China extends crackdown on rights lawyers to Hong Kong

Nine years after a nationwide operation targeting rights attorneys, their lives have yet to return to normal.
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin
2024.07.08
China extends crackdown on rights lawyers to Hong Kong Human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang and his wife Li Wenzu sit in the dark after power was cut off to their apartment, June 20, 2023, in Beijing.
Ng Han Guan/AP

Nine years after the mass arrest of China's most prominent human rights lawyers in a nationwide police operation, the authorities are now including lawyers in Hong Kong in their politically motivated prosecutions, according to a statement from dozens of rights groups.

"Human rights lawyers defend the full spectrum of civil society," the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group said in a statement that was also signed by more than 60 other rights organizations.

"They accompany and empower the most vulnerable against land evictions, discrimination, health scandals, or extralegal detention," it said. "They embody the promise of rule of law and hold the government accountable."

"They ensure that no one is left behind," the statement said, marking the arrests, detention and harassment of more than 300 rights lawyers, public interest law firm staff and rights activists across China starting on July 9, 2015.

Since that operation, the authorities haven't let up, and have now extended the crackdown to Hong Kong, despite promising to maintain the city's traditional freedoms and judicial independence, the groups said.

"We are ... concerned that the Hong Kong authorities are following a similar path," the rights groups, which included the New York-based Human Rights Watch and PEN America, said, citing the cases of rights lawyers Chow Hang-tung, Albert Ho and Margaret Ng, who are all behind bars awaiting trial on "national security" charges.

And in mainland China, many of the lawyers who were targeted have since had their business licenses revoked, preventing them from earning a living, while many served lengthy jail terms for "subversion," often after years in incommunicado, pretrial detention.

‘Huge turning point’

"The July 9, 2015, crackdown was a huge turning point in my life," Wang Quanzhang told RFA Mandarin in an interview on Monday. "My career as a lawyer was interrupted."

Even after their release from prison, rights attorneys and their families are still harassed by the authorities, often subjected to repeated evictions and the denial of educational opportunities for their children.

ENG_CHN_RIGHTS LAWYERS_07082024.2.jpg
Anti-Chinese Communist Party activists rally for the immediate release of Human Rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng on the 5th anniversary of his arrest, in front of the Chinese Consulate, Aug. 13, 2022, in Los Angeles. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

"The power of the state infiltrated our family, affected our lives, and distorted them," Wang said. "Following my release, I have been constantly forced to move house, forced out of Beijing, and my kid has been forced out of school."

"This has been disastrous, and caused no end of trouble. We can't live normal lives like other people," he said, adding that he has taken some comfort from international voices of support, although they may be powerless to change the outcome for him and his family.

Rights lawyers in China have defended Uyghurs, Tibetans and Hong Kongers, members of religious minorities and the LGBTQ+ community, feminists, journalists and political dissidents, the statement from the rights groups said.

While acquittals are highly unlikely, independently minded defense attorneys once played a huge role in bringing such cases to international attention. 

They have largely now been replaced in the criminal justice system by government-appointed lawyers who are barred from speaking to the media, according to the statement, which was also signed by the International Campaign for Tibet and the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

Vulnerable to torture

Rights lawyers are also vulnerable to torture during detention, the statement said, citing the cases of lawyer-turned-dissident Xu Zhiyong, rights attorney Ding Jiaxi and rights lawyer Chang Weiping.

"We remain deeply concerned at the Chinese government’s increasing use of exit bans to impede human rights lawyers and activists from leaving the country, sometimes to visit a critically ill relative," the statement said, citing the cases of Li Heping and Tang Jitian.

Forced evictions are also affecting lawyers' families, the statement said, citing 13 forced evictions of rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang and his family since his release from prison in November 2022.

A human rights lawyer who asked to use the pseudonym Lu Qiang for fear of reprisals said that while not all human rights attorneys have been treated as badly as Wang, many remain under surveillance to this day.

"They haven't let up on the surveillance in nine years," Lu said. "You could say it's everywhere -- once they stopped me near the embassy district and the police told me to get in their car, then drove me back two hours to my home. They're still secretly watching us."

"Even if we're not in a smaller prison, we're still in a big prison."

Chinese human rights lawyer Yu Pinjian said the point of marking the 2015 crackdown was to acknowledge the huge price paid by rights lawyers and their families. 

"The July 9, 2015, incident tore away the veil so people could see the totalitarian government for what it is," Yu said. "Since then, it has been tough being a human rights lawyer."

"There's a high price to pay for speaking out against injustice."

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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