In a coordinated campaign over the last few days, Chinese Communist Party security forces have taken into custody over 100 prominent lawyers who took on sensitive political cases, and the state-run media has sought to portray them as sinister opportunists.
The security mobilization is the most concerted and far-reaching that the Party’s security agencies have taken against these lawyers, commonly knows as rights defense lawyers, for their efforts to force the regime to fulfill the promises laid out in its constitution. No official announcement has been made about the campaign.
The disappearances started at midnight on July 9, when Wang Yu, who has long sought to defend individual rights using the legal system, was taken away from her home by police officers.
“After I sent my husband and my son to the airport, the power at my home was cut. Internet connection was also lost. I heard somebody trying to pry the door open and talking in low voices outside my home,” she wrote in her final message to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, a nongovernmental organization that tracks the abuse of lawyers and other activists in China.
Wang’s family members, including her husband and son, also appear to have been detained.
Soon after she was taken away, over 100 other lawyers from around China signed a public letter decrying the treatment, posted on the website of the Hong Kong-based NGO China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.
“We strongly condemn … capturing Wang using means including severing electrical and Internet networks,” they wrote. “Such actions are those of rogues, they are severe violations of procedural justice and the principle of rule of law.”
The letter failed to dissuade Chinese political police, who within 24 hours extended their massive roundup, from the coastal city of Tianjin in the north to inland Chengdu in the southwest.
Final messages from those who were being taken away also emerged, some of them sounding like lines in the script of a horror film.
An administrative assistant at the offices of the Beijing Fengrui law firm, for example, was speaking to lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan when the authorities arrived.
They were conducting a normal conversation when the assistant, Liu Sixin, suddenly began saying “They’re here, they’re here.”
Liu is now missing, as is director of the firm Zhou Shifeng. Those detentions took place in the morning of July 10.
Wang Yu was also affiliated with the Beijing Fengrui law firm, and a number of other attorneys with the firm have also been detained.
Aggressively Discrediting Lawyers
All those individuals have been named by state media as being part of a criminal syndicate. “They’re using state media to aggressively discredit the rights defense movement, and rights defense lawyers as a whole,” said William Nee, a researcher with Amnesty International, in an email.
Another well-known lawyer, Li Heping, who defended the blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, was taken away in the afternoon of July 11. His house was raided by police, according to Li Chunfu, another lawyer.
Attempts by the Epoch Times to get specific information about the disappearances was hampered by the atmosphere of fear. An individual reached by telephone at the Beijing Fengrui law firm on Saturday, July 11, simply listened to a reporter asking questions and said not a word in response.
The cell phone of Wang Quanzhang, another prominent lawyer who has taken on politically sensitive Falun Gong rights cases, appeared to have been turned off. Huang Liqun, a lawyer well known for his defense of disenfranchised petitioners, was also unable to be contacted by telephone. Another lawyer said “sorry” and hung up as soon as he heard that foreign media was calling.
By the early morning hours of July 12, Chinese official propaganda channels had started attacking some of the same lawyers who had recently been taken away.
People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, published an article announcing that the Ministry of Public Security was “exposing” the “dark secrets” of rights defense lawyers.
These lawyers, People’s Daily said, worked “hand in hand with petitioners, and established a strictly organized, vast criminal syndicate with a careful division of labor.” They used words like justice, fairness, and defending rights to “severely disrupt social order and achieve all kinds of dark and secret objectives.”
Screenshots from China Central Television, the state television channel, showed individuals appearing to be making self-confessions about their involvement in these activities.
State media said the lawyers were part of a “rights defense cartel.”
Chinese rights lawyers now based outside of China were not surprised by the developments, as suddenly as they seemed to have happened.
“The Communist Party is in a state of panic, so they’re lashing out,” said Jin Guanghong, a lawyer who was thrown in a psychiatric hospital for his rights defense work in China, and is now based in Washington, D.C.
“The Party’s view of the matter is very simple: ‘If you lawyers want to ruin us, we will ruin you,'” he said.
Rights defense lawyers attempt to use the legal system established by the Communist Party to have the Party live up to the rights it says it grants all Chinese citizens. But the Party sees such attempts as a deep threat to its rule, Jin said.
Teng Biao, one of China’s most prominent rights defense lawyers, now based at Harvard University on a fellowship, said in a telephone interview on July 11 that this campaign had likely been planned for some time.
“Since 2003 the rights defense community in China has been growing in activity, and becoming more and more powerful. The authorities have been worried, and have wanted to find a way to sever it.”
He added: “They’ve been cooking this up for a while. It’s a cleaning out of this whole group of lawyers.”
Were he still in China, Teng may well have been among those targeted.
“They don’t have any way to solve the problem,” he said. “If they lock up 50, new lawyers will stand up. They’ll just keep locking people up, and new people will keep coming.”
Luo Ya and Jenny Li contributed to this report.