The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion First they came for the Hong Kong protesters. Then they came for their lawyers.

An image of Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a large screen during the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, in Beijing on June 28. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

A central definition of a rule-of-law state is that no one is above the law. China has a different approach, in which the law is an instrument of social control by the powerful party-state — it is more “rule by law.” The Chinese Communist Party does not tolerate dissent, and under President Xi Jinping’s increasingly stifling rule it also does not tolerate lawyers who defend dissidents.

A round of arrests of rights-defending lawyers began in July 2015, known as the “709 crackdown,” during which some 200 were jailed, disbarred or put under surveillance, and the repression has not eased up since. The method reflects a root-and-branch determination by Chinese authorities to destroy not only dissidents and protesters but also all those who support them. The latest target is Lin Qilei, a Beijing lawyer who sought to defend one of the 12 young pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong who tried and failed to flee to Taiwan last year.

Most of the dozen young people had previously been charged and released on bail over charges stemming from the Hong Kong protests in 2019. They attempted to take a speedboat to Taiwan in August 2020, hoping for political asylum. The group, ranging from 16 to 33 years old at the time, included a prominent activist and teenage students. Taiwan, the self-ruling island that China claims is a renegade province, had left its doors open. The speedboat was seized about 45 miles southeast of Hong Kong by the Chinese Coast Guard. The young people were detained for months on the mainland, then tried behind closed doors last December on charges of illegal border crossing. Ten were sentenced to terms of seven months to three years, while two who were underage were handed back to Hong Kong police.

Mr. Lin, who was hired by the family of one of the 12, a university student, was notified recently that his license to practice law has been revoked. Previously, two other lawyers representing the 12 had also lost their licenses. Mr. Lin faced a Catch-22 situation: The authorities deregistered his law firm for six months, having previously investigated it on a pretext of irregularities in its accounts, then refused to respond to his appeals, then disbarred him because he hadn’t been able to find work since the firm was shuttered. Mr. Lin had been defending other rights cases for several years. “Especially after the 709 incident there are still a lot of these cases, but the lawyers taking them are less and less,” he said. “If someone contacts me, I cannot bear to say no.”

In a free country, no one is above the law, not even the rulers. But in China’s socialist “rule by law,” the bigwigs are put on a high pedestal and the law turned into a tool to keep everyone else in line, including the lawyers.

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