China's rights lawyers willing to pay for progress

A few brave souls risk beatings and detention as they seek fairness for their clients … and country

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:04am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 4:04am

What does it take to be a human rights lawyer in China? News emerging over the past months may shed some light.

In October, Tang Jitian , who had his practising licence revoked for his activism, was detained for five days on charges of "disturbing order in a workplace" in Jixi , Heilongjiang province.

Tang had tried to assist a woman held in a labour camp on suspicion of being a Falun Gong member. Alongside fellow lawyer Jiang Tianyong , Tang was placed on 15 days of administrative detention for "using cult activities to endanger society" on March 22, and was released on April 6 with reported signs of physical abuse.

Tang and Jiang were among four rights lawyers illegally held as they investigated the detention of Falun Gong members in Heilongjiang. One, Zhang Junjie, was released on March 27 after a five-day detention for "gambling". Zhang said the four were taken to a police station for individual questioning on March 21, during which he was repeatedly slapped on the face and had water poured over his head before being kicked and beaten, resulting in three broken ribs.

It all happened after Beijing announced in December the gradual abolition of the re-education-through-labour system, which allowed police to detain for up to three years without trial minor offenders as well as petitioners and activists.

To many activists, it signalled a new wave of repression against rights lawyers.

Their fear seems grounded. On April 10, a Beijing court upheld prominent rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong's four-year sentence for "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order". Xu founded the New Citizens Movement in 2012 and campaigns for social equality and judicial fairness. He was detained in July last year having led protests demanding education equality and public disclosure of officials' assets.

Then on 18 April, a Beijing-based rights lawyer, Ding Jiaxi , along with three other activists, was sentenced on the same charge as Xu. They were reportedly accused of organising and holding "street political activities" by displaying banners and speaking publicly for disclosure of officials' assets. Ding received a 31/2-year jail term, the longest among the four, reportedly for being "in charge of overall coordination".

To be a "practising" human rights lawyer in China, therefore, one should be prepared to face persecution, physical abuse, and jail terms, and above all, have the courage to face them. Xu seems to be one of those people. In detention in August, he said: "Someone has to pay a price for social progress - I am willing to bear all the costs for freedom, social justice, love and faith."

One may find more clues in his recent autobiography, To Be a Citizen, on what it takes to be an activist-turned-rights lawyer and more importantly the vision of a free China.

Dr Karen Lee is an assistant professor with the Institute of Education's department of social sciences