Relatives of lawyers and activists detained in the July 2015 crackdown protest in front of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate in Beijing, China, July 7, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(New York) – The Chinese government should immediately release human rights lawyers who have been detained or imprisoned on baseless subversion charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also end the practice of revoking or suspending licenses of lawyers and law firms on political grounds.

In February 2018, authorities stripped human rights lawyer Sui Muqing of his license for allegedly violating “courtroom etiquette,” and canceled the registration of the Wutian Law Firm for its refusal to participate in a politicized review process.

“Not only is the Chinese government still holding some rights lawyers and activists rounded up in the July 2015 crackdown, it’s disbarring others as a crude way to intimidate the group,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “This endless persecution of the legal profession exposes the absurdity of China’s claim to uphold the ‘rule of law.’”

Since August 2017, authorities have revoked or suspended the licenses to practice of several human rights lawyers. They have also canceled the registration of one law firm. One lawyer has been detained on subversion charges:

  • In August, the Hangzhou Bureau of Justice suspended Wu Youshui from practicing law for nine months. The bureau said it was a punishment for online articles Wu published that were critical of the Chinese government.
  • In September, the Shandong Bureau of Justice revoked lawyer Zhu Shengwu’s license, alleging that his messages criticizing the Chinese government and Chinese Communist Party leaders on his social media “endangered national security.”
  • In December, the Yunnan Bureau of Justice revoked the licenses of lawyers Wang Liqian and Wang Delong, accusing them of impersonation fraud. The lawyers believed that the disbarment was due to their withdrawing from the All China Lawyers Association, a government-run professional association. The lawyers had criticized the association for failing to advocate for lawyers’ rights.
  • In January 2018, the Beijing Bureau of Justice revoked Yu Wensheng’s license and rejected his application to establish a law firm. The bureau stated that he had published speeches that “oppose the leadership of the [Chinese Communist] Party.” On January 19, authorities detained Yu in Beijing as he was walking his son to school. Police later took Yu to Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, held him in an undisclosed location, and accused him of “inciting subversion of state power.” Two days before his detention, Yu had posted an appeal calling for the amendment of China’s constitution and open presidential elections. In 2014, Beijing authorities had detained Yu for 99 days, during which he was allegedly tortured and denied access to lawyers.
  • In February, the Guangdong Bureau of Justice revoked Sui Muqing’s license. The bureau alleged that Sui refused to obey courtroom etiquette rules during the trial of human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi in 2014. The bureau claimed Sui did not comply with court orders by repeatedly standing up, walking around the courtroom, and speaking without permission. Sui has represented prominent human rights activists including Guo Feixoing and Huang Qi.
  • In February, the Beijing Bureau of Justice canceled the registration of the Wutian Law Firm, stating that the firm’s lawyers failed to participate in China’s annual lawyers’ evaluation organized by the bureau. The founder of the law firm, Cheng Hai, said Chinese law does not stipulate that lawyers have to take part in justice bureaus’ annual evaluations, and the real purpose of the evaluations is to scrutinize lawyers’ political opinions.

In 2016, the Chinese Ministry of Justice revised two directives on law firms and lawyers – the Management Methods on Law Firms (律师事务所管理办法) and the Management Methods on Lawyers (律师执业管理办法) – explicitly requiring 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.”

This endless persecution of the legal profession exposes the absurdity of China’s claim to uphold the ‘rule of law.’

Sophie Richardson

China Director

The arrest of Yu Wensheng and the revocations of legal licenses are a continuation of the crackdown on human rights lawyers in recent years. Several of the approximately 300 lawyers and activists who were rounded up in the “709” crackdown in 2015 remain in detention or prison. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang, detained in July 2015 and charged with “subversion of state power,” still awaits trial and has been denied legal counsel. In November 2017, lawyer Jiang Tianyong was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of inciting subversion. In August 2016, a court in Tianjin sentenced human rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng to seven years in prison after convicting him of subversion.

The Chinese government has used various methods available to wrongfully punish activist lawyers. The Ministry of Justice and its lower-level offices issue lawyers’ licenses annually, leaving lawyers vulnerable to politicized denials. 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 Law, which has been brought against lawyers who encourage their clients to speak out about torture by criminal investigators. Lawyers are even at risk of being beaten, intimidated, and harassed in their work by police, court officials, and others operating at the behest of authorities.

“Chinese authorities treat the views and vital work of independent lawyers as anti-state activity,” Richardson said. “Multilateral institutions and concerned governments, as well as international law firms present in China, need to find their voices and speak up against the authorities’ systematic suppression of human rights lawyers.”