Guangzhou Hosts Global Lawyers Forum Amid Ongoing “War on Law”

Guangzhou hosted 800 legal professionals from 57 countries at the Global Lawyers Forum this week. The event partly coincided with International Human Rights Day on Tuesday, which the E.U. delegation to China marked by highlighting “continuous arrests, detention and imprisonment of human rights defenders, lawyers and other citizens,” and noting that “human rights lawyers Wang Quanzhang, Li Yuhan, Gao Zhisheng and Yu Wensheng have been convicted, detained, or forcibly disappeared.” The “War on Law” that peaked with the 2015 Black Friday or 709 crackdown has continued: AFP reported last month that “at least a dozen legal representatives have had their licences canceled or revoked since last year,” while another who had previously suffered this punishment was formally arrested last week.

“The ongoing disbarment continues to serve as an effective tactic by the Chinese government to further diminish the space for human rights advocacy,” said Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Disbarment is to deprive the livelihood of human rights lawyers and their families,” she said.

In China, authorities can revoke a lawyer’s licence to punish behaviour such as bribing judges, but also ambiguous offences such as “seriously disrupting court order”.

A licence can also be cancelled if a lawyer does not practise in a six-month period – which is not uncommon for rights lawyers who have been detained or arrested.

[…] Sui Muqing, another Chinese lawyer who was detained during the 709 crackdown, said the widespread disbarment over the past two years had been “an even better deterrent than arresting lawyers”. [Source]

Presiding over this week’s Guangzhou forum was Justice Minister Fu Zhenghua, a longtime “troubleshooter” for Xi Jinping whose résumé includes crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners, “Big V” social media influencers, and “malicious” stock trading. Fu also led the investigation into former security chief Zhou Yongkang and, as Beijing police chief, oversaw the death of activist Cao Shunli, who had been denied medical treatment while in detention for public participation in a U.N. human rights review. From Xinhua:

“The meeting is a platform built by Chinese lawyers to promote international exchanges and pragmatic cooperation for common development, and represents their practical action in playing their role as lawyers in advancing the reform of the global system for governance,” Justice Minister Fu Zhenghua said at the opening ceremony.

He added that the forum was also an opportunity for China to draw on global experience in developing the rule of law.

Hosted by the All China Lawyers Association under the auspices of China’s Ministry of Justice, the forum drew foreign participants including heads of international lawyer associations and dozens of national associations.

Topics under discussion cover legal services for the Belt and Road Initiative, technological advancement and legal services, cross-border investment, merger and acquisition, international trade and business compliance, international commercial dispute resolution, pro bono legal services and lawyers’ social responsibilities. [Source]

The Guardian’s Lily Kuo reported:

[… A]s the forum got under way, at least one spouse of a detained lawyer was put under house arrest. Several rights groups have issued open letters decrying the event as a “cynical charade” intended to gloss over China’s ongoing crackdown on lawyers, from well-known human rights advocates to self-taught local, or “barefoot, lawyers” who help residents petition for their rights.

[…] As the forum opened on Monday, Geng He, the wife of prominent lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who disappeared more than two years ago, published an open letter to those in attendance.

“You have the responsibility and obligation to ask the Chinese government that invited you: ‘Is Gao Zhisheng alive?’

“Or else, why did you come? To enjoy the air tickets, the hotels and luxurious hospitality of the Chinese Communist party’s dictatorship … or to let the CCP use your status and reputation to once again proclaim the greatness of CCP rule at home and abroad?” [Source]

Another open letter from Xu Yan, wife of detained lawyer Yu Wensheng, was translated by ChinaChange on November 29. After describing her husband’s work, the various procedural violations in his case, and her own “profound sense of helplessness and sorrow,” Xu made the following requests:

  1. Please arrange a time to meet with me, Xu Yan, Yu Wensheng’s wife, to understand what is happening right now in China regarding Lawyer Yu, who has been deprived of his freedom and his legal rights, and to hear about my rights defense experience. Please rescue your lawyer colleague. Thank you!
  2. I am asking you to clearly raise the following points at the Forum:
  • Lawyer Yu exercised his lawyer’s professional rights and freedom of expression according to law and should be immediately acquitted and released.
  • The right of Lawyer Yu to meet with his defense attorneys and receive their help should be honored immediately.
  • End his illegal extended detention, immediately issue a verdict, and acquit Lawyer Yu.
  • Yu Wensheng has been deprived of his professional rights and prosecuted, but the All-China Lawyers Association (ACLA) has done nothing to defend the rights of its member Lawyer Yu, and even aided in persecuting him. I am requesting the Global Lawyers Forum to ask ACLA to immediately correct its previous mistakes and help to immediately launch an emergency rescue action of its member Yu Wensheng.
  • Please inquire of the Chinese government on my behalf: has Lawyer Yu been tortured? Is he still alive? [Source]

