China can't stand its growing army of lawyers

China can't stand its growing army of lawyers

At some point in the next 12 months, China will reach a key milestone: For the first time in its long history, the number of lawyers will surpass the number of judges. In a country where Confucian culture has always frowned upon litigation, and where lawyers were long considered as ‘legal tricksters’ undermining social harmony, the importance of this event cannot be underestimated.

For sure, 1,90,000 lawyers in a country of 1.3 billion people might still seem modest. But given that the legal profession was only reinstated after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, and that prior to 1996 there were almost no private law firms, this can only be seen as a major achievement, matching China’s economic renaissance.

Yet if lawyers now enjoy increasing independence, those who defend human rights are increasingly under attack, with legal restrictions impeding their ability to provide an effective defence, to champion causes that challenge local power, or to form independent bar associations.

This month alone has seen several devastating setbacks. On July 9, the Beijing Justice Bureau announced that it had cancelled the licenses of 53 lawyers for allegedly failing to apply for re-registration. The disbarred lawyers were all involved in high-profile cases challenging local or central authorities.

On July 13, the Beijing Bureau for Legal Affairs instructed lawyers considering the representation of Uighurs involved in the recent Xinjiang protests to “positively accept monitoring and guidance from legal authorities and lawyers’ associations.” Both associations are government-controlled.

On July 17, the authorities effectively shut down the Open Constitution Initiative (OCI), a nongovernmental legal aid organisation that has worked on cases such as last year’s Tibet protests and the melamine-poisoned milk which sickened thousands of children. Claiming that the OCI was improperly registered, officials of the Beijing Civil Affairs Bureau raided the group’s offices and confiscated computers and documents.

These setbacks are part of a new, negative trend. Lawyers who take on sensitive cases or who seek redress for abuses committed by Communist Party officials are suffering a consistent pattern of abuse, including arrest and prosecution, harassment, suspension of their licenses or disbarment, and violent attacks.

The activism of these lawyers is an irritant to the Communist Party, which seeks to project an image of ‘social harmony’ and an aspiration to develop the rule of law, while trying to maintain its ability to control legal and judicial decision-making.

Real embarrassment

But abuses against lawyers can only exacerbate social unrest. Last year, according to official statistics released by the ministry of public security, more than 90,000 protests took place in China. The Communist Party should realise that the overall benefits of a functioning legal system far outweigh the embarrassment caused by holding officials and institutions accountable.

Indeed, the backhanded way the government engineered the disbarment of the 53 rights-defending lawyers can be read as an admission that nothing they had engaged in was wrong. Instead of directly ordering the suspension of the targeted lawyers and law firms, the authorities instructed the government-controlled Bar Association to refuse to renew their licenses. Since licenses must be renewed annually, these lawyers have been effectively disbarred.

But there are also more grave concerns. Having lost their licenses, these lawyers are far more vulnerable to retaliation from the powerful institutions they have challenged, such as the Public Security Bureau. Some have already been placed under surveillance. Others have been taken away by state security agents. Yet others have been assaulted by unidentified aggressors.

Lawyers in China are now thinking about the chilling precedent of Gao Zhisheng, once China’s most famous human rights lawyer — voted one of “the 10 best lawyers in the country” by an official publication from the ministry of justice. First Gao was disbarred.

Then he received a suspended sentence for subversion. A year later, he was detained again. On Jan 19, he was taken away by security personnel from his home. He has not been heard from since.