numerous torture accounts that came out of the crackdown, and lifts unreasonable restrictions on lawyers, it will be delusional to premise any faith, let alone investments, on the government’s version of the “rule of law.”