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Human rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng served 7 years after being arrested in the “709” crackdown in 2015. Photo: Handout

‘709’ crackdown: Chinese human rights lawyer Zhou Shifeng released after 7 years in prison for subversion

  • Zhou was the first rights lawyer to face trial from the nationwide crackdown in 2015 which saw over 300 lawyers and activists detained
  • Observers note that his release coincides with the jailing of his law school classmate Fu Zhenghua, a senior police chief at the time of the purge
Zhou Shifeng, the first Chinese rights lawyer to face trial during the nationwide crackdown on advocates and activists in 2015, has been released from prison after serving a seven-year sentence for subversion.

“Thank you very much for caring about my situation. I believe this shows the care for the rule of law and human rights law in China,” Zhou told the South China Morning Post by phone on Monday after his release on the weekend.

His tone was buoyant but the 57-year-old said now was not a good time for him to speak up about his situation.

Wang Quanzhang, a friend of Zhou and also once a prominent human rights lawyer, also talked to Zhou on the phone.

“Zhou reckons that the ‘709 crackdown’ is a major historical, political and legal event. Lawyers and human rights defenders involved in this event are important contributors in the history of the rule of law and human rights protection in China,” Wang said.


Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang reunites with family

Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang reunites with family

Zhou was among more than 300 people around the country who were detained or interrogated during the 2015 crackdown, and among seven people convicted of subversion and handed prison sentences ranging from three to eight years.

It was called the 709 crackdown after the date arrests began – July 9. The event significantly reshaped the landscape of political activism in China where it became the norm to disbar lawyers who took up sensitive cases.

Critics say the purge was meant to silence the country’s emerging rights defence movement. Many of the released 709 lawyers reported various degrees of physical and psychological abuse, including being medicated against their will while in custody, and placed under de facto house arrest after leaving custody.

709 crackdown was just the start for China’s human rights lawyers

Zhou is the former director of the now-closed Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, which was known for representing politically sensitive cases, including defending petitioners, the Falun Gong spiritual sect and other groups that challenged authorities.

The law firm’s “Fengrui” name is derived from Zhou Shifeng’s own name. He has been involved in many high-profile cases, including the Sanlu formula scandal in 2008, when a Chinese maker of milk for babies mixed melamine in its products to increase protein test results. It was only detected after thousands of infants were poisoned, including more than 50,000 who were admitted to hospital.

The law firm found itself in the crosshairs of the authorities’ sweeping campaign during the 709 crackdown. Many of Zhou’s colleagues, including human rights lawyers Liu Xiaoyuan and Wang Yu, were detained. Wang Yu has been repeatedly detained and put under surveillance for extended periods by Chinese authorities.
Zhou was prosecuted alongside Zhai Yanmin, Hu Shigen and Guo Hongguo for conspiring and plotting to subvert state power and had “established a systematic ideology, method and steps to achieve it”, according to state media.


China's 709 crackdown lawyer Wang Yu condemns authorities for the torment of her son

China's 709 crackdown lawyer Wang Yu condemns authorities for the torment of her son
In August 2016, Zhou pleaded guilty to subversion and “thanked the court for its fairness” without further appeal at Tianjin No 2 Intermediate People’s Court.
His release comes about three weeks before the 20th Communist Party congress, which will set the tone for the party for the next five years and is likely to secure President Xi Jinping’s third term as leader.
Rights lawyers have noted that the release of Zhou came after the recent jailing of Fu Zhenghua, who was a senior police chief when the crackdown took place in 2015.

In China, three ex-police chiefs given long jail sentences for corruption

Last Thursday, Fu was handed a suspended death sentence by a court on corruption charges. He was among half a dozen former police chiefs jailed over the last week. All were accused by the party of disloyalty to Xi before facing corruption charges.

Zhou, who was in the same class as Fu at Peking University law school, greeted Fu’s conviction with relief, according to Wang Quanzhang, who spoke to Zhou on Sunday.

Additional reporting by Mimi Lau