On Friday 10 July, reports began to flow out of China that several prominent human rights lawyers had been arrested or had simply gone missing. By the following Monday evening, over a hundred lawyers, paralegals and other staff, as well as some of their family members, had been interrogated, detained or disappeared, the youngest just 16 years old.
The number of individuals affected by this apparent crackdown on the rights defence movement has continued to rise, reaching 265 at the last count, of whom at least 136 are lawyers. To put this in perspective, legal scholar and China expert Eva Pils estimates there are between 200 and 300 rights lawyers in China: the targeted interrogation, intimidation and detention of over 130 of these lawyers, as well as their colleagues and families, represents a deliberate and unprecedented attack on a crucial segment of the legal community. Yet all this is happening against a backdrop of rhetoric on building "rule of law" from the Communist Party itself.
Many of the lawyers detained and interrogated are signatories to a letter condemning the forced disappearance of lawyer Wang Yu, who had previously defended members of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice banned in China. Among the lawyers arrested are many who have worked on "sensitive" cases, such as defending the right to freedom of religion or belief and freedom of expression. For example, Li Heping, believed to have been forcibly disappeared since 10 July, has defended Christians, Falun Gong practitioners and other rights defence lawyers. Zhang Kai, now released, defended Protestant pastor Huang Yizi, who protested the demolition of churches, while Li Fangping, who was interrogated on 12 July, defended Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti. The detention of these lawyers calls into question the Chinese government's stated commitment to 'rule of law', widely touted at the October 2014 launch of a reform plan centred on rule of law. The intervening months have seen further references to the term, even alongside the drafting of legislation which could restrict the rights of citizens under the guise of national security.
The recent spate of arrests do not mark a new approach to the treatment of human rights lawyers as much as a ramping up of a programme of oppression already in place. What is still unclear is whether the rapid detention and disappearance of so many lawyers is a sign of fear on the part of China's leaders, or increasing boldness: an indication that the government believes it can arrest as many lawyers as it wants, even attracting criticism from overseas, without harming its interests. Statements of concern about the arrests have already been issued by UN human rights experts, the European Union, foreign governments, and human rights organisations. A number of lawyers' groups, including former heads of the Hong Kong Bar Association, the Law Society (England and Wales), the German Bar Association, and the Law Council of Australia, have also written letters and statements in solidarity with their fellow professionals.
While the recent wave of arrests is unprecedented in terms of its rapid progression, the harassment and intimidation of lawyers in China is nothing new. Next month will mark the one year anniversary of the release of prominent rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who served three years in prison for "incitement to subvert state power" after being disappeared, detained and tortured numerous times. Even aside from high profile cases like Gao's, rights lawyers in China have faced years of attacks on their private and professional lives. After being warned off certain cases, lawyers who refuse to quit are disbarred, followed, and threatened. Their homes and workplaces are ransacked, their family members are monitored, and they themselves are beaten by "unknown assailants". On occasion, lawyers have even been assaulted on court premises. Beijing lawyer Wang Quanzhang recorded how during a trial on 18 June, the judge ordered the bailiffs to remove him from the courtroom. They dragged him to the first floor of the courthouse, where they violently beat him for ten minutes. To add insult to injury, Wang was then accused of disrespecting the judge and refusing to listen to the orders of the court.
The events of the past four weeks represent a significant and deliberate attack on the rights defence community, and reveal a lack of respect for the profession which is at odds with government rhetoric around rule of law. China experts have debated whether "rule of law" is an accurate translation, arguing that "rule by law" is a better interpretation of the Party's concept, although the official English-language China media uses the former. Nevertheless, governments and companies doing business with China will need to consider what the Party's own concept of "rule of law" really means in light of recent events, and what that means not only for the legal community, but also for China's international partners.