“While China’s human rights lawyers are no strangers to official harassment, these sudden, invasive probes send an alarming message,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet again, China’s authorities are putting lawyers on notice that they are subject to the whims of the government.”
Since early September 2017, officials from the Beijing, Guangdong, Guangxi, Henan, Hunan, and Yunnan Bureaus of Justice, along with government-controlled local All-China Lawyers Associations and police, began what they call “comprehensive evaluations” or “research” into at least seven law firms. The precise scope of these investigations varies. Lawyers told Human Rights Watch that in some cases the officials came for “chats” asking about the management of the firm, the number of criminal cases they have undertaken, their management, and how much they charge. In one case, a lawyer said officials asked to examine all his contracts and receipts. Officials told the director of a Beijing-based firm that they plan to investigate their “lawyers’ online speech,” among other issues. At a Guangdong firm, officials investigated only three out of over a hundred lawyers; at a Beijing firm, officials said they plan to speak individually to all 20 lawyers at the company.
While authorities have visited these law firms in the past, particularly ahead of the annual evaluation of law firms that takes place by May, the lawyers interviewed said that the current investigations were unusual and “stricter than usual.” The number and ranking of investigating officials involved has been higher than in previous incidents. One law firm director said that six officials, including the highest ranking judicial officials in the province, came to speak to him. The length of some of the investigations – on-site investigations that last for days at the firm –also were unusually long.
The new round of intimidation against law firms raises concerns of a renewed crackdown on human rights lawyers, said Human Rights Watch. The lawyers interviewed described their interviews with authorities as intimidating. Said one lawyer: “It made me worried. They didn’t use strongly worded language, but they asked about my parents and my children. This is unusual as I don’t know them well at all…[so] it made me feel scared.” Another lawyer said that an official said threateningly: “There are lot of problems with your firm,” but gave no details about the problems or how they would be resolved. Authorities told one firm that the lawyers would be required to sign some kind of pledge, but again without details.
China’s Bureaus of Justice, under article 52 of the Lawyers’ Law, have the right to “conduct routine supervision and management” of lawyers and law firms. The supervisory powers under article 64 of the Management Methods on Law Firms are broad and vaguely defined, and permit the examination of firms’ “compliance with laws, rules, and regulations” and their “internal management.” The bureaus are not required to apply a set procedure before subjecting the firms to these investigations. The Management Methods also explicitly require lawyers and law firms to “support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” and to establish Party branches in law firms. Lawyers are prohibited from expressing opinions that “reject the fundamental political system” of China or may “endanger national security.”
Harassment of the legal profession has intensified under President Xi Jinping, who assumed power in March 2013. During this time authorities have targeted some of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, including Xu Zhiyong, founder of the New Citizens Movement who was sentenced to four years in prison in 2014; Pu Zhiqiang, who was given a three-year suspended sentence for "inciting ethnic hatred" and "creating disturbances" in December 2015; and Guangzhou lawyer Tang Jingling, who was given a five-year prison term in January 2016 for promoting ideas of non-violent civil disobedience.
This latest probe also intensifies fears about the ongoing “709 crackdown.” Beginning on July 9, 2015, authorities rounded up more than 300 human rights lawyers, legal assistants, and activists across the country. Most have since been released, but the director of Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, Zhou Shifeng, was given a seven-year prison term in August 2016, while another lawyer, Wang Quanzhang, awaits trial. A number of those apprehended in the “709 crackdown” have formally been released, including prominent lawyer Wang Yu, but continue to be closely monitored and almost entirely isolated from friends and colleagues. Others have alleged that they were tortured and forced to confess to crimes in detention.
Authorities have also used other regulations or procedures improperly to punish activist lawyers, Human Rights Watch said. The Ministry of Justice and its lower-level offices revoke or deny lawyers’ licenses, which are issued annually, if authorities disapprove of the kinds of cases those lawyers or firms accept. For example, the authorities have not allowed prominent lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan of Fengrui Law Firm to pass the annual evaluation since 2015. Lawyers are at risk of being beaten, intimidated, and detained in their work by police, court officials, and others operating at the behest of authorities. On September 4, for example, police detained Chongqing lawyer Zhang Tingyuan overnight on suspicion of “soliciting a prostitute” after he investigated a suspicious case of death in police custody. Chinese courts can also order a maximum of 15 days of judicial detention for those who disturb court order, and police can arrest lawyers for “falsifying evidence,” a crime under article 306 of the Criminal Code, which has been brought against lawyers who encourage their clients to speak out about torture by criminal investigators.
“China’s leaders repeatedly claim adherence to the rule of law, but their actions reflect anything but when they intimidate and punish the very lawyers who seek to hold the state accountable for injustices,” Richardson said. “The Ministry of Justice should drop this campaign of intimidation immediately.”