They are turning the notion of civil disobedience on its head, demanding only that the government observe the rule of law.
Special to the Financial Post ~ By Patricia Adams
In the West, lawyers are often viewed cynically, as high-priced guns for hire who find loopholes in the law to protect the rich and powerful from laws that apply to the rest of us.
In China, lawyers aren’t seen as cynics but as idealists and heroes, just about the only ones left who dare to challenge the Communist party leadership and its billionaire cronies. Little wonder that lawyers are No. 1 on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hit list — especially those among or inspired by the many “709 lawyers,” a reference to the date of the nationwide crackdown of lawyers and human rights activists that began five years ago on July 9.
On that date, China’s security apparatus began rounding up some 300 lawyers who were subsequently prosecuted, jailed, tortured and/or disappeared. Lawyers who stepped up to defend them soon met the same fate. Since 2015, while some have been released many others have been arrested. All lawyers in China now understand that attempting to uphold the rule of law, rather than the whims of the Chinese Communist Party, invites the same retribution.
Yet the lawyers continue to step up, most recently to defend one of China’s greatest legal scholars, Prof. Xu Zhangrun of Tsinghua University, whom the Chinese government first jailed and then later released without a trial — which was sufficient cause for his university to fire him for “moral corruption.” The authorities claimed Xu had solicited prostitutes. His real crime had been to call for press freedom, free speech, freedom of assembly and association, an end to secret-police surveillance on the internet, the release of journalists and human rights lawyers, and respect for basic universal rights, in particular the right to vote in open elections. In a series of essays that went viral before China’s internet police took them down, Xu, a constitutional law scholar, argued that sovereignty resides in the people.
Although few believe the accusation of moral corruption, which is a predictable Communist party slander, Xu is nevertheless being defended by a Chinese dream team that includes Mo Shaoping and Shang Baojun, well-known rights lawyers who also defended Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Xu is also being supported by Pu Zhiqiang, who defended dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Pu cannot formally defend Xu because the state disbarred him after he was found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
Professor Xu’s legal team faces serious challenges in its quest to counter an unnamed woman’s claim that he had solicited her. So far, the police have refused to produce any hard evidence — phone records, surveillance camera footage or bank records — to substantiate the accusation. The police even refuse to provide an administrative penalty statement that would be needed to initiate his challenge of the charge against him.
Many people consider the lawyers’ opposition to totalitarian rule to be hopeless. But the lawyers believe they are on the right side of history and that they will emerge victorious in the end. Their indomitable spirit can also be seen in Wang Quanzhang, a 709 lawyer who was tortured, incarcerated for nearly five years, and held incommunicado for 1,300 days before being convicted of the crime of subversion of the state. Lawyers his family hired were themselves detained or lost their licenses. Recently released, Wang has filed a petition to overturn his guilty verdict, saying it was fabricated, based on a false accusation and violated China’s law of criminal procedure. For good measure, he is also suing the police officers and court officials for wrongful trial, defamation and torture.
In bravely taking on the Communist party, China’s lawyers are turning the notion of civil disobedience on its head: they are demanding only that the government observe the rule of law. In effect, the lawyers are engaging, rather, in brave acts of civil obedience. Moreover, these principled lawyers are following an age-old practice, as explained by Geremie Barmé, a scholar of modern Chinese history at Australian National University in Canberra, and translator of Prof. Xu’s work. He describes Prof. Xu’s defiance as a blend of “an ancient tradition of principled protest, with being a modern reformer and constitutional activist. There is this tradition of principled outrage in China that you cannot kill.”
To date, at least, that tradition continues. And for those who love their country, it is less a hardship than a duty. “They have paid a huge price. Freedom is not free,” Wang says of the lawyers who defended him in full knowledge that they faced impossible odds and unspeakable risks. “This is the unavoidable path for human rights defenders; a hardship they must bear.”
Patricia Adams is executive director of Probe International.