Word of the Week: “709 Case” (709案, 709 àn), or the “Black Friday Crackdown”

Tuesday is the ninth anniversary of the 2015 “709” or “Black Friday” crackdown on Chinese rights lawyers. The following account of the episode, its legacy, and the censorship that surrounded it is the opening entry from CDT’s recent ebook, “China Digital Times Lexicon: 20th Anniversary Edition.” Although the Lexicon as a whole is more a dictionary than an encyclopedia—explaining key online slang and phrases, rather than cataloguing facts and events—CDT Chinese editors felt strongly that the 709 case is so crucial to understanding China under Xi Jinping that it could not be omitted. Following the entry, we highlight two notable recent texts on the ongoing suppression of rights lawyers in the aftermath of the crackdown.

709 case (709案 (709 àn)

Nationwide crackdown on Chinese human rights defenders and lawyers that began on July 9, 2015; also known as “Black Friday.”

Rights lawyers and advocates have long faced persecution under the CCP, but since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, his security apparatus has dramatically clamped down on dissent. Civil society’s small gains in advancing political rights under previous leaders, along with the central role of rights lawyers in supporting civil rights defense and pushing for further legal reforms, became a perceived threat to Xi’s authoritarian vision and a target for repression.

July 9 (7/09) marked the day when the first lawyers disappeared in what was later called the 709 crackdown, in which Chinese public security agents ultimately rounded up over 300 human rights lawyers, activists, and their relatives. Some of the more prominent figures detained include Li Heping, Wang Quanzhang, Yu Wensheng, Jiang Tianyong, Xie Yang, Guo Yushan, Tan Zuoren, Xia Lin, Wang Yu, Zhou Shifeng, Zhao Wei, Pu Zhiqiang, and Wu Gan, among hundreds of others. Many were formally charged with subversion and related crimes, and sentenced to years in prison; some were paraded on state television making forced confessions; some endured torture in detention; and some were held incommunicado for years before being tried.

The U.N.’s Committee against Torture stated it was “deeply concerned” by the abuses against lawyers detained in the 709 crackdown, and a separate group of U.N. Special Rapporteurs added their condemnation, stating that “lawyers need to be protected, not harassed.” Over 100 civil society organizations from around the globe signed an open letter calling for the release of those detained, and the U.S. and other governments condemned the crackdown.

During the week of the initial crackdown, Chinese government authorities issued censorship instructions ordering all media websites to, “without exception, use as the standard official and authoritative media reports with regards to the detention of trouble-making lawyers by the relevant departments.” In January 2016, after many of those detained were formally sentenced, government authorities issued new censorship instructions to the media: “Without exception, all websites must refrain from publishing special features, and must not investigate, report, or comment on the [709] case without authorization. Harmful information on Weibo, WeChat, and other interactive platforms must be deleted immediately. Take prompt action to manage and control poor quality accounts.” In October, authorities banned websites from republishing any content from Caixin for two months, after it reported on lawyers’ opposition to new government regulations reinforcing Party control over law firms and criminalizing activities for which detainees of the 709 crackdown were prosecuted. Later, in January 2019, another censorship instruction ordered the media: “Do not gather news or report, do not comment or reprint” content about the case of Wang Quanzhang, a lawyer who was detained in the crackdown and sentenced to four years in prison for subversion. Wang’s wife, Li Wenzu, became a prominent activist in her own right through her advocacy for her husband and other political detainees.

Research by Citizen Lab in April 2017 documented numerous examples of censorship around the 709 crackdown on social media apps. On WeChat, at least 42 keyword combinations related to the 709 crackdown were blocked in group chats. Most of these included the names or other references to individuals involved. Also blocked were at least 58 images related to the 709 crackdown in both WeChat’s chat and Moments features, marking the first known case of image filtering on the app. This censorship occurred only for accounts registered with mainland Chinese numbers. Moreover, when the British embassy in China posted on Weibo calling for an investigation into the torture of some of the 709 lawyers, other users were not able to comment or post, and the majority of the top search results on Baidu for “709事件” (709 Case) led to a Global Times article ridiculing Western criticism of the incident.

