China's rights lawyers say sentence sends a chilling – and blunt – message

Prominent lawyer Zhou Shifeng got seven years in prison for subversion Thursday, underscoring China's deepening intolerance for dissent. Many rights lawyers have been stripped of their status.

In this image from video, Zhou Shifeng sits for his trial at the Tianjin No. 2 Intermediate People's Court in northern China, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016. Mr. Zhou, a Chinese lawyer, was in court for the third of a series of subversion trials.

Until police detained him last year, Zhou Shifeng ran the most prominent human rights law firm in Beijing. He represented victims of China’s 2008 tainted baby formula scandal and tackled other sensitive cases – giving clients hope the courts could come to their rescue.

On Thursday, a court sentenced Mr. Zhou to seven years in prison for subversion. Authorities claimed he had conspired to undermine China’s judiciary and bring down the Communist Party – charges Zhou’s supporters say are false.

Zhou’s detention and prosecution, like a string of similar cases, has cast a chill over the profession of rights defenders in China. It has also raised questions about what Chinese citizens will do if they can’t find legal aid in the future. More than 300 lawyers and activists have been swept up in China’s intensified crackdown on dissent over the past 13 months, with Zhou among the most prominent to be jailed.

Jiang Tianyong is one Beijing rights lawyer who has stopped representing clients in court. He says that others are doing the same, either because they fear reprisals or are too busy defending lawyer friends targeted by state security.

“There is a feeling of deep fear in civil society,” said Mr. Jiang on Thursday, shortly after Zhao’s sentence was announced. “There are some lawyers who used to be very active in taking human rights cases who won’t take them anymore.”

Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor and a veteran expert on China’s justice system, says he’s given up hope for sustained legal work on rights issues in China. 

“The current repression is crushing the rights defense movement,” says Mr. Cohen, who helped the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng after he fled China in 2012. Some younger lawyers may step up to take on sensitive issues, he adds, “but not many of them will be unwise enough to seek martyrdom.”

“That doesn't mean there are not new activists joining the rights defense movement," says Teng Biao, a prominent defense lawyer who fled to the United States to avoid arrest. “But the persecution is much harsher than before 2012 so … activists have to keep a low tone and careful approach.”

Sensitive issues abound

China has no shortage of sensitive issues for the courts to address, including illegal confiscations of land and the contamination of food, water, and land. Labor unrest is on the rise as the economy slows and the government tries to divest itself of state-owned industries. 

China’s leaders may not have thought through the consequences of jailing lawyers – especially those willing to take on the toughest cases, says Maya Wang, a China researcher for Human Rights Watch.

If they cannot find lawyers to represent them, disgruntled Chinese citizens could explore other, possibly violent, avenues through which to channel their dissatisfaction.

 “In the end, the government could be shooting itself in the foot,” she says.

State security organs have never made it easy for China’s rights defenders, but in the mid-2000s, lawyers saw a brief glimmer of hope. Some prominent advocates, such as Xu Zhiyong, attracted favorable coverage in Chinese state media. Some officials appeared to feel that lawyers and the judicial system could serve as a “relief valve,” helping Chinese citizens air their grievances.

When the tainted baby formula scandal broke in 2008, authorities urged lawyers such as Zhou not to press lawsuits in the interests of “maintaining social stability.” Yet Zhou and others persevered, helping to expose the corruption that allowed toxic melamine to get into milk powder. An estimated 300,000 people were sickened by the tainted milk, including 54,000 infants who were hospitalized. 

Stripping rights lawyers of status

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, China has sought to strip rights lawyers of their status. In 2014, a court sentenced Xu Zhiyong to prison for four years for causing disturbances. Other lawyers were detained and then, on July 9 last year, state security officials started rounding up hundreds of lawyers and activists associated with the Fengrui law firm, headed by Zhou.

That Zhou would be sent to jail, along with some of his associates, was never in doubt. During its heyday, Fengrui represented adherents of the banned Falun Gong sect, which China has labeled an “evil cult.” It defended outspoken figures such as the artist Ai Weiwei and the Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for “fanning ethnic hatred,” among other charges.

Over the past year, state media have sought to portray Fengrui as an instrument of “foreign forces” seeking to overthrow the Chinese government. Handing down sentences in four trials this week, including Zhou’s, a Chinese court cited several acts committed by Fengrui associates, including receiving legal training from foreign organizations and talking to foreign media, as “subversive.”

In the past, rights lawyers used to enjoy some measure of legal protection if they were arrested. But that, too, has changed, says Eva Pils, an expert in Chinese law at Kings College, London. Lawyers have been detained for months in secret locations and denied access to family and lawyers of their choice.

Authorities have apparently forced some to sign confessions or to appear in staged media interviews in return for reduced sentences, she said in an email exchange. Unusually, all four lawyers put on trial this week were reported by state media to have confessed their guilt.

The day before this week’s trials started on Tuesday, one of Fengrui’s most intrepid lawyers, Wang Yu, appeared in a videotaped interview. In it, she uncharacteristically praised the Chinese government and denounced the Fengrui firm as a pawn of foreign interests. 

Wang Yu’s husband is facing subversion charges and her teenage son is in the care of officials; she and others are widely thought to have cut deals to protect their families.

“Naturally we are all asking ourselves exactly what the authorities did to get them to make these scripted statements,” says Ms. Pils. 

Pils estimates there are 200 to 300 rights lawyers in China, a big increase from four years ago, and some younger lawyers have stepped up recently after their more senior peers were detained. Still, the risks of taking on these cases have increased markedly, she said. 

“Things look worse than ever for rights lawyers – and not just because of the trials,” she worries. Tougher regulations on national security and nongovernmental organizations, she adds, are “closing down space for civil society to operate.”

Jiang, a native of China’s impoverished Henan province, said he knew when he passed the bar in 2005 that human rights work would be difficult. In 2008, he offered to provide legal services to Tibetans facing charges in the aftermath of riots in Tibet. He also represented Falun Gong members and people who had contracted AIDS through tainted blood donations.

The police have detained Jiang several times over the past decade, and in 2009 the official lawyers association refused to renew his law license. Even so, he continued to defend clients,  using a provision in Chinese administrative law that allows friends and relatives to represent people in court.

Yet that all changed with the current crackdown. Jiang says he no longer represents clients in court, fearing that “state security will take me away.” He also worries about China’s future.

“If people can’t seek rights protection through legal ways,” he suggests, “their confrontations will become more violent.”

Qiang Xiaoji contributed to this report.

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