The Precarious Lives of China’s Rights Lawyers

At The Atlantic, Thomas Stevenson describes the personal and professional risks faced by China’s rights lawyers, often with little reward in terms of money or courtroom victories.

Mr. Wen is an earnest man in his early 30s with a round, almost child-like face. In the months we had worked together, I had been struck by his self-possession and evenness of temperament. Although younger than the others, he has a wife and child. His formal career as a lawyer has already ended, too. After earning his law degree in 2001, he moved to Beijing and began representing small businesses. In 2004, he met Gao Zhisheng, the now-disbarred rights lawyer famous for his dauntless defense of journalists, Falun Gong, Christians, and just about everyone else. It was a transformative meeting. Mr. Wen dropped everything and joined Mr. Gao’s practice.

It did not turn out to be a smart career move: Unlike Liang Xiaojun, Mr. Gao was never shy about his political opinions. While the two were colleagues, Mr. Gao excoriated the government in one open letter after another, published a memoir detailing his weeks of detention and torture, and urged the EU and U.S. to boycott the Beijing Olympics. His free speech spree ended as they typically do in China — with imprisonment and more torture. Because of his ties to Mr. Gao, the Bureau of Justice forbade Mr. Wen from taking any more “special cases.” However, when Mr. Wen began his search for a new law firm, rejection after surprise rejection drove home the truth of the matter: the Bureau had blacklisted him for good measure. After a period of being unaffiliated, Mr. Wen was stripped of his license, as per Chinese law. [Source]

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