China’s crackdown on human rights lawyers

In a press release dated 14 April 2011, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) called for ‘an end to intimidation and abuse of human rights lawyers in China’. The IBAHRI’s press release names 9 human rights lawyers who had ‘disappeared’ since February 2011. Some have since been released, others are still missing. Indeed, according to Amnesty International, it appears that the Chinese government has embarked over the past few months on a fresh wave of repression in its ongoing  ‘campaign of harassment and intimidation’ of human rights lawyers. 

Four decades ago, there were ‘hardly any legal institutions to speak of’. Today, China has complex legislative and judicial institutions and a full set of laws, regulations, directives, interpretations and other rules to regulate every aspect of Chinese society. Two decades ago, there were only 200 lawyers in China. Today there are over 200,000 lawyers and candidates to the bar examination have been increasing at a rate of 50,000 per year.

However, according to Amnesty International, only a small proportion of lawyers are ‘willing to take the risk of representing victims of human rights violations’. For one commentator on China, the strategy of the Chinese government is clear: ‘By openly subjecting human rights attorneys to constant surveillance, disbarment, psychological threats, and physical abuse, the Chinese government hopes that once this generation of human right lawyers pass, no younger lawyers will dare to take up the mantle […]’. 

The current generation of Chinese lawyers includes individuals that are working on human rights cases, such as Teng Biao, lecturer at the prestigious China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) in Beijing and one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers. Teng Biao was invited by police to go have ‘a cup of tea’ and disappeared for over two months. On the day he was released, Li Fangping, another high profile human rights lawyer, disappeared in what human rights activists call ‘the revolving-door approach – one in, one out – to create the impression that things are improving’. Furthermore, according to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, at least 40 human rights defenders, lawyers and activists alike, have been arrested, put under house arrest or have simply disappeared since February 2011.

The next generation of Chinese lawyers includes the undergraduates I met while studying ‘Introduction to Chinese Law’ at CUPL. They talked of articling positions in Chinese commercial law firms or applications to MBAs in foreign universities.

Given the risks of the practise of human rights law in China, how many of China’s next generation of lawyers will ‘dare to take up the mantle’,  to give a voice to those who have been silenced and how many will understandably rather chose a safer career path for themselves?

By Mariko Khan

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