Civil rights lawyers have vital role to play in China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 3:15am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 June, 2014, 3:46am

Civil rights lawyers should be highly valued by mainland authorities. Their work helps ease grievances and calms dissent. Yet restrictions, detentions and arrests continue, with the people dedicated to ensuring social equity and upholding the rule of law at times themselves needing legal representation. There can be no justice, accountability and transparency while there is such suppression.

Rights advocates have warned of a stepped-up crackdown after the arrest this month of prominent lawyer Pu Zhiqiang. He is among a number of lawyers recently taken into custody on grounds that they had been acting beyond the law. Others complain of being disbarred, intimidated, beaten and refused access to clients. The circumstances are reminiscent of the "jasmine" protests of 2011, when scores were detained.

Lawyers see further evidence of an effort to silence them in a new code being drafted by the national bar association that restricts what they can say on the internet. Under the rules, they would be banned from publicly discussing cases before judicial decisions had been made. The claimed aim is to prevent pressure on judges from social media blitzes and organised campaigns. But some lawyers have become so popular online that authorities also perceive them as being a political threat.

Social media has helped lawyers gain support for causes that would otherwise have been ignored or paid little attention by officials. Pu used microblogging sites extensively in his successful push to have the labour camp system abolished. That case and others he advocated generated widespread online outrage. Police arrested him for "creating a disturbance", a charge widely used to detain activists.

The rule of law is formative on the mainland. Although progress has been made, greater transparency and judicial independence are needed. Lawyers advocating for the rights of ordinary people, migrant workers, petitioners and those bullied by property developers are only working to uphold the law. If worthy causes are promoted through social media and gain the attention of authorities, so much the better.

Beijing has announced six pilot schemes will be launched across the mainland with an eye to overhauling the judicial system to prevent abuse of power and wrongful convictions. That is a necessary step, but so too is allowing people who feel that they have been wronged to have their cases fairly heard. Rights lawyers play a vital role in that process.