Probe International in the News

Chinese authorities crack down on the country’s public interest groups and lawyers

On July 9, more than 100 lawyers in China issued an open letter on the Internet calling for an end to the shuttering of public interest groups and the detention and prosecution of individuals working for the public good.

Their letter specifically referred to the detention of Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing from the much-admired defenders of the disabled, Yirenping, and Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun, the founder and administrative director of the respected economic and law reform think-tank, Transition Institute.

On July 11, after one month in jail, Yirenping’s Guo and Yang were released on bail. The Transition Institute’s Guo and He remain incarcerated after nine months in jail, accused of “illegal business operations,” a charge that has become known as a “pocket crime” — a crime that is so vague that “anything can be stuffed into it.” China’s Procuratorate is currently considering whether to lay charges against Guo and He and proceed to trial.

The Transition Institute and Yirenping have both been shutdown by the authorities.

The lawyers signing the open letter argue that the state’s application of the crime of “illegal business operations” against those working in the public interest has no legal basis, is an abuse of power, and threatens free speech.

A day after the 100+ lawyers released their letter, the government detained or interrogated dozens of lawyers in a sweep that has become known as “Black Friday for Lawyers.” State media calls these lawyers part of a “criminal gang” and “black hands” that are “polluting the Internet.”

An English translation of their letter, prepared by Probe International, follows.

 

July 9, 2015

China: A Hundred Lawyers Call on the Government to Stop Persecuting Individuals Working for the Public Good

“An Open Letter Requesting the Immediate Release from Custody of Individuals Working for the Public Good and the End of Suppression of Public Interest Organizations”

On the night of June 12th, 2015 in Guangdong, renowned anti-discrimination activists Guo Bin and Yang Zhanqing were arrested by police from Beijing and Zhengzhou on suspicion of “illegal business operations.” Both Guo and Yang had worked in senior positions at the Zhengzhou branch of Yirenping, a well-known and respected anti-discrimination organization.[1]

According to lawyers who have visited them in detention, during their interrogations Guo and Yang were repeatedly asked about materials printed by Zhengzhou Yirenping between 2007 and 2009. The police clearly wish to use these printed materials, which were produced years ago for internal circulation or educational purposes, as evidence to support the charge of “illegal business operations.” We are shocked and disturbed by this.

In 2014, the Transition Institute’s founder Guo Yushan and administrative director He Zhengjun were arrested by Beijing police. In their Recommendation to Indict, the police accused Guo and He of illegally printing more than 19,000 books and publications between 2007 and 2014.

In recent years, throughout the country, it has become common for police to use suspicion of the crime of “illegal business operations” to suppress individuals and organizations working for the public good. According to the law, the crime of illegal business operations is premised on the goal of profit. These individuals and organizations have not been involved in any profit-making activities, and yet they have been arrested or indicted on suspicion of “illegal business operations.” Clearly, “illegal business operations” has become the catchall “pocket crime”[2] which the authorities use to crack down on civil society.

There is no legal basis for restricting the printing and dissemination activities of organizations working for the public good. Such restrictions pose a huge threat to freedoms of speech and publication. Currently, the authorities require that any institutions that are not publishing houses wishing to print materials must first apply for a permit. In reality, however, it is very difficult to apply this rule. Not only independent organizations working for the public good, but also government organs, other public institutions and businesses, and international organizations located in China, including the United Nations, all print large quantities of materials for public dissemination. Indeed, printed matter is indispensable to the work of all organizations. Requiring that all these organizations obtain a permit in order to print materials is simply a new form of suppression of speech and freedom. Private groups print various kinds of materials as part of their autonomous private activities; why should the government be allowed to interfere?

By arbitrarily expanding the definition of illegal printing, the authorities have created a pretext for powerful government departments to selectively enforce the law. The crime of “illegal business operations” will become an excuse for restricting freedom of speech and publication. This not only represents a departure from the intention of the legislation, but also an abuse of power and a disregard for the law.

In response to the police’s abuse of power in suppressing organizations and detaining individuals working for the public good, as lawyers concerned with the rule of law and human rights in China, we solemnly request:

  1. The immediate release of individuals working for the public good Guo Bin, Yang Zhanqing, Guo Yushan, He Zhengjun, and others.
  1. The immediate cessation of suppression of organizations working for the public good and the arrest of their staff.
  1. A rigorous and restrictive definition of the crimes of “illegal business operations” and “picking quarrels and stirring up troubles,” so as to prevent their misuse as tools for suppressing individuals and organizations working for the public good.

Signatures (in no particular order):

105 lawyers and legal scholars signed this open letter. Please consult the website of the New Citizens Movement for details.

Appendix

Following is some information regarding the individuals and groups that have been accused of “illegal business operations” in recent years by police departments around the country:

In July 2009, the Beijing Cultural Market Law Enforcement Agency conducted a search of the Beijing Yirenping office on the basis of “suspected engagement in printing activities.”

In 2012, the “eco-defender” Liu Futang of Hainan province was prosecuted for “illegal business operations” for printing materials at his own expense in which he exposed and criticized the destruction of ecosystems.

In 2014, the legal representative of Zhengzhou Yirenping, lawyer Chang Boyang, was illegally detained by Zhengzhou police on suspicion of “illegal business operations.” The bank account of Zhengzhou Yirenping was frozen.

In 2015, Transition Institute founder Guo Yushan and administrative director He Zhengjun, after having been detained for more than three months on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble,” were officially arrested by Beijing authorities, charged with the crime of “illegal business operations.” In their Recommendation to Indict, the police accused Guo and He of illegally printing more than 19,000 books and publications between 2007 and 2014.

Endnotes

[1] According to its website, Yirenping was founded in 2006 to “promote public health, eliminate discrimination, and defend the rights of disadvantaged groups through legal means.” In their work, Guo and Yang sought to reduce the widespread and systematic discrimination against HIV carriers and, more recently, turned their attention to the cause of equal treatment for the disabled. Through complaints, lawsuits and policy proposals, they and Yirenping helped reduce discrimination in both social and institutional contexts.

[2] This colloquialism describes a crime that is so vague that “anything can be stuffed into it.”

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