Written by Jackie Sheehan.

After 2014 was declared the “worst year ever” for lawyers in China, Xi Jinping hasn’t rested on his laurels: since 10 July, an unprecedented round-up of up to 169 lawyers, law-firm staff and legal activists has shaken rights defenders across the country and at least temporarily silenced some of the last outspoken voices prepared to question the actions of the state.

The detentions were accompanied by some frankly ridiculous charges, such as the labelling of the Fengrui law firm in Beijing as a “major criminal gang” – and in the People’s Daily, not the Global Times, where words commonly mean whatever editorialists want them to mean. Difficult as it genuinely is to define organized crime or what is meant by a “gang”, some things can be ruled out, such as law firms. Even mafia lawyers aren’t the actual mafia; they’re just its lawyers, and the Chinese detainees are not in trouble for representing that kind of defendant at all. Calling what Fengrui director Zhou Shifeng tries to do to get justice for his firm’s clients “felonies” simply does violence to language.

Setting aside the most ludicrous claims, however, this latest assault on activist lawyers does highlight the importance of their role, as they try to make up for deficiencies in the checks and balances on CCP power such as the absence of a free press, an independent judiciary, and a civil society worth the name. If China had judges who would intervene when prosecutors break basic rules of evidence, or reporters who would publicise apparent miscarriages of justice, it would not always fall on lawyers, often the last and only line of defence for citizens’ rights in China today, to put themselves in the firing line.

The main charges of any substance are that Fengrui’s lawyers and others have been “illegally organizing paid protests, hyping public sentiment and fabricating rumours on the Internet to sway court decisions”. The claims that a couple of hundred lawyers are involved in a nationwide rent-a-mob scam to stage protests aimed at influencing court decisions rest partly on the confessions (not, after all, difficult to obtain in the Chinese system, especially if lawyers’ family members are detained) by lawyers Zhai Yanmin and Liu Jianjun, who claim to have crowd-sourced funding to bring petitioners to demonstrate outside court and “create disturbances” in more than 40 cases since 2012, as well as posting videos and reports on their cases on overseas websites.

In the case of a petitioner known only as Xu, in Weifang, Shandong, Xinhua News noted that the protestors gathered outside the court “had nothing to do with Xu … they only knew Xu’s case was related to corruption”, and came from eight different provinces, not only Shandong. It would have been easy to find out where they were from, because, as petitioners, they were followed by police interceptors from their home areas and then detained and taken back by them. This is one reason why petitioners’ protests are also attended by police from areas which have nothing to do with the case, though apparently the CCP-controlled media finds nothing sinister in this, only in the petitioners’ solidarity with others in the same boat as themselves.

The People’s Daily repeated its claims on 15 July, warning lawyers of disbarment if they are convicted of “disrupting court order, interfering with legal proceedings, instigating others to raise trouble, or making comments that threaten national security”. Clearly the first three types of behaviour do pose a risk of miscarriages of justice, so here are some other suspects the police should be pursuing:

  • The judge at the trial of the “Guangzhou Three”, lawyer Tang Jingling and activists Wang Qingying and Yuan Xinting, who repeatedly refused to allow their lawyers to call witnesses for the defence; the defendants, who had waited more than a year in pre-trial detention, had to sack their legal team in order to halt the trial;
  • Judge Lai Xiulin and two unidentified court bailiffs at Tongzhou District People’s Court, who assaulted lawyer Cui Hui when she went to the court to find out why funds held by the court from a case decided two years earlier had yet to be disbursed; the bailiffs didn’t just join in a scuffle, but were instructed by judge Yang Yu to beat Cui;
  • Zaoqiang County Detention Centre staff who confiscated rights lawyer Wang Yu’s business licence, without which she could not get access to her clients in police detention, when they discovered she was writing up a statement by a client who claimed to have been tortured into confessing;

Let’s hope the authorities will also spring into action before the “black sheep” listed above give the whole court system and police a bad name, as the People’s Daily says the detained lawyers have done to their profession. They would seem, on the face of it, to pose at least as much of a threat to the conduct of justice in China as a petitioner standing outside a court holding up a picture of Xi Jinping with slogans supporting the rule of law.

 Jackie Sheehan is Professor and Head of Asian Studies at University College Cork, and a Regular Contributor to the CPI blog. Image Credit: CC by Kaustav Bhattacharya/Flickr.