War on Law Continues Three Years After “Black Friday”

Monday was the third anniversary of the beginning of the "709" or "Black Friday Crackdown," in which hundreds of rights and others were detained. While most were swiftly released, others were accused, in a state media blitz featuring several televised forced confessions, of conspiring to hype and manipulate sensitive cases. Several were prosecuted and sentenced; one victim, lawyer Wang Quanzhang, remains missing nearly 1,100 days after he was taken.

Though a landmark event in itself, 709 was part of a broader "War on Law" designed to lock down the legal system’s role as a tool of the Party, rather than a constraint upon it. Human Rights Watch’s statement on the anniversary described more recent clashes in this long campaign:

In the past year, Chinese authorities have also detained at least two lawyers who represented other lawyers implicated in the 709 crackdown. In October 2017, Shenyang authorities detained Li Yuhan and later charged her with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” Li, who suffers from coronary artery disease and other health issues, has been denied bail. Li represented , a human rights lawyer who was detained during the 709 crackdown. In January 2018, authorities detained , alleging he had “incited subversion of state power.” Before his detention, the Beijing Bureau of Justice revoked Yu’s license and rejected his application to establish a law firm. Yu had represented .

Chinese authorities have over the past year also revoked or suspended the licenses of a number of lawyers who were detained during the 709 crackdown but later released. Several other lawyers have been unable to find work due to police pressure on employers. According to Ministry of Justice regulations, lawyers’ licenses are cancelled if they have not been employed by a law firm for over six months.

[…] Meanwhile, on July 1, during a national lawyers’ conference, the government-controlled All-China Lawyers Association added language to its charter calling on lawyers to “firmly safeguard the authority of the Communist Party which has comrade Xi Jinping as its core.” The minister of justice, Fu Zhenghua, also said at the same occasion that lawyers’ associations must “unwaveringly uphold the Party’s comprehensive leadership over lawyers’ work.”

[…] “The Chinese government sees the role of lawyers as advancing the interests of the Communist Party, not upholding their clients’ rights,” Richardson said. “The licenses of mistreated lawyers should be restored immediately.” [Source]

In an open letter to Justice Minister Fu Zhenghua, New York City Bar president Roger Juan Maldonado noted similar concerns about ongoing reprisals, adding:

The harassment, intimidation, disappearance, detention, and prosecution of these lawyers and other rights defenders undermines China’s legal reform and commitment to the and deters the development of a professional and independent bar. Chinese law, in its constitution and in other legislation, guarantees numerous fundamental human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and association, as well as due process rights, such as the right to be represented by a lawyer. Article 37 of the Lawyers Law of the People’s Republic of China specifically provides that “a lawyer’s right of the person is inviolable,” and affirms that a lawyer is not legally liable for the positions he or she presents on behalf of a client. Despite these provisions, lawyers and other rights defenders are being targeted for the kinds of cases and causes they represent professionally.

China is also under numerous international obligations to protect human rights through international conventions and customary international law. In particular, the ongoing detention and harassment of lawyers as well as the administrative challenges they are facing violate Article 16 of the U.N. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which provides that, “[g]overnments shall ensure that lawyers . . . are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference.” Similarly, Article 9.3(c) of the of the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders reflects the fundamental right of individuals “[t]o offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance or other relevant advice and assistance in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms,” free of government interference. [Source]

Nectar Gan examined the crackdown’s goals and the Chinese leadership’s broader attitudes toward the law at The Inkstone:

Fu Hualing, the Hong Kong University professor, said Xi’s administration was dividing the rule of law into two spheres.

The first is an area where the rule of law did not apply, and where the party dictated everything according to political circumstances.

“It’s a space of emergencies, risks, and political dangers. So what’s in that space? You can imagine issues such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Falun Gong, underground churches, and ,” he said.

Fu said the rule of law Beijing was promoting lay outside that space: less potentially contentious matters such as contract disputes, divorces, intellectual property and the environment.

But the arbitrary nature of such a system can be dangerous, said Eva Pils, law scholar at King’s College London studying China’s human rights lawyers.

