Why the Case for China's Lawyers Doesn't Look Good

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Miranda Mimi Kuo / The New York Times / Redux

Lawyer Gao Zhisheng steps aside to let a woman pass on the stairway of his safehouse in northern China on Dec. 7, 2005

On May 13, Beijing lawyer Li Chunfu went to the southwestern city of Chongqing with a colleague to meet with the family of a man who died in a labor camp. While meeting with the family, Li and lawyer Zhang Kai were detained by police. Li was chained to a chair and punched, while Zhang, also roughed up during their arrest, was locked in a cage. Their transgression? They were representing the family of Jiang Xiqing, a man who belonged to the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. After a few hours of questioning, the Jiangjin district police released them around midnight. "We were scared, but the people [we represented] were even more scared," says Li. "So we went back the next day."

Violence has not stopped Li and his fellow human-rights lawyers from doing their jobs, but bureaucracy might. On June 1, the law licenses for Li and more than a dozen other prominent human-rights lawyers expired. The annual renewal is generally considered a formality — a matter of filling out forms and paying a fee. But this year Li and other top human-rights lawyers were shut out. They say they are being punished for simply doing their jobs.

When Deng Xiaoping led China on the path to reform 30 years ago, one of the key declarations he made was that the country would be ruled by law. Since then, China has made dramatic headway in developing a legal system, but the application of law has been choppy. In recent years a small group of independent lawyers across the nation has been attempting to force the state to uphold human rights. The lawyers have been subject to arrest, violence and even, in the case of one prominent advocate, disappearance. But this month's apparent disbarment of the country's top human-rights lawyers could permanently damage legal-reform efforts. "You can't pretend you care about legal reform and the rule of law if you let the vanguard of legal reform be decapitated overnight," says Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

The disbarred lawyers believe they are being punished for taking cases seen as contrary to the interests of the Communist Party. "The domestic-security police tell the Bureau of Justice, 'These lawyers don't listen; they keep doing these kinds of cases,' " says Jiang Tianyong, a Beijing human-rights lawyer. "We say this is what's permitted under the law. But they say we have no right to argue that these defendants aren't guilty. So when it comes time for our annual assessment, our licenses aren't renewed."

The sensitive cases these lawyers have handled include illegal land seizures, representing victims of faulty products, like in last year's tainted-milk scandal, defending Tibetans accused of agitating for independence and, as in Li's case, defending followers of Falun Gong. "Lawyers no longer serve only as instruments of political control like how they were expected to perform from the 1950s to the 1970s," says Albert Ho, a Hong Kong solicitor and chairman of China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. "With the opening and liberalization of China, it needs to build a system of law and a sound legal system. The government and the governing party shall abide by the law. But they are very, very concerned that the law may cause an obstacle to the control of the people."

Human-rights activists worry that by disbarring these lawyers, the government will turn a group of people working within the system into a group of outsiders. "If they don't have many avenues to protest what has happened to them, then it can easily turn into a situation where they will be seen as dissidents," says Bequelin. And once they fall into that category, the lawyers will lose whatever marginal protections their profession once gave them.

One prominent human-rights attorney, Gao Zhisheng, disappeared in February, shortly after his family fled to exile in the U.S. He is believed to be in police custody. Gao, who had defended underground Christians and Falun Gong members, released an open letter describing the extensive and grotesque torture he had been subjected to by state security officers in 2007. He said he was threatened with death if he ever revealed the details of the abuse he suffered. When asked about his case in March, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that Gao was not a victim of political persecution and his case was being handled "in strict accordance with the law."

Human-rights experts note that Gao, who was once named one of China's top 10 lawyers in 2001, also lost his legal license in 2005. They worry that the latest group of lawyers could be similarly ostracized and mistreated upon being disbarred. In that case, the authorities might lose as well. For all their work on cases that the Communist Party would rather have disappear, the lawyers are working within the system, rather than outside it. "These lawyers are not advocating a fundamental change to the political system. They are not asking the Communist Party to step down and introduce a Western model of multiparty rule," says Ho. "They are only asking the government to fulfill its promise within the law."