VI. Intimidation

Lawyers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said a frequent source of threats or acts of violence against ordinary lawyers is criminal intimidation in the course of a legal dispute. This is most typically carried out at the behest of the opposite party, employing strongmen or thugs to discourage a particular lawyer or his law firm from representing the case. Sometimes the aim is to discourage the counsel from embarking on a specific legal step, such as producing evidence of corruption or wrongdoing in court. Another frequent occurrence, lawyers say, is retaliation after a verdict has been reached, or attempts to discourage legal efforts to see a judgment enforced. Lawyers have also been attacked by their own clients for losing in court.118

Many lawyers report that most threats come from persons who claim to be members of criminal gangs, or “secret societies [hei shehui].”119 Some newspaper accounts have reported that secret society members discouraged victims of intimidation from going to the police by claiming that they had links with Public Security Bureau or government officials.  Consequently, the “secret societies” act with near-total impunity.120 In this context, threats are a sufficient deterrent keeping victims and even legal professionals from turning to the Public Security Bureau.

Intimidation of lawyers by criminal elements is reportedly particularly acute in disputes related to real estate and property ownership. Lawyers representing residents who are trying to bring lawsuits against property development have been threatened to get them to drop their cases or to encourage their clients to accept the terms of the real estate companies. Because of the prevalence of local protectionism, lawyers are also more at risk of violence and intimidation when they travel to a local area to represent an outsider or a party that is viewed unfavorably by the local power holders. A local company trying to keep out a competitor might benefit from the local authorities “looking the other way” when they use illegal influence or criminal intimidation for that purpose.121  

Lawyers say that law enforcement agencies, which tend to see lawyers as an impediment to their work, do not prioritize investigating threats or tracking attackers. Attacks against lawyers also do not seem to be seen by the Public Security Bureau or the Procuracy as constituting the kind of substantial threat to the legal system and the judiciary that warrants a vigorous and speedy response.

We were unable to find any reports in official media over the past five years of cases involving assaults or threats against attorneys that were successfully brought to prosecution, including cases that would have established a link between the attackers and one of the parties to a legal dispute.  

Because of these obstacles, lawyers themselves are reluctant to press charges and bring attention to attacks or threats they suffer. As a lawyer working at a legal aid center in Beijing told Human Rights Watch, threats are “part of the job,” and “every lawyer has to exercise his own judgment in minimizing these risks.”

Lawyers also fear making it known that they have been targeted, as doing so could damage their ability to maintain or attract clients. “It is bad for business because the client must be confident that his/her lawyer has sufficient status, connections and experience to be effective in defending his/her interests.”122 Admitting to having been the target of intimidation or reprisals undermines the prestige of an attorney and exposes his vulnerability to extra-legal factors.123

Bar associations do not publish accounts or numbers of threats or attacks against their members because it is considered “too sensitive” and might reflect poorly on both the profession and the legal system at large. For that reason, lawyers say that they seldom report assaults and threats to the bar association, which contributes to the difficulty in assessing the extent of the problem and effectively remedying it.

Lawyers complain that two additional factors contribute to their vulnerability.  Lawyers have relatively weak institutional status in the Chinese legal system: as “outsiders” they are an easy target for intimidation. Prevalent corruption within law enforcement agencies also heightens their vulnerability. Lawyers try to enlist the media to cover their cases and help them overcome official unwillingness to take action.124

118 “Seven cases of lawyers assaulted this year in Shanghai,” Legal Daily, October 31, 2005 [“上海今年发生7起律师被侵害事件,” 法制日报, 2005-10-31], (accessed April 9, 2008).

119 By the government’s own admission, local mafia-type secret societies are widespread in China, and intimidation of a competitor or debtor is an oft-seen occurrence in economic disputes, forced eviction of residents, land seizures from villagers and labor disputes. Collusion between law enforcement officials and local mafias—an association colloquially referred to in Chinese as “black umbrellas [hei yusan]”—is recognized as a severe problem across China. In May 2007, the Supreme People’s Procuracy (SPP) disclosed that 62 government officials had been accused of protecting criminal gangs over the past year. One of the most prominent cases was the former vice-director of Jiangxi province’s Public Security Bureau.

120 Nicholas Bequelin (Human Rights Watch), “Beijing's Rule of Law Retreat,” commentary, The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2007.

121 The Supreme People’s Court has regularly issued directives against local protectionism. See “Regional Protectionism Weakening State Capacity,”, March 27, 2001, (accessed February 18, 2007).

122 Human Rights Watch interview with C.H., a Beijing lawyer, December 2007.

123 Human Rights Watch interview with W.Z., a Shanghai lawyer, September 2007.

124 See Benjamin L. Liebman, “Watchdog or Demagogue? The Media in the Chinese Legal System,” Columbia Law Review, vol. 105, Issue 1 (January 2005), pp. 1- 157.