China always arbitrarily detains human rights lawyers, in extreme cases even holding them incommunicado, should the regime find that these lawyers interfered with the regime’s vested interests. This was shown in the notorious ‘709 Crackdown’ in 2015, during which several hundred human rights lawyers and defenders were detained or harassed and some of them reported being tortured or ill-treated during detention.
What appears to be the recent practice to repress human rights lawyers, however, is the extensive use of review, revocation or suspension of legal practice licenses against these lawyers so as to paralyse their rights to practise, and thus directly smashing their rice bowls. Such ‘strategy’ could be dissected in a threefold manner as follows.
Reviewing – gauging Annual Review System
Unlike most of the jurisdictions in the world, pursuant to Articles 58 and 59 of the ‘Administrative Measures for Law Firms’ issued by the PRC Ministry of Justice, lawyers and law firms in the mainland China have to undergo an Annual Review System administered by the Justice Bureau and the All China Lawyers Association (‘ACLA’), an association officially operated to manage lawyers in China. In essence, both legal practitioners and law firms’ licenses are subject to renewal every year by government authorities who frequently exercise power to withhold renewal of human rights lawyers’ license without spelling out legitimately valid reasons. When being the target of suppression, these lawyers raise fears of not being able to practice in their entire career.
Suspending – legal practice licenses are temporarily invalidated
The suspension of practice is used as a façade to stifle lawyers’ right to work as it embodies an excessively stringent standard. For the lawyers who have not been retained by a law firm for over six months consecutively would have their licenses suspended pursuant to Article 23 Section 4 of the ‘Administrative Measures for Lawyers Practice’.
This explains why there is always news showing that Chinese authorities meddle with the employment practices of law firms. Combining with the aforementioned reviewing practice, authorities can repress targeted human rights lawyer by – first coercing law firms not to employ targeted lawyers, otherwise that firm’s legal practice license is not renewed by leveraging the Annual review system; then the targeted human rights lawyer’s right to work would automatically be extinguished after six months according to the administrative measures. The affected lawyer can only wait for next year’s annual review and before that he or she needs to secure an employment from a law firm. Many law firms are deterred by the annual registration and thus only a few would be willing to take lawyers who handle ‘sensitive’ cases.
This scheme looks regulatory in form but suppressive in substance because it empowers the government to justify the practice as an industry administration. It is extensively adopted in China, and examples of lawyers subject to this form of suppression can be raised with ease, including but not limited to lawyers Liu Xiaoyuan (刘晓原), Wang Yu (王宇) and Peng Yonghe (彭永和).
Revoking – permanently extinguish human rights lawyers’ right to work
Recent events have marked a more rampant use of revocation – the most destructive oppression methods of the three, since lawyers who have their licenses revoked could never practice law thereafter.
While law stipulating disbarment is promulgated mainly under Article 49 of ‘Laws on Lawyers of the People’s Republic of China’, the practical ‘standards’ as to what acts would constitute a revocation are simply incomprehensible from a reasonable person’s standpoint. Lawyers Lu Siwei (卢思位) and Ren Quanniu (任全牛) have their legal practice license revoked in January 2021, shortly after handling the controversial ‘12 Hongkongers Case’. According to the official notices, Lu’s license is revoked since he ‘repeatedly published inappropriate speeches online, seriously harming the image of the legal industry with detrimental effects to the society’, while (Ren) ‘did not follow the Government’s definition of “evil cult” in defending his clients’ – which was a case Ren handled more than 2 years ago. Lawyer Xi Xiangdong (袭祥栋) had his license revoked in January 2021 for ‘repeatedly disrupting trial judge and procurator during trial’.
China looks more legitimate despite continuous suppression
Instead of overtly placing human rights lawyers and defenders into arbitrary and incommunicado detention and enforced disappearances, leveraging these aforementioned strategies to suspend or disbar the human rights lawyers make the regime look more legitimate. While the former surely attracts tremendous pressure and condemnation from the international community, as shown in the case of ‘709 Crackdown’ and also the more recent massive oppression against ‘Xiamen Gathering’, the latter is more justifiable by terming the practice as a mere administrative act to manage the legal industry. China exploits the international community’s lack of total understanding regarding the system, making this an imperceivable threat, and as a result continuing to use this tool to repress human rights lawyers without consequences.
This suppression of right to work does not make human rights lawyers suffer less. First, without licenses, they could not practice and carry out duties as lawyers, meaning that their source of income is significantly undermined. As one disbarred human rights lawyer described, suppressing lawyers’ right to work has similar deterrent effect as detaining them. This induces immense fear among lawyers, who would therefore self-censor themselves not to participate in sensitive cases. Second, their abilities and techniques to safeguard civil and human rights through accordingly utilising the judicial system could no longer be used, embodying a substantial loss of invaluable asset in protecting civilians in the authoritarian system.
We urge that the Chinese government should immediately halt the practice of interfering with human rights lawyers’ right to work, as it is of utmost importance for China to have human rights lawyers to safeguard civilians’ human rights through the judicial sector, so as to advance the legal system and develop a genuine 'rule of law' system. We also call on the international legal community to speak up more fiercely on the issue. That is not only for the interest of the people in China but also for upholding the genuine meaning of the rule of law in the international community.
Albert Ho is the chairperson of China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a solicitor and a former legislator in Hong Kong