Rule of law in China, a country which locks up its lawyers

Carrie Gracie
China editor
@BBCCarrieon Twitter

The Chinese Supreme People's Court building in Beijing 30 March 2006.Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Last year saw reforms designed to make courts less corrupt and less embedded in local politics

Dozens of Chinese lawyers have been detained or interrogated over recent days in what seems to be a co-ordinated roundup.

The crackdown has targeted those who take on cases involving free speech, human rights and abuses of power, presenting many of them as motivated by greed and a reckless disregard for social order.

A statement from the Ministry of Public Security said suspects included lawyers, social media celebrities and petitioners but that lawyers were the core.

It accused a group led by the Beijing-based Fengrui Law Firm, of illegally hiring protesters and swaying court decisions in the name of "defending justice and public interests."

It went on to accuse the group of organising more than 40 controversial incidents and severely disrupting public order. It gave an example in which it had allegedly presented a legitimate police shooting at a railway station as a murder conspiracy.

'Serious crimes'

Since last Thursday at least six lawyers have been detained and more than 50 taken in for questioning by police in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Xi Jinping came to power vowing to tackle corruption and promote judicial fairness

It is not clear how many are still in custody. Some of those questioned had signed a letter asking authorities to release Wang Yu, a human rights lawyer who vanished from her home last week and is now believed to be in detention.

Ms Wang worked for the Fengrui law firm. Another Fengrui lawyer, Zhou Shifeng, disappeared the day after one of his clients was released last week. State media have confirmed that six people including Wang Yu and Zhou Shifeng are in criminal detention for "seriously violating the law". The People's Daily said Mr Zhou was suspected of serious crimes.

It also attacked another employee of the firm, online activist Wu Gan, saying he had exploited his fame and exaggerated sensitive incidents for profit. Mr Wu has been in detention since May and earlier this month was charged with "inciting subversion". The People's Daily denounced what it called a "major criminal organisation" which "seriously disturbed social order".

'A mockery'

Last year saw reforms designed to make courts less corrupt and less embedded in local politics. There were promises to exclude tainted evidence, torture and coercion. But at the same time, President Xi said the rule of law would be "a knife whose handle was in the hands of the party and the people".

Any campaign to promote the rule of law which thinks lawyers are part of the problem rather the solution is in trouble. But this is the direction of travel in China. Groups that cannot be co-opted become pariahs. And lawyers who assert a set of values outside the narrowing space allotted to them by the state are no exception.

There would be no constitutionalism, judicial independence or separation of powers. And clearly no lawyers or law firms who put their client's interests ahead of those of the party.

"Such an unprecedented nationwide crackdown can only have been sanctioned from within the central government," said William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International. "This coordinated attack on lawyers makes a mockery of President Xi Jinping's claims to promote the rule of law."

'Growing alarm'

Xi Jinping came to power nearly three years ago vowing to tackle corruption and promote judicial fairness. But now lawyers are in police sights, with the state news agency Xinhua saying "the detainees are suspected of illegally organizing paid protests, hyping public sentiment and fabricating rumours on the Internet to sway court decisions".

The US State Department condemned the detentions saying: "Over the last few days we have noted with growing alarm reports that Chinese public security forces have systematically detained individuals who share the common attribute of peacefully defending the rights of others, including those who lawfully challenge official policies."

It's not just lawyers. In the name of security, and the need to protect against hostile foreign forces, the overall climate for civil society is worsening, with churches, women's rights groups and labour activists all under attack. The internet faces ever closer supervision and communist party cells are being established in high profile private companies.

Any discussion of universal or alternative values has become taboo, a measure of the Party's sense of its own fragility. For a party which fears its own overthrow, any group, any idea, any individual, could become, in the words of Chairman Mao, "the spark that lights the prairie fire".

To protect the party against such sparks, and inoculate the public against contending narratives, President Xi has the "Chinese dream", a catchall slogan to embrace a mix of national pride, pursuit of wealth and adherence to a special form of modernity in which love of country can equal love of the Communist Party.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Xi Jinping has introduced a slogan to embrace national pride and the pursuit of wealth

It's the logic of the Chinese Dream that drove many aspects of last week's stock market intervention and which put graduating students at China's top university under orders to chant the slogan "Revive A shares, benefit the people!"

No great surprise then that China's parliament should have just passed a new security law which conflates the Communist Party's monopoly on power with national security.

But a recent Freedom House report claims that despite heightened repression, fear is diminishing. "Activities that the authorities have invested tremendous resources in suppressing have continued and even expanded."

I find that hard to judge. I also find it hard to predict the effect of the detentions and interrogations we've witnessed in recent days.

But there can be no doubt that the irony of all of this is not lost on the defence lawyers who are now sitting in cells hoping for a visit from their own defence lawyer.

For many years they tried to advance a "rule of law" agenda within the system and could have been forgiven for hoping that when President Xi declared his own determination to pursue the rule of law their cause might prosper.

Where do China's lawyers go from here? And who will be the defence lawyer when so many of them are behind bars?