In 2017, Guangzhou authorities prepared to host Fortune magazine’s Fortune Global Forum by sweeping the city of perceived troublemakers. This time their preparations included pressure on the local legal community, whose members were warned not to speak out on issues like protests in Hong Kong, and urged to bring “even trivial matters of everyday life” under “moral supervision”; to “love the Party and socialism”; and to win government contracts and other benefits by reading Xi Jinping’s quotations and setting up Party branches within law firms. These were detailed in a ChinaChange post last week, which continued with a collection of views on the Global Lawyers Forum from several prominent rights lawyers:

“The All China Lawyers’ Association (ACLA) is the same as the Chinese government; it is a part of the government. ACLA contributes little to defending human rights in China, and more often than not it is an accomplice in suppressing human rights. Such a country holding such a conference and urging lawyers from all over the world ‘to jointly promote the rule of law around the world’ –– how could anyone believe this? How could anyone attend and support such a meeting? Are the participants burying their heads in the sand or just being ignorant?” (Liang Xiaojun, Beijing)

[…] “Just as a country engaging in censorship has no business holding a ‘World Internet Conference,’ similarly, a one-party state where no competition of parties is allowed has no business holding a ‘World Political Parties’ Meeting,’ and a country where the rule of law is merely an empty slogan has no business holding a ‘Global Lawyers Forum.’ (Lu Tingge, Shijiazhuang)

“I hope attendees from foreign bar associations won’t just listen to the officials’ big empty words and propaganda but pay more attention to the actual human rights situation in China. I hope they learn more about religious groups, ethnic minorities, dissidents and human rights activists. These groups have suffered cruel persecution in China; I hope the foreign attendees will speak on their behalf at the conference and raise questions.” (An anonymous Beijing lawyer)

[…] “The concept of lawyers under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party is different from the normal Western concept of lawyers. The former Minister of Public Security who was the chief persecutor against human rights lawyers is now in the position to oversee all lawyers in China. In many locales, former domestic security policemen have become chiefs of the judicial bureaus overseeing lawyers. In recent years, the authorities have frequently introduced regulations that restrict lawyers’ freedom of expression and litigation rights; they have established CCP branches in law firms, and intensified ideological education. In their everyday practice of law, lawyers are increasingly playing a role of a prop, without any independence to speak of, and have become a tool of authoritarian rule.” (Xie Yanyi, Beijing) [Source]

NYU law professor Jerome Cohen shared the ChinaChange post with this comment:

The New York Bar Association also issued a statement:

The UK Bar Council published a vague appeal to “the internationally accepted concept of the rule of law”; “lawyers around the world who have suffered violations of their human rights”; and “good relations with lawyers worldwide […] in the public interest as well as in the interests of clients in the UK and internationally”; followed by a more specific list of concerns:

The Bar Council of England and Wales repeats its calls to the Chinese authorities to release any lawyers arrested in the legitimate pursuit of their practice, which includes the right to advocate freely and fearlessly in the best interests of their lay clients.

We continue to be concerned about reports of the following practices in China:
– The detention of lawyers held incommunicado and without their families’ knowledge of where they are being detained
– The prosecution of lawyers for vaguely defined national security-related crimes
– Revoking licenses to practise, imposing residential surveillance or preventing foreign travel.
– Detention without access to a legal representative or visits by family
– Restrictions on access to a legal representative of a detainee’s choosing
– Using improper pressure to secure incriminating statements and confessions from defendants [Source]

A stronger and broader statement came from the Bar Human Rights Committee, the Bar Council’s “independent international arm“:

Lawyers across the world, including those gathering for the Global Lawyers Forum, will wish to stand in solidarity with their colleagues and recognise the importance of the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which require governments to ensure that lawyers are able to perform their professional functions without improper interference.

It is through the courts and decisions of the judiciary that the rule of law successfully operates. Human rights cannot be duly protected without operation of the rule of law. We recently have expressed our concern to the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region at the brutal treatment and indiscriminate arrest of peaceful protesters in Hong Kong. We were further concerned by the nature of the criticism by the Central People’s Government at the decision of the Hong Kong High Court striking down anti-mask provisions. Judicial independence is a cornerstone of the rule of law and it is critical that judicial decisions can be made free from political interference.

Finally, those present at the Global Lawyers Forum must not ignore the severe crackdown on fundamental rights taking place by way of a terrorism prevention policy operating in Xinjiang. This explicitly targets Turkic Muslim ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities as well as Kazakh nationals. Credible sources estimate that over 1 million largely Muslim minority groups, in particular Uighur and Kazakh people, are detained in internment and indoctrination or re-education camps and prisons, alongside a high-tech surveillance strategy that in practice prevents Muslim worship and identity across the region. The stymying of religious expression and identity through mass coercive and arbitrary detention, as well as forced conversion, is a wholly disproportionate and unnecessary response to any threat of extremism and terrorism and constitutes a violation of many fundamental rights of these minority groups. [Source]


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