“It’s quite clear that it’s impossible to feel safe in a system in which anyone, any case, could become sensitive, just because the government says so,” she said.

“It’s a completely shifting boundary. In fact, you can ask yourself if there is a boundary at all.” [Source]

In a new paper and Twitter thread, the University of Leiden’s Rogier Creemers examines ways in which "ideology defines the nature of law" as "a tool, controlled by the Party, to [be] applied where it will assist in achieving its aims," and consequently "conditions and constrains legal actors."

China Change has marked the anniversary with a series of posts relaying voices of the crackdown’s victims, beginning with translated excerpts from a recent Epoch Times interview with lawyer Wang Yu. Wang provided new details on the mistreatment of her son, whom interrogators used as leverage to extract a confession that was later broadcast.

Friends told me that when they brought my son back from Burma, they put handcuffs and leg irons on him! People who haven’t been put in handcuffs and leg irons probably don’t know, but wearing them is torture. They did so gratuitously because there was no way my son, so small, could run away with so many police around him. How could they slap handcuffs and leg irons on him? I couldn’t get over it.

According to grandmother, in the Yunnan public security bureau, the police slapped him around, quite a lot, in the face. I cry whenever I talk about this. They made my son frame other people. They told him exactly what he had to say. He didn’t agree, so they hit him, with a thick, long wooden staff. They started at him in the lower back, moving higher and higher, smashing it into his back, while yelling: “If you don’t write what we say, we’re going to go all the way up to your head and smash your skull in.” My son begged for their forgiveness, responding: “Don’t hit me, it hurts too much, I can’t take it anymore; just write what you want and I’ll sign it, isn’t that enough?” This is how badly they beat my son! [Source]

The series continued with translation from another Epoch Times interview, this time with lawyer Jiang Tianyong in 2016. Jiang was not among the initial detainees, but went missing later while visiting the family of fellow lawyer , whose graphic account of torture in detention he was later accused of conspiring to invent. After a "choreographed" trial last August, Jiang was sentenced to two years for inciting subversion.

In the China Change excerpt, Jiang describes what he sees as the inevitability of conflict with the authorities for lawyers who refuse to compromise their duties; the decision for his wife to take his daughter abroad so she could not be used as leverage against him; and his own reasons for staying behind.

I didn’t want to leave China. As a lawyer, if I were to go abroad, it would just be a waste. It’s here in China where I can really do things.

However, in July 2013 I was blocked from leaving the country. I couldn’t visit them. Now my child is an adolescent, it’s a crucial time in her education. I’m very anxious. In any case, I’m not a good husband or a good father. I’ve failed in my duties.

[…] It’s actually very simple: it’s not completely altruism. I don’t want to live like this. I can’t stand it. I don’t want my child to live like this. My parents’ generation swallowed it. I often say, “If you can take it, you take it, but I’m not having it, nor will my child. There are still things for me to do. I still have hope. When I no longer have hope, then I’ll leave. If I can’t leave, then I will just have to wait to die. If we want change, we must remain here and work hard with others to bring about change. We must change it; we must.[" …] [Source]

NYU legal scholar Jerome Cohen commented:

In the third installment, an anonymous rights lawyer explained how the Party’s "methods of repression" against their colleagues "have been further refined through continuous innovation to form a comprehensive and more deceptive mechanism of control." These include bureaucratic means such as disbarment, blacklisting, and law or business license revocation; "gangster tactics" of obstruction; silencing lawyers on social media; and even criminal prosecution.

I believe that in China the administration of justice is progressively coming under the total control of Domestic Security (国保, a CCP secret police organ) operations. We have seen how Domestic Security has often forced the judiciary to obey its orders. Nowadays, in some places, essential positions in the judicial administration are directly filled by Domestic Security agents. This is becoming more and more common.

