A network of lawyers in China has led a bold effort to enforce the rule of law, but Communist opposition is formidable
by June Cheng Post Date: January 17, 2019
For three years after her husband’s disappearance, Li Wenzu had no idea where he was or whether he was even alive. Wang Quanzhang, a 42-year-old Chinese human rights lawyer who had represented political dissidents and the victims of land grabs, first went missing during a 2015 crackdown, when Communist agents detained more than 320 lawyers and activists.
One by one, the authorities released the other detainees, tried them in sham courts, or paraded them on television for forced confessions. But Li still had no word on her husband, except for a notice in February 2017 that he had been charged with “subversion of state power.” Li believed the radio silence from Wang meant he had resolutely resisted confessing and thus the government was punishing him.
Out of desperation, Li and other lawyers’ wives became activists themselves: They petitioned the Chinese government, testified in a U.S. congressional hearing (Li by video), and protested outside the Tianjin detention center. In December 2018, Li and a few other wives shaved their heads outside a Beijing park. The Chinese word for hair (fa) sounds like the word for law: “We can do without our hair, but we can’t do without law,” they explained.
It was only last July that a government-appointed lawyer was allowed to meet with Wang. On the day of Wang’s Dec. 26 trial in Tianjin, police barred Li from leaving her home in Beijing, and the court barred the public—including reporters and foreign diplomats—from attending the proceeding. What went on inside the courtroom is unclear, but it seems Wang remained defiant: Li got word that he fired his government lawyer in court, meaning he likely forced an adjournment of the trial until authorities could find him a new attorney.
“This whole process has been illegal, so how could I expect an open and fair trial?” Li told The New York Times before the hearing.
Wang is the last lawyer facing prosecution as a direct consequence of the Chinese government’s 2015 sweep of weiquan (or rights defense) lawyers. The weiquan movement, in which lawyers and activists use China’s own laws to protect citizens’ rights, has for more than a decade represented what the Chinese Communist Party fears as a threat to its power: governance by rule of law. While the party claims to uphold legal rights, it has fiercely opposed lawyers who seek to hold the government accountable, jailing them or driving them from the country.
“China’s political system is at odds with providing citizens with basic rights,” says Teng Biao, an exiled human rights lawyer. “If everyone uses the law to defend the rights of citizens, then this political system could not survive.”
Despite the formidable opposition, courageous men and women in China have risked their lives and livelihoods to pursue justice in an unjust country. They have publicized their abusive treatment in detention and spoken truth to power. Although some are now disbarred or exiled, others are working to take their place. But under an increasingly oppressive Communist regime, is there any future for China’s human rights defenders?
Biao: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images • Guangcheng: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images • Tohti: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images • 4: Kyodo/AP
(Biao: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images • Guangcheng: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images • Tohti: Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images • 4: Kyodo/AP)
CHAIRMAN MAO ZEDONG first implemented a Soviet-style legal system in China in 1954. But disruptive campaigns—the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution—kept it from taking hold. After Mao’s death in 1976, the central government began reforming its legal system, crafting extensive laws and judicial procedure to prevent a return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and to attract foreign investment. The government opened law schools to train legal professionals and allowed students to take the college entrance exam beginning in 1977.
The 1982 Chinese Constitution seemed to give citizens greater rights: It upheld the freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly. Citizens had the right to vote and run for office, as well as the right to a public trial except in cases dealing with national security, sex offenses, or minors.
While much of it looked good on paper, many of the laws were never enforced. Courts lacked judicial independence and bent to the will of Communist Party officials. Corruption plagued lower-level courts, as bribes or party connections could keep criminals out of prison.
Teng Biao entered Peking University Law School in 1996, the year that lawyers became independent professionals rather than civil servants. At the time, Peking University was considered one of the most open schools in China, and some of Teng’s teachers taught Western legal theories that influenced him greatly. He also read Western books on democracy, and when he became a professor himself, he often discussed these sensitive topics with his students.
The weiquan movement took off in 2003 with the case of Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Wuhan. On March 17, 2003, Guangzhou police picked up Sun during a random identity card check. Because he had just started his job in the city, he had not yet applied for a temporary residence permit and had forgotten his ID at home. Police threw him into a “custody and repatriation center,” a detention center for migrants from other cities.
Three days later, Sun was dead. Doctors claimed he had died of stroke and a heart attack, but an official autopsy revealed he had been beaten to death while in detention.
Investigative journalists at China’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper reported on the case, and the news quickly spread on the internet, angering Chinese citizens. Three legal scholars—Teng, Xu Zhiyong, and Yu Jiang—sent an open letter to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee stating that “custody and repatriation centers” were unconstitutional because they violated citizens’ rights.
In response, Premier Wen Jiabao abolished the custody and repatriation system. Officials sentenced to death the two people responsible for Sun’s murder and sent their accomplices to prison. Sun’s family received a $53,000 settlement, and the government even named lawyer Teng “Ten People in Rule of Law in 2003.” Encouraged by the case’s success, more weiquan lawyers emerged, representing the victims of land grabs, forced abortions, and tainted-milk scandals, as well as house church leaders, Falun Gong practitioners, and political prisoners.
Teng co-founded the Open Constitution Initiative, providing a platform for lawyers, journalists, scholars, and bloggers to work together and ensure the government followed its own laws. He represented wrongly convicted death row inmates, helped draft Charter 08 calling for democracy and rule of law, and investigated the mistreatment of Tibetans.
Yet the Sun case was more of an outlier than the norm: In 2004, police arrested Southern Metropolis Daily’s editor-in-chief, Cheng Yizhong, and detained him for five months as punishment for the paper’s reporting. Authorities disbarred Teng in 2008 and shut down the Open Constitution Initiative a year later. They took Teng’s passport, monitored his movements, and detained and tortured him. He finally left for the United States in 2014 and has been unable to return home.
Before moving to the United States, Teng also represented Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer who in 2005 sued the government of Shandong for forcibly aborting the babies of rural women under the government’s one-child policy. In retaliation, officials sentenced Chen to four years in prison.
After Chen’s release, authorities kept him under house arrest with his wife and young daughter. In 2012 he made a brazen escape, scrambling over walls and through his neighbors’ yards to a friend’s waiting car and then to the U.S. Embassy. He and his family eventually moved to the United States, where he is now a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.