In July 2023, dozens of human rights organizations, bar associations, scholars, and Chinese human rights defenders signed a joint letter calling for global attention to the Chinese government’s new wave of repression against human rights lawyers, which they called the “709 crackdown 2.0.” The letter lists examples of how, in the words of U.N. experts, “the profession of human rights lawyer has been effectively criminalised in China.” For example, the licenses of lawyers taking on sensitive cases have been revoked; former detainees and their relatives who spoke out about mistreatment in detention have been detained again; dying family members and detainees have been barred from traveling to see each other; and many have faced continued harassment and arbitrary detention.

In April, Chinese Human Rights Defenders detailed the ongoing suppression of the 709 crackdown’s targets with a report focusing on the punishment of their family members. From the report’s “Key Takeaways”:

  • Chinese authorities threaten and harm human rights defenders’ children, including newborns, to silence and punish their parents.
    • Children of jailed rights defenders, as young as infants and toddlers, have been detained in psychiatric wards or orphanages.
    • School-age children have been forced to drop out of school.
    • Children have been subjected to exit bans to prevent them from going abroad to study.
  • The government resorts to criminal proceedings – detention, arrest, imprisonment – against human rights defenders’ family members.
  • Authorities deny families’ access to detained or jailed rights defenders in order to force them to cooperate.
  • Chinese police obstruct families’ communication with overseas activists in order to silence them.
  • Government officials enforced family separations with exit bans, citing “endangering national security,” that lack legal basis, or detain activists or pressure foreign governments to apprehend and repatriate activists, who tried to reunite with families abroad.
  • The Chinese government’s collective punishment of human rights defenders’ families appears to be a state policy; CHRD is unaware of any official having been investigated or prosecuted for such abuses. [Source]

Also in April, a letter emerged from Margaret Satterthwaite, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, expressing concern to Chinese authorities about administrative measures imposed on the legal profession since 2015. These, Satterthwaite writes, are “not in line with international standards related to the right to fair trial, and may in their application, limit the functions of lawyers in China by restricting both their work and their freedoms. […] These provisions allow for undue interference with the freedom of lawyers and law firms to exercise their legal profession and thus may open the door to systematic violations of the right to a fair trial and equality before the law by restricting lawyers from fulfilling their legal duties to their clients and creating a chilling environment for the handling of certain kinds of cases.”

From a summary of the 12-page letter by Raphaël Viana David at the International Service for Human Rights:

  • China engages in a ‘pattern’ of ‘us[ing] the legal provisions to revoke or suspend the practising license of many human rights lawyers since 2017’, given that ‘the application of these Measures provides the Chinese authorities with the power to deny, temporarily or indefinitely, the right to practice to lawyers’ and that ‘without employment, a lawyer’s license to practice can be invalidated indefinitely after six months.’ These measures are taken ‘without any process for the lawyer to object to or appeal.’
  • ‘China has implemented these laws to charge lawyers handling sensitive cases with national security crimes under China’s Criminal Law, in particular for “subversion of State power” or “inciting subversion” (article 105), charges that carry lengthy prison sentences.’
  • These Measures ‘may in practice restrict lawyers from exercising their professional duties in defending the rights of clients, as they limit some of the methods lawyers may use, especially public activities aiming at objecting to the treatment of their clients, in the legitimate exercise of their profession.’
  • These Measures ‘may also be a deterrent to lawyers considering taking on certain sensitive cases’. As a result, ‘clients, especially human rights defenders and those accused of crimes under national security legislation, may be deprived of independent legal representation if lawyers face consequences for representing them.’
  • These restrictions are ‘reinforced by the sanctioning effect of the annual inspection process’ and the ‘imposition of a requirement that law firms assess the work of lawyers.’ The annual inspection system ‘may provide the opportunity to threaten and punish lawyers and law firms that are handling sensitive cases,’ in particular when the authorities ‘delay announcing the results of annual inspections, or suspend or even ban lawyers from participating.’
  • The implementation of these Measures ‘risks leaving lawyers without a livelihood’ and places ‘great financial and social pressure’ on lawyers and their law firms. [Source]

Raphaël Viana David himself added:

Human rights lawyers are a cornerstone of China’s human rights movement. From Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, to religious minorities, LGBTQI and feminist advocates, journalists, and political dissidents: human rights lawyers defend the full spectrum of civil society. They accompany and empower the most vulnerable against land evictions, discrimination, health scandals, or extra-legal detention. They embody the promise of rule of law and hold the government accountable to its commitments under China’s constitution, laws, and the international human rights treaties it has ratified. They ensure that no one is left behind. [Source]


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