Over the last five weeks, Chinese authorities have conducting a sweeping roundup of human rights lawyers and activists, interrogating and briefly detaining over 200 people, with 25 still in custody. Most of those 25 are being held in secret locations with no access to family or lawyers. Under Chinese law, police can detain citizens for up to 37 days before the procurator must either approve their arrest or release them. For most of those still in detention, that crucial deadline has passed; their detention is now unlawful, not just under international law but domestic law. And to think that the official justification for rounding-up the lawyers was to “ the rule of law!”
The last time this many human rights lawyers and activists were taken into custody in China was in 2011, when the government responded to an online call for an Arab Spring-style “Jasmine Revolution” by detaining and forcibly disappearing over 200 activists, some of them prominent lawyers, in a broad sweep. Many of them later described torture in secret facilities.
Since then, the government has been trumpeting a supposed new commitment to “rule of law.” This rhetoric notwithstanding, police continue to ignore even the country’s weak protections for the accused. The government is showing once again that it considers respect for China’s laws optional – laws that already allow extensive authoritarian government conduct.
Worse still, the government has proposed to the legislature new legal provisions to fortify its capacity to silence rights defenders. The current crackdown on activists coincides with the government’s “public consultation” period in which anyone can submit views on draft revisions to China’s Criminal Law – including some that would punish lawyers for acts of free speech made in court. Because of the crackdown, few human rights lawyers are in a position to oppose the proposals.
And the Chinese government is once again demonstrating that under “rule of law” in China today, the state always prevails.