A growing travesty
Ten years ago, China amended its constitution to include a new paragraph that says: 'The People's Republic of China governs the country according to law and makes it a socialist country under rule of law.' That established rule of law as a national policy. In 2004, China pledged to establish a rule-of-law government in 10 years. Another clause was added to the constitution that said: 'The state respects and guarantees human rights.' And, in 2005, President Hu Jintao declared that rule of law was important for the promotion, realisation and safeguarding of a harmonious society.
It all sounded pretty good, and pretty serious. But, then, something happened. After the Lhasa riots in March last year, 30 Tibetans were put on trial. According to China Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), a network of domestic and overseas Chinese human rights activists and groups: 'The Tibetans were represented by lawyers appointed by the government, who did not meet the defendants before the trial. Some even sought harsher punishment for the accused.'
But 21 other lawyers who offered their services for free were threatened by the authorities and their employers were told that the firms' licences could be suspended.
CHRD reported that the government-controlled Beijing Municipal Lawyers Association issued a notice telling lawyers who work on 'sensitive and collective cases' that they must 'co-ordinate and communicate' with the relevant authorities. Lawyers were told they had a responsibility to 'protect socialism' and work to 'promote harmony and stability'.
Those who refused to toe the line discovered that their licences, which have to be renewed annually, were simply allowed to expire.
As the US State Department's annual report on human rights in China in 2008 said: 'During the year, the Beijing Judicial Bureau refused to renew the professional licence of distinguished lawyer Teng Biao, who offered to represent Tibetans taken into custody for their role in the March protests in Lhasa. Other lawyers deprived of their licence to practise law included Henan lawyers Li Wusi and Li Subin; Shanghai lawyers Zheng Enchong and Guo Guoting; Beijing lawyer Gao Zhisheng ; and Guangdong lawyers Tang Jingling , Guo Yan and Yang Zaixin.'
This year, there have been some more changes, making the situation even worse. The Ministry of Justice no longer conducts the annual assessments. Instead, local lawyers' associations have created annual assessment systems. The Beijing Lawyers Association, for example, required all lawyers to undergo an evaluation this year between April 20 and May 31.
The ranks of human rights lawyers have been dealt a devastating blow. Largely through nonrenewal of licences, most have been disbarred and can no longer practise law.
The Sydney Morning Herald, comparing the situation to that of four years ago, reported recently: 'Until last year, there was a sense that China was moving towards greater political transparency and accountability ... [Now], most of the human rights stars of 2005 have since been detained, beaten, debarred or sacked.'
It quoted Mo Shaoping, regarded by many as the doyen of China's human rights lawyers, as saying: 'Now it is only me, Pu Zhiqiang and Fan Yafeng. The others are either in jail or have had their licences removed.'' Fan has since been sacked.
Human Rights Watch, in a report on the intimidation and harassment of lawyers in China, accurately concluded: 'The net result is that it is much more difficult for ordinary Chinese citizens to seek justice through the courts - contrary to the government's insistence that it upholds the rule of law.'
This is a travesty of the Chinese constitution and of the concept of the rule of law. China should recall Hu's assertion that rule of law is important for realising a harmonious society.
Authorities today are radicalising moderate elements in society, which will lead to polarisation, not harmony. China needs the rule of law.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator