Blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng was freed Thursday after four years in jail, to find the Chinese civil rights movement he helped pioneer weak, but lawyers still in the fight.
Mr. Chen, a self-taught “barefoot lawyer,” earned worldwide fame for calling attention to forced abortions and sterilizations as part of China’s one-child policy, and for helping people seek legal redress for official injustices.
He and two like-minded lawyers were jailed, however, and the Chinese government has since cracked down hard on lawyers pursuing human rights or public interest litigation.
“There has been an overall setback in the rights protection movement” in recent years says Stephanie Balme, a visiting law professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “It is much harder today to take any action on sensitive issues” such as human rights, food safety, religious freedom, AIDS victims, and a range of other causes, she says.
“It is rare now that lawyers are jailed, like Chen Guangcheng, but government repression of human rights activists and lawyers is worse than four years ago and more common,” says Jiang Tianyong, a former lawyer who was disbarred last year.
A generation of Chinese civil rights activists
Chen was a leader of the first generation of Chinese civil rights activists, encouraged by signs that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao wanted to widen avenues of legal redress for injustice so as to dampen popular discontent.
The government changed tack, however, and in 2006 Chen was arrested. A prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng was also jailed, as was another member of his firm Guo Feixiong, who had represented villagers alleging official corruption. Mr. Gao has now disappeared, and is believed to be in government hands. Mr. Guo remains in prison.
Last year the authorities “shifted from individual repression of lawyers to collective punishment,” says Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong based researcher for Human Rights Watch. Around 20 of the country’s most outspoken civil rights lawyers were threatened with the loss of their professional licenses.
Mr. Jiang was among them; he had successfully defended a Tibetan monk accused of concealing weapons. “We took sensitive cases and we did not listen to the Beijing Judicial Bureau’s orders” he says, explaining the trouble he ran into.
Punishment for lawyers
Eventually only Jiang and four others did not get their licenses renewed. But almost all of the rest were forced out of the law firms they had worked for, he says.
Instead of arresting lawyers, the government now restrains them in more subtle ways, explains Jiang. The authorities do not renew their licenses, communist party committees have been set up in law firms to keep a closer eye on them, and law firm partners are pressured to fire recalcitrant members of their firms.
Sometimes the authorities simply close law practices that do not bow to their demands. The Beijing-based An Hui firm that refused to sack Tang Jitian, a lawyer who lost his license last April after representing members of the outlawed Falun Gong religious movement, failed its annual government check and is no longer allowed to operate.
“These are all very effective measures” says Jiang. “Before they would just warn us and if we weren’t afraid we’d take the case anyway. That’s not true any more.”
Less room to maneuver
At the same time, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seeking to use the courts to advance their social causes “have less room for maneuver” than they once did, says Prof. Balme.
They could be forgiven for feeling intimidated: Gongmeng, a prominent group with strong international support, was closed last year on tax grounds after taking up the cases of victims of poisoned milk powder. A well-known womens’ legal aid center was expelled from Peking University, its host for many years. And the head of Aizhixing, an NGO advocating AIDS patients’ rights, fled China earlier this year saying it had become impossible to work here.
“The landscape is much tougher for legal activists,” says Mr. Bequelin. “But it is not dead. A new generation is coming up.”
Ordinary citizens’ awareness of their rights is growing, adds Xu Zhiyong, the former head of Gongmeng, and “more lawyers are standing up to defend justice” he says. “Society is making progress.”
“If violations of peoples’ rights continue to be common, even if the government keeps repressing lawyers, new ones will join the group” of rights activists, predicts Jiang. “I haven’t seen many give up.”