Photo Credit: Flickr user infomatique
On July 17, Chinese government officials raided the office of the Open Constitution Initiative, a prominent NGO that has carried out research on sensitive issues such as corruption and government policies in Tibet, provided legal consultation to victims of government injustice, and engaged in legal activism. Officials claimed that the organization had failed to properly register itself with authorities and proceeded to confiscate all of its belongings. On the day before the raid, tax authorities had demanded that the organization pay a hefty 1.42 m yuan ($207,900) bill to compensate for unpaid taxes and fines. Nevertheless, the NGO’s closure was widely perceived as politically motivated. This attack on rights defenders came just days after the Beijing Justice Bureau officially reported that it had canceled the licenses of 53 lawyers for failing to apply for annual relicensing, which had heretofore been considered a mere formality. This initial list of disbarred lawyers included at least one high profile civil rights attorney, while at least 20 others have reported threats over potential loss of their licenses in recent months.
These attacks against the country’s lawyers are nothing new. Rather, they are the most recent episodes in the government’s broader campaign to stifle lawyers and other members of the country’s rights defense movement – thus highlighting the Communist Party’s lack of commitment to establishing the rule of law. In addition to bureaucratic obstacles, the Chinese authorities have also engaged in more forceful harassment of human rights lawyers by utilizing such methods as arrest and physical assault. For example, in early February, Gao Zhisheng, a prominent rights attorney and Nobel Peace Prize nominee who had defended a range of underprivileged clients and fought against religious persecution, was abducted by security forces and has not been heard from since. On May 13, Beijing lawyers Zhang Kai and Li Chunfu were beaten by local police, locked up in an iron cage, and interrogated at a police station regarding their defense of Falun Gong clients and attempts to investigate the death in a labor camp of an elderly practitioner. Ominously, these are only a few examples of the Chinese government’s direct assaults against lawyers in recent years.
The government’s harsh treatment of these lawyers is especially troubling due to the fact that their legal activity and advocacy efforts represent the best attempt to establish comprehensive rule of law in the country. In the context of a highly politicized legal system under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), these attorneys have embarked upon a dedicated effort to apply the laws and hold officials to account. China’s constitution, which as the result of a 2004 amendment now proclaims that China “respects and safeguards human rights,” upholds the fundamental rights of free expression, assembly, association, and religious belief. However, the constitution cannot normally be invoked in courts as a legal basis for asserting these rights. Some lawyers have attempted to challenge this, using constitutional provisions and other legislation in their efforts to defend clients, many of them on trial for their political views or religious identity. As Albert Ho, Chairman of the Human Rights Lawyer’s Concern Group, explains, “These lawyers are…only asking the government to fulfill its promise within the law.”
In the sphere of civil law, Chinese rights lawyers have also dedicated their efforts towards enabling the Chinese legal system to truly become a source for redress in cases of official corruption. For example, they have attempted to aid Chinese victims of injustice by filing civil lawsuits for such cases as the tainted milk scandal and the school building collapses that occurred during the deadly 2008 earthquake (the details of which we discussed in a previous blog post). In many cases, human rights lawyers have become avid activists dedicated to not only defending victims, but also raising public awareness of the rights protected in the constitution and international treaties that China has ratified, including the Convention against Torture and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In response to these attempts to apply and generate greater respect for the law, the CCP has adopted an aggressive approach. The party has directly undermined civil rights lawyers’ efforts by issuing a series of guidelines in 2006 that restricted their ability to accept cases on behalf of a large group of clients and, more recently, pressured them not to take action on behalf of those affected by the contaminated milk powder.
Despite the government’s rhetoric of doing things “in accordance with the law” as well as the passage of dozens of new laws each year, the degree to which the central government is truly attempting to construct the rule of law remains highly questionable. As the 2007 Countries at the Crossroads report on China notes, the interests and preferences of the CCP prevail over the official law in most legal matters, and especially in political cases. Indeed, the judiciary remains strongly under the control of the CCP, with the courts being answerable to the National People’s Congress and verdicts being directed by the party, often via a nationwide network of bodies known as political-legal committees. Notably, as the 2009 Freedom in the World report notes, a party cadre with no formal legal training was appointed as chief justice in 2008. As a result, due process guarantees oftentimes exist more in theory than in practice, with few criminal defendants being granted access to counsel, especially in the trials of political dissidents accused of “inciting subversion of state power.”
The government’s recent assault against the country’s most prominent lawyers points to the CCP’s continued disrespect for the rule of law and intolerance of any authority that may be independent of the party’s control and manipulation. As Albert Ho argues, "With the opening and liberalization of China, it needs to build a system of law and a sound legal system. The government and the governing party shall abide by the law. But they are very, very concerned that the law may cause an obstacle to the control of the people." It is not as if Chinese citizens never receive a fair trial – though the more straightforward non-political cases still are affected by corruption. Overall, however, developments in recent years suggest that Party leaders are as unwilling as ever to relinquish genuine authority to independent judges and lawyers. Such a policy will continue to have troubling ramifications for the quality of governance in China. Beyond enhancing the arbitrary and corrupt aspects of the system, such actions by the Party also signal to citizens that the legal system is not a source of redress for their grievances. At a time of growing rights consciousness among the pubic, the only recourse left to discontented Chinese people is to resist the system through protest, which is already contributing to and complicating the growing social instability in the country.