The CCP’s ‘rule of law’ is little more than an Orwellian catch-phrase, given the severe repression meted out to human rights lawyers. Even so, there are some who still have hope in the system’s ability to reform. But this possibility, which was small to begin with, is rapidly fading. Lawyers’ attempts to file suit or appeal against the injustice done to them have virtually no chance of success. Wrongdoers are rarely punished, and the powers-that-be are becoming more blatant and arrogant in their abuse. [Source]

Part four is a translated transcript of a video featuring rights lawyer Wen Donghai, who describes in further detail the expansion of pressure and control following the 709 crackdown:

So in early 2017 they began planning things out — how to carry out further suppression. In this case, they primarily set about using administrative sanctions, which they also augmented with a few arrests.

By late 2017 and early 2018 their focus turned to the disbarment and administrative punishment of 709 lawyers and the lawyers who defend them. Targets included lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) from Guangdong, Xie Yanyi (谢燕益) and (李和平) in Beijing, Ma Lianshun (马连顺) in Henan, Qin Yongpei (覃永沛) in Guangxi, Yang Jinzhu (杨金柱) in Hunan, and me. All were either 709 lawyers, or defenders of 709 lawyers.

So I think the narrow definition of 709 is the arrest of lawyers, while the broader meaning of it is this campaign of encirclement and annihilation of the human rights lawyers. This takes the form of administrative punishments, criminal arrests, interrogations and warnings, and some other measures — all of it is part of the suppression. I’ve been questioned by them numerous times and have had my freedom restricted for short periods.

As a defense lawyer for 709 lawyers, my own license was canceled in June 2018. According to the logic of their laws, I’m no longer a lawyer.

If this country can’t even tolerate lawyers, then it’s lacking a key feature — which is whether or not the rule of law you have is genuine. Even though I’ll never be a lawyer again, I’ll still be involved in different sorts of legal work. [Source]

Sui Muqing, one of the targets listed by Wen, described his experience in the next part, from his own 147-day detention (including five successive days of sleep deprivation) to his subsequent disbarment. His conclusion echoes Jiang Tianyong’s sentiments:

I think that for my generation, my aspiration in being a human rights lawyer wasn’t as high, grand, and lofty as all that. I really think it’s for our children. We don’t want them to grow up being brainwashed, full of terror, surrounded by corruption, in a country with no rule of law. So, we need to do whatever we can to promote progress in China.

I hope that the international community, and the American and European governments in particular, will speak out about this. Fundamentally, human rights problems cannot be separated from economic issues. When you deal with a country with no regard for human rights, you cannot guarantee that your economic interests will be protected; you can’t protect the economic interests of your citizens [when dealing with these countries.] [Source]

In the next installment, lawyer Xie Yang implies that he had agreed not to speak further about his earlier torture account in exchange for the return of his law license. However, he describes various other forms of ongoing obstruction to his life, work, and travel:

[… O]n the employment front, they’ve established a number of artificial obstructions.

They would come and speak to me directly and tell me that the cases I take on are sensitive, that I can’t keep accepting them. As far as I’m concerned, I’m not going to listen to them, because these demands are unreasonable. They’re hindering my right to practice.

As soon as I was released, I got involved in a series of sensitive cases. For instance, the Wang Quanzhang case, the Yu Wensheng case, and a number of other citizen activist cases. I was proactively involved in all of it. I wanted my license to practice law, but I don’t want to live a compromised life. I’m going to use to use my lawyer’s license to serve society. [Source]

Another account of abuses in detention comes in the next part from lawyer Xie Yanyi, who describes deprivation of food and sleep, use of stress positions, and intimidation:

Over this 18 month period of forced residential surveillance, and arrest and detention, the most painful part of it all was the squandering of life. That is, they completely stripped me of every freedom. They didn’t let me engage in any form of communication. And I had no access to any information. Just like this, days become months, months become years. This kind of life wastage, after it goes on long enough, makes you crazy. During that period of residential surveillance, I even started to contemplate suicide.

So the question is how to overcome this dread, this total desperation? I silently told myself stories in my head. I recounted history, contemplated my beliefs, human nature, historical anecdotes. When I got to the detention center, in order to overcome the mental and physical imprisonment, I started to meditate. I sat cross-legged in meditation every morning and every afternoon, for two hours, every single day. This is how I got through it.

