China Change » The “Original Sin” of Chinese Lawyers — Speech by Lawyer Li Fangping on the 6th Day of Human Rights Lawyers in China

“Original Sin” of Chinese Lawyers—Speech by Lawyer Li Fangping on the Occasion of the 6th Day of Human Rights Lawyers in China

Li Fangping, July 9, 2022

Li Fangping in 2014.

Li Fangping began practicing law in China in the mid-1990s, first in Jiangxi and then in Beijing. Over the years, from the start of the rights movement in the early 2000s, he has been one of the leading human rights lawyers and has defended clients in almost every type of rights case. rights and public interest, including political prisoners, activists, rights defenders. , victims of food contamination, victims of workplace discrimination, Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti and Tibetan Buddha Buramna Rimpoche. I was in a messaging group with Mr. Li a few years ago and remembered to this day what he said once there: “The police visited my parents in Jiangxi more more times than me.” He and his family recently arrived in the United States via Hong Kong. — Yaxue Cao

Ladies and gentlemen, guests and viewers, it is an honor to be part of this year’s Human Rights Lawyers Day. As a Chinese lawyer for nearly 30 years, I am happy to share with you the changing legal scene in contemporary China and discuss the future of human rights lawyers in China.

By nature, the bar is a system designed to uphold the rule of law, limit the power of government and protect civil rights. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the new regime was hostile to lawyers who continued to practice as they did in the Republican era. In December 1950, the Department of Justice announced the abolition of the old attorney system. The 1954 Constitution stipulated the right of the accused to a legal defense, setting up the system of lawyers specific to the new regime.

However, less than three years later, the 1957 “anti-rightist movement” again threatened Chinese lawyers with full-scale repression.

According to a dataset published by the All China Lawyers Association, in 1957 at least 30% of lawyers were classified as “right-wing,” perhaps the highest percentage of any profession.

The reasons why so many lawyers are criticized as right-wing can be summarized as follows:

First, they were accused of attacking the judiciary and the judicial organs of the “popular regime”; second, their ideas that lawyers are supra-classical and independent were a refusal to recognize that lawyers are part of the apparatus of “people’s dictatorship”; third, they insisted on the presumption of innocence; and fourth, they confronted and opposed the People’s Procuratorate.

It is therefore clear that, from the very beginning of the establishment of the PRC, the authorities viewed lawyers with hostility, whether they were lawyers from the Republican era or those who began to practice under the new regime.

In 1979, with the launch of “reform and opening up”, China reintroduced the bar, the country’s lawyers entered this new era with an “original sin”.

First and foremost, the reintroduction of the legal profession has been the subject of consensus among the authorities after 30 years of social unrest.

Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen, senior Communist Party officials who had both been severely persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, stressed that to prevent such a calamity from happening again, China must “improve the socialist rule of law”. . In 1980, Deng Xiaoping went further, stating, “The lawyer workforce should be expanded; we must implement the rule of law.

During the reconstruction of the bar, China has enacted and implemented the criminal law and the criminal procedure law, starting a process of standardized legal defense.

But in 1983, China launched a “Strike Hard Against Crime” campaign, dealing the first blow to legal defense by lawyers. The “Strike Hard” campaign forced the judiciary to crack down on crimes quickly and harshly, overwhelmed the intermediate courts, and led the Supreme People’s Court to delegate the power of capital punishment to lower courts.

My maternal uncle worked as a lawyer at the local government’s legal advisory office, and during the “Strike Hard” campaign, he was transferred to an intermediate court to be a judge in order to participate in the campaign.

This “strike hard” campaign model eventually became a perennial phenomenon, causing great difficulty for Chinese lawyers to defend their clients.

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping’s remarks on the southern tour brought some thaw to the frozen state of society after 1989. The legal profession joined society as a whole with market-oriented reforms. Before that, lawyers were state employees; in the 1990s, lawyers transformed into partnership law firms, gradually gaining more autonomy.

During the 1990s, China enacted the Administrative Procedure Law and the Civil Procedure Law. In 1996, the Criminal Procedure Act was implemented, which abolished the detention and review system and allowed lawyers to defend their clients during the investigation phase.

