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Human rights in China

Chinese rights lawyers fear tighter control after ‘lecture’ by justice minister

Meeting of legal professionals criticised for being more about propaganda than building bridges

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 01 September, 2017, 10:34pm

Chinese rights lawyers fear they will be subjected to tighter controls after attending a high-profile meeting with the country’s justice minister, who pledged to deliver “harsh discipline with love”.

The four-day conference at the National Judges College in Beijing concluded on Thursday. It was attended by about 70 lawyers who specialise in criminal defence, as well as senior officials and industry regulators, including Minister of Justice Zhang Jun.

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At the meeting, Zhang called on lawyers to refrain from engaging in protests, and from criticising judges and courts, Legal Daily reported on Wednesday.

The event was an unprecedented gesture by the authorities to mend their relationship with the legal profession two years after the so-called 709 crackdown in which hundreds of lawyers and human rights activists were interrogated and detained. At least 10 of the 70 lawyers who attended the Beijing conference specialise in rights cases.

Of the attendees contacted by South China Morning Post just one was willing to go on the record.

Beijing-based rights lawyer Li Fangping said the “unprecedented” meeting aimed to “improve [China’s] international reputation and ease tensions after the 709 crackdown”.

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“This conference was about educating [lawyers] on the latest political trends, [applying] psychological pressure and sending a message about the harsh discipline that will be used to regulate lawyers in the future,” he said.

At the conference, Zhang said lawyers should not speak or act for personal gain or to boost their reputations, adding that they should also be held accountable for their opinions and actions.

The minister urged industry associations to remain firm on self-regulation and called for lawyers to be treated with “harsh discipline, but much love” under the law.

Industry associations should also be responsible for handling initial disciplinary action, he said.

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A Guangzhou-based lawyer who attended the conference but declined to be named said the event was more about propaganda than trying to build bridges.

“It’s regrettable to see the party attempting to put more controls on lawyers, while failing to address the fundamental problems in the judicial system. This will only intensify social conflicts,” he said.

“The conference was propaganda. Its aim was to have lawyers tightly controlled by legal associations and judicial authorities. Lawyers are facing a dead end.”

Two years on from the 709 crackdown, many lawyers representing those caught up in it are facing difficulties renewing their licences. Among them is Beijing-based Yu Wensheng who represented his industry colleague Wang Quanzhang, the last of the lawyers jailed without trial to still be behind bars.