Prominent Chinese human rights activist Huang Qi went on trial last week on dubious charges of “leaking state secrets,” but the proceedings before a court in Sichuan province remained a mystery hours after the trial ended. Why? Because one of Huang’s lawyers was disbarred a few days before the trial and the other, who was in the courtroom, was threatened by authorities not to speak about it.
In China, lawyers who represent detained activists often serve a vital role as messengers to clients’ families, who are not permitted visits until after conviction. The late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo’s soul-stirring essay “I Have No Enemies” was written when he was in detention and made public by his lawyer. Human rights lawyer Xie Yang’s harrowing account of the torture he endured in custody was made known to the world because his lawyer took meticulous notes while visiting him.
Chinese authorities started weaponizing disbarment of human rights lawyers about a decade ago. The tactic has intensified since August 2017, two years after the “709” crackdown in which police rounded up more than 300 human rights lawyers and activists across the country. Now lawyers risk disbarment for merely defending activists in court or for reporting on prosecutions. In Huang’s case, Sui Muqing, the lawyer Huang’s family first hired, was disbarred in February 2018. Liu Zhengqing, the lawyer hired to replace Sui, was disbarred less than a year later.
While local justice bureaus block the work of many outspoken lawyers, they also assign lawyers whom, either out of fear or as a result of official instructions, conceal critical information from the defendant’s family, such as their physical and mental condition, and even trial dates. During the trial of rights lawyer Li Heping, his government-assigned lawyer not only failed to inform Li’s family of the trial date, but also did not attend the trial himself.
Recently, the Chinese government has sought to fend off criticism of its politically motivated detention of two Canadian nationals by repeatedly claiming that it respects the rule of law. If China’s leaders really want their words to be taken seriously, they could start by reinstating the licenses of disbarred rights lawyers.