In October 1998, the Chinese government signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In March 1999, the phrase “to govern the country according to law” (“依法治国”) was enshrined in the PRC Constitution. Exchanges with the international legal community began as China-Western relations improved, bringing with them the rule of law and human rights concepts of developed countries. These concepts were later introduced into Chinese criminal law. In April 1999, China applied to host the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and in 2001, China joined the WTO.

Due to domestic reform and outward opening up, due to calls to integrate China into the world, the call for the rule of law has also become stronger. Legal education has been greatly expanded, the number of lawyers has greatly increased, and the whole society has regained its vitality.

Enter the 21st century, the Internet arrived in Chinese cities, providing citizens with unprecedented access to information and communication. Market-oriented media had grown in number and influence.

In the spring of 2003, SARS swept through China, popularizing awareness of public health issues. The “Sun Zhigang Incident” in February 2003 activated people’s awareness of civil rights, and legal practitioners began to regularly involve themselves in high-level public affairs.

Shortly after the new leaders of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao took office, he abolished the regulations on “custody and repatriation of homeless urban beggars”.

After the success of Beijing’s Olympic candidacy, in order to improve the regime’s image in the country and abroad, the authorities inscribed in March 2004 the line “the State respects and protects human rights in the Constitution. On April 5, 2007, the Council of State enacted and implemented the Government Information Disclosure Regulations.

During these years, newly emerged human rights lawyers participated in many public events to defend people whose rights had been violated, such as villagers during the recall of village officials from Taishi, Guangdong; private contractors in the North Shaanxi Oilfield lawsuits; brutal abortion victims in Linyi, Shandong; victims of milk powder containing melamine; the campaign to directly elect the Beijing Lawyers Association; the Deng Yujiao case; the Southern Weekly incident; hepatitis B anti-discrimination campaign; the case of the three netizens from Fujian; Ai Weiwei’s tax case; the abolition of the re-education through labor system; campaign for equal access to education for migrant children, etc.

It is clear that the emergence of human rights lawyers during this period was neither a coincidence nor an import from abroad. It was a stand-alone product of the time, brought about by legislative development, growing civil rights awareness, the implementation of more laws, and the state’s promise to protect human rights through law. .

But from the start, the government has guarded against, and repressed, lawyers who defend human rights. During the arrests of “Jasmine” in 2011, more than a dozen human rights lawyers across the country, including myself, were subjected to enforced disappearance and torture.

In 2012, the director of the Institute of US Studies, under the aegis of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, published an article in the foreign edition of People’s Daily, in which human rights lawyers were singled out as the main force endangering China’s social stability.

In order to prevent rights lawyers from growing in number, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Justice has expressly set prohibitive bureaucratic thresholds to prevent lawyers from other parts of the country from practicing in the capital.

Despite the variety of measures taken to guide public opinion and control legal practitioners, including disappearance and torture, human rights lawyers have continued their activities and more lawyers have joined their ranks to defend clients in human rights cases.

Since 2013, however, all spheres of society have come under increased state control and surveillance, including the media, higher education and online discourse.

It was in such a political environment that the “709 crackdown” took place; it was like a “Strike Hard” campaign against lawyers, but tougher and more brutal.

Immediately after 709, a large number of lawyers handling various human rights cases had their licenses revoked. Their daily freedom of movement, including the freedom to travel outside of China, was restricted.

Looking at the 709 trials, you will see that the charges against the human rights lawyers were much the same as the charges against the lawyers during the anti-rightist campaign in 1957, with the addition of “having acted as proxies for foreign forces”. Essentially, nothing has changed since the beginning of the communist regime.

Following the 709 incident, the regime continues to tighten control over society. Beginning in 2017, authorities issued strict regulations to manage and suppress various sectors, from the online behavior of CCP cadres and Chinese netizens in general, to school libraries and the entertainment industry. This process continues to this day.

But we must not lose sight of the fact that more and more Chinese citizens are waking up to defend their rights, despite the draconian state repression hitting society. For example, during Shanghai’s lockdown, residents made loud and clear calls for freedom, rights and the rule of law. We are not only witnessing a growing awareness of rights among people from all walks of life, but also countless people taking action to defend their rights.

On the surface, civil society in China today appears to have been cut down and scattered, but just as a grassland fire cannot destroy grass, it will grow back stronger when the spring breeze arrives.


Jon J. Epps