Teng Biao is a human rights lawyer and a visiting fellow at New York University’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.
At around 3 a.m. on July 9, human rights lawyer Wang Yu was abducted from her home in Beijing. Her husband, rights defender Bao Longjun, was also disappeared. Wang is renowned in China: She represented Cao Shunli, who died after being denied medical treatment while in custody for her human rights activism; Ilham Tohti, a Uigher scholar unjustly sentenced to life in prison; and protest organizer Wu Gan. In the days since Wang’s arrest, dozens of human rights lawyers and others have been abducted, arrested and disappeared; all told, including those who have been temporarily detained or given warnings, the sweep has targeted more than 200 people in 24 provinces.
This is the biggest crackdown on lawyers in China since the legal system was reestablished in 1980 after the Cultural Revolution.
It is also just part of the purge that President Xi Jinping has carried out against civil society since he came to power in late 2012. Those hit by this comprehensive suppression have included political dissidents, nongovernmental organizations, government petitioners, underground churches, Internet users, news organizations and universities. More than 1,500 rights defenders have been arrested or thrown into jail, including well-known lawyers Xu Zhiyong, Pu Zhiqiang and Tang Jingling.
But this repression has not succeeded at forcing the lawyers into retreat. In the courts, on the Internet and in the streets, China’s human rights lawyers remain active. Since the rights defense movement emerged in 2003, their numbers have grown from dozens to a thousand. They use the legal system to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, and wield the Internet and media to expose abuses of power and the justice system. There is little doubt that they have become one of the most spirited and active civil forces in China.
As professionals with a thorough understanding of the law and a deep familiarity with political and social conditions, rights lawyers have, case by case, brought together a disparate range of social groups: the victims of forced housing demolitions, legal injustice, forced abortion policies, pollution and poisoned foods and medication; persecuted Christians and Falun Gong practitioners; prisoners of conscience; and many others. China’s rights lawyers are the link between them all.
The Chinese Communist Party sensed from the beginning that rights lawyers were a deep threat and thus has never eased its persecution of them. The brilliant Gao Zhisheng suffered extraordinarily cruel torture after he defended Falun Gong. Others have been thrown into forced labor camps or jail while still others have been abducted or disappeared. Many have simply had their legal licenses revoked. I, too, have been abducted, locked up and tortured.
If they chose, these professionals could reap a substantial salary doing other sorts of legal work — but their belief in the rule of law and liberty and their sense of responsibility leads them to this path. It is one beset by thorns, but it is also full of honor. They win the love and respect of ordinary people and they accumulate social influence. Working together in the battle for human rights, through the relentless persecution, they have formed deep friendships. Using social media, they have brought together an informal organization that can be rapidly mobilized. Every time there’s a serious legal incident, hundreds of them take steps to publicize the matter, mobilize citizens to make their voices heard and, when necessary, dispatch lawyers to take up the case.
Over a decade ago, the Communist Party determined that rights lawyers were an enemy on par with underground religious groups, dissidents and online opinion leaders. So the current purge is no surprise. The security agencies struck just over a week after a new national security law went into effect on July 1 — as though they simply couldn’t wait.
But isn’t there a profound dread lurking behind this barbarism? President Xi has done much to bring back the ideological patterns of the Mao Zedong era, including the recycling of old slogans, the shutting of NGOs, the arrest of dissidents and enhanced controls on the spread of information — all of it is a sign of the party’s deep fear of a color revolution. But the party no longer has the ability to carry out the frantic, Mao-style mobilizations of the past. Its ideology has lost all attraction, and the public’s frustration with the party is growing. People are more willing to criticize the regime in public, and the spread of access to the Internet has stunted the effect of the party’s propaganda.
Increasingly, it’s not just those targeted by the regime that fume: The stock market’s recent crash led even the middle class to fury and disappointment. The party’s attempts to project confidence do little to disguise its panic: It is beset by economic strife, antagonism between officials and the people, corruption, ecological disasters, unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet, and its own sense of ideological crisis.
Compared with all of this, the rights lawyer and civil society activists are gaining in prestige, influence and communications and organizational capacity. Little wonder they keep the party up at night.
The arrests of the past week mark an important historical moment in China’s legal profession. It’s likely that, just as in the past, those who were disappeared are being tortured. But this crackdown won’t silence the rights lawyers, and it won’t stop the march toward human rights and dignity in China. Rights lawyers will rise from the ashes with an even deeper sense of their historical responsibility.
Not long after coming to power in 1949, the Communist Party extinguished the legal profession almost entirely — for more than 20 years there were no lawyers, and the country was engulfed in chaos. Does Xi and the party wish to relive the nightmare of lawlessness of those years? When will they release China’s prisoners of conscience?
When Xi visits the United States this year, these are the questions that President Obama ought to put to him.