[…] The 709 incident has really catalyzed the awakening of the Chinese public. So, we feel more and more that the collapse and crumbling of the totalitarian system could happen at any point. We now need to think through what happens in the post-dictatorship era. What should we do? I think that making peaceful democracy the consensus of the entire Chinese people — that this is extremely important. [Source]

The penultimate installment is a tribute by editor Yaxue Cao to Wang Quanzhang, the last 709 detainee whose fate remains unknown after nearly 1,100 days. Cao describes the emergence of Wang’s wife, Li Wenzu, as a key figure in the "new front" of resistance opened by relatives of those detained.

As of today, lawyer Wang Quanzhang has been held incommunicado for 1,095 days. Over the 1,095 days, his toddler has grown into a boy who vows to fight the “Monster” that took his father; his wife has metamorphosed from a timid housewife to one of the most recognizable faces of the 709 resistance. With each day, we worry about Wang Quanzhang’s fate: Is he still alive? Has he been so severely debilitated by torture that they can’t even show him? These dreadful thoughts eat at our hearts when we think about Wang Quanzhang, and we don’t know how not to think about him.

[…] So what choice do we have but to remain strong, and forge ahead? We have a monster to slay, or our dignity, our freedoms, and indeed, our humanity, will be in peril. [Source]

Li spoke to the BBC’s John Sudworth about the continued silence surrounding her husband, her efforts to explain his absence to their son, and her efforts to obtain information from the authorities:

China Change closed the series with some defiantly optimistic comments from the American Bar Foundation’s Terence Halliday, from his address at the Second China Human Rights Lawyers’ Day on July 8 in New York:

Again and again, across history and across regions, lawyers stand in the vanguard of change. In Britain in the 1600s, in France in the 1700s, in Germany in the 1800s, in India and Brazil in the 1970s, in Egypt and Pakistan in the 1990s, in Zambia and Kenya, and, not least in South Korea and Taiwan over the last generation, and in many other places.

Time and again lawyers and their allies – workers, women’s groups, religious believers, the media – have been defeated, and time and again they have fought back from defeat. The struggle is never over, even in countries where lawyers’ ideals have been instituted for decades or centuries.

Hope is still alive among China’s activists. Now is a dark hour, a moment when defeat seems possible. The darkness may last a long time, years, decades, longer, but the end is never in doubt. Victories and defeats have already been the experience of China’s lawyer activists. And defeats and victories will continue.

Today, the Second Day for China Human Rights Lawyers’ keeps hope alive. [Source]

Around the anniversary, several suggestions have been raised for how best to counter the "War on Law." Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson proposed a freeze on legal exchanges:

Chinese Human Rights Defenders urged U.S. sanctions against a key figure in the 709 Crackdown, along the lines of those placed on former Chaoyang police chief Gao Yan in December for his part in the death of activist . Further sanctions, CHRD argued, would demonstrate Washington’s continued commitment to human rights following its withdrawal last month from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which was widely described as a victory for China.

This May, CHRD submitted evidence under the US Global Magnitsky Act, calling on the US Government to sanction Zhao Fei, the former director of the Tianjin Public Security Bureau, for his role in the crackdown on Chinese lawyers. The absence of both justice for victims and accountability on the part of Chinese authorities who ordered or carried out the arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, and acts of torture, have gone hand-in-hand with escalating persecution of lawyers since the crackdown was launched. Lawyer Wang Quanzhang remains forcibly disappeared after nearly three years in custody, and there have been numerous forced confessions and convictions.

Zhao Fei is currently a Tianjin Municipal Standing Committee Member and the Secretary of the Tianjin Municipal Politics and Law Committee, both prominent Communist Party positions. In the three years he headed the Tianjin PSB, from July 2014 to July 2017, Zhao presided over the enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and torture of lawyers and activists, who were mostly detained in Tianjin or transferred there and then disappeared. Nineteen individual cases involving serious human rights abuses can be directly linked to the Tianjin PSB while Zhao was the police chief. [Source]

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert commented on the anniversary:

A statement by the British Embassy on Weibo, meanwhile, was targeted with reposting restrictions: