08/20/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

China's Civil Rights Lawyers: The New Enemies of the State

Apart from crackdowns in its ethnic minority regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, in recent months Beijing has been busy targeting home-grown adversaries--Chinese civil rights lawyers--in a series of moves that has been described by the group Human Rights in China as "an all-out attack."

On the morning of Friday, July 17, around 20 Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau officials raided the offices of the nongovernmental legal research center, Open Constitution Initiative (OCI). The officials took away the centers files, computers and other equipment in an operation that lasted four and a half hours, and an order delivered to the staff that the center was to be shut down "effective upon announcement."

Three days earlier, on July 14, the OCI had received notification of fines from state and local Beijing tax bureaus totaling $208,000 (1.42 million yuan) for alleged tax violations.

Founded in 2002, OCI, part of the Gongmeng Consulting group, is run by human rights lawyers who take on cases that might be deemed sensitive for Beijing, most notably preparing a public lawsuit on behalf of victims of the tainted milk scandal who could not afford representation. This May, the center came out with a report critical of Beijing's policies in Tibet, suggesting that Tibetans are not benefiting from China's development in the region and that Tibetans who protested last year were venting "reasonable demands." [See Huffington Post article]

On the Chinese Law Prof's blog George Washington University Law School professor Donald C. Clarke notes, "One can reasonably suspect that more is going on here that just tax problems."

The official reason for why OCI was shut down was that it had not registered as a nonprofit or "civil society" organization with the government and was running as a business. The fine included penalties made against a number of endowments given to OCI by Yale Law School. On July 18th, Paul Gerwitz, Yale Law School professor and the director of Yale's China Law Center, issued a statement in support of OCI and Xu Zhiyong, saying, "We hope that its valuable work can continue. We also hope that the relevant Chinese authorities will reconsider these penalties and decisions once they have obtained additional information from OCI at the requested hearings."

Xu Zhiyong the passionate civil rights activist and legal scholar who founded OCI admits there may have been some accounting errors, but claims that there is "no legal proof to show our group has not been registered properly." He believes that the center's closure was politically motivated. In a statement on his blog, Zhiyong writes, "It's not just a punishment against us, it is punishing the children poisoned by milk powder, the kids of migrant workers, the property owners bullied by developers, and those petitioners who tirelessly demand justice." [See Xu Zhiyong's full statement]

"This is precisely the kind of organization whose work the government should value, as it helps ease grievances and minimize unrest," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Petitioners in China: By removing legal avenues for their frustrations is Beijing
courting social unrest?
[Photo: China Digital Times]

More reports continue to surface in China of legal licenses being revoked or refused renewal, suspensions of lawyers, and the forced closure of law firms. Some lawyers have not received their annual licensing inspection and registration approval from the Lawyers Association, without which they cannot legally continue to practice. According to Human Rights in China, three Beijing law firms who did not pass their annual inspection were told that the reason they failed was because "they represented mass cases without going through the proper procedures." Most of the 17 lawyers have taken on cases involving Falun Gong, HIV/AIDS, peasants in land disputes, forced evictions, the melamine milk powder scandal, and religious freedom.

Human Rights Watch is reporting that the official Beijing Bureau of Legal Affairs issued a notice to the city's lawyers urging "caution" in their involvement in the defense of suspects linked to the July 5 riots in Urumqi in Xinjiang. This will not be viewed as an idle threat. A number of Beijing lawyers who offered to represent Tibetans following the March 2008 protests had their licenses revoked as a result.

The Human Rights in China website lists a number of cases where more aggressive tactics than bureaucratic obstacles and intimidation have been used against lawyers who take on such cases, including arrests, disappearances, and beatings. On February 28, Wei Liangwan, a lawyer from Heilongjiang Province who has taken up a number of religious freedom cases, was arrested by Harbin police. In April, Yang Zaixin, a lawyer from Guangxi Province representing farmers who had lost their land, was beaten severely. Liu Yao, who was representing peasants in land disputes, was sentenced to a one-year prison term with a two-year reprieve. On May 13th, around 20 policemen broke into the house of the client of two Beijing lawyers, Zhang Kai and Li Chunfu, working in Chongqing. The lawyers were handcuffed and beaten.

The Associated Press reported that on July 9, the Beijing Justice Bureau announced through its website that it had canceled the licenses of 53 lawyers for allegedly failing to apply for re-registration. One of those disbarred is renowned civil rights lawyer, Jiang Tianyong, whose clients have included high-profile Tibetan monks and victims of a slave labor ring.

But in removing the legal channels through which ordinary Chinese citizens can voice their grievances, some observers worry that Beijing might be unwittingly fueling less civilized methods of getting heard.

Says Human Rights Watch's Sophie Richardson, "The Chinese government has a choice: it can let people take their cases through the courts, or it can let them take to the street."

Rebecca Novick is a writer and founding producer of The Tibet Connection radio program.