Why is being a “rights lawyer” a high-risk job?


Between 9 and 20 July 2015 alone, at least 235 lawyers in China were taken away by the police from their homes or offices. This wave of detention led to an international outcry and some 200 Chinese lawyers and citizens started a joint petition. They demanded that some one hundred policemen be held accountable for criminal offences such as “abuse of power, neglect of duty, defamation, disciplinary violations”. Director of Beijing Wutian Law Firm, Lawyer Cheng Hai, confirmed that he had taken part in the petition and that the following line from the petition summed up his view:
“This is a crime massively violating the rights of Chinese lawyers and citizens. It will largely undermine rule of law in China and if no legal action is taken to stop it and hold the offenders criminally accountable, then “rule of law in China” will only become empty rhetoric.”

Cheng has been one of the victims of dependent judiciary and he has shared with CLQ his year-long experience in fighting for the protection and independence of lawyers.

Rights lawyer Cheng Hai


Double standards for judges and lawyers

Rights lawyers represent different vulnerable groups in handling their lawsuits, yet, ironically, they are the most vulnerable group in the Chinese judicial system. Taking Cheng as an example, in 2014, he represented a fellow lawyer, who had been charged for his campaign calling on “the government officials to reveal their wealth”. His operation as a lawyer was obstructed by the procuratorate and court in Haidian District. When he protested against the secret trial, the presiding judge gave him a warning for “disturbing court order” and in the end he was disciplined by the Ministry of Justice and banned him from practicing for one year. The ban will last until 15 September 2015. As a profession, lawyers also need a trade union or a professional association to back them up. Can the All China Lawyers Association serve this purpose?


No organization to truly represent lawyers

“In China there are local lawyers associations and their charters state their responsibilities to protect lawyers’ rights. Their operations are funded by membership fees as well. However, the representatives of these associations have never been elected by members; some of them are even hostile to lawyers. I represented Chen Guancheng some years ago and the public security authority repressed me and illegally obstructed my operation as a lawyer. Yet, the lawyers association did nothing to help me.”

Lawyer Cheng believes that when the right time comes, lawyers should organize an organization to represