Brave Chinese lawyers are trying to find a detained colleague.

In 2008, the organisation for which I work, the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE), presented its annual human rights award to a Chinese lawyer, Li Heping. Li Heping was prevented by Chinese officials from leaving Beijing to receive his award. And now he is in the news again.

You may have read in the Gazette and elsewhere that the Chinese government last month detained more than 200 lawyers and their staff, with several are still in custody. Some have been paraded on television to make confessions and have been portrayed as ‘venal con artists, sexual predators and foul-mouthed hooligans’, and accused of crimes.  

Li Heping was one of those detained, and there is still no news of his whereabouts. An assistant at his firm, Zhao Wei, was also detained. On the day I write this - 10 August - it is one month since they disappeared.

The Chinese government has also harassed Li Heping’s family. At the beginning of this month, police raided his brother’s house, taking away documents and a computer. A few days later, Li Heping’s wife was summoned for questioning. Brave Chinese lawyers are trying to find him.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise that, if the Chinese authorities are not disclosing his whereabouts, he is almost certainly not being properly treated while detained.

I have read in the press that the reasoning behind the Chinese government’s actions is that human rights lawyers become folk heroes for standing up to corruption or the dictatorship of local authorities, and that the government cannot bear to have alternative sources of power beyond the Communist party.

The crackdown on lawyers is to prevent the current system of dominance from being undermined. It doesn’t really matter what the reasoning is. It wouldn’t really matter if their absurd accusations against the lawyers happened to be true, since, even if true, people should not disappear without trace after being detained in a country which has the pretence of being subject to the rule of law, nor should people be forced to make confessions on television.

This is not new, of course. Over five years ago, I wrote a piece about another Chinese lawyer who had gone missing. The New York Times said in an opinion piece recently on the missing lawyers: ‘At some point, China’s leaders are going to have to modernise and institute a fairer, more predictable legal system in line with international norms if they want their country to grow and credibly lead the world.’

I want to know where Li Heping is. If you want to know, too, and have means at your disposal - social media, a campaigning group or other lever of publicity - please join the heroic Chinese lawyers who refuse to give in under pressure; and try to find him, too.

Jonathan Goldsmith is a consultant and former secretary-general at the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs