A group of high-profile rights lawyers around the mainland are worried that they will be disbarred this year as their licences still await renewal from judicial authorities, just days before the May 31 deadline.
At least 20 rights lawyers were anxiously awaiting renewals, according to reports by various human rights groups in the past two days.
However, several on the list confirmed yesterday that they had just received their renewals, and others said more lawyers from their firms were facing the same uncertainty. All the lawyers, mostly Beijing-based, have been involved in sensitive cases in recent years against the government, and defended people the government considered off-limits.
Veteran Jiang Tianyong, who almost lost his licence last year for advising the likes of Tibetan monks and parents of children who died in collapsed schools in the Sichuan earthquake, said this year his entire workforce of more than 40 lawyers had still not had their licences renewed.
'Last year, at least they informed our firm that there was a delay due to a series of sensitive cases which our colleagues had taken up; this year there was no official explanation at all,' the worried lawyer said. 'We are now at a very critical stage.'
The change in the requirements - from obtaining licence renewals from the Beijing Judicial Bureau in previous years, to obtaining a positive performance evaluation from the semi-official Beijing Lawyers' Association - meant it would be even harder for lawyers to seek redress through legal procedures should their licences be revoked, he said.
'The lawyer associations are supposed to protect the rights of lawyers, but in China they work for the government,' he said. 'By apparently removing the requirement for a practising licence, in fact the government has now found itself a less-restrained channel to control us.'
Most lawyers on the list have received repeated 'visits' from local judicial bureaus and law associations in the past year warning them to drop out of sensitive cases, and their firms have been put under pressure. Mr Jiang said he was specifically told last year not to speak to overseas news media.
Mr Jiang's licence was finally renewed last year, a month after the deadline, but he said he was not optimistic this time as the number of lawyers affected this year was much greater than the handful last year.
His firm had tried not to renew his contract several months ago after tremendous pressure came to bear on it from the Beijing Judicial Bureau.
'It appears that the renewal of the licence has already become a tool to clamp down on a small group of lawyers, and a warning to all others,' Mr Jiang said.
'But lawyers are not the only group being targeted this year. From petitioners to religious practitioners, lawyers are just one group targeted.'
Beijing Lawyers' Association general secretary Li Bingru said that he had not heard of such concerns among rights lawyers and that they were 'unnecessary' and 'unfounded'.
But Mr Jiang's colleague Li Xiongbing confirmed that the administrative head of the firm had already passed along a message from the judicial bureau that his licence would not be renewed this year because he had conducted cases 'erroneously' - in particular, that he named Falun Gong, which the government considers an evil cult, a 'religious group' in a defence of its practitioners.
While some lawyers are preparing to take steps to fight for their right to practice should their fears come true, lawyer Li Heping said he might just leave the profession.
'If the government does not respect the law, the legal system and the lawyers who take their legal careers seriously,' he said, 'what good can I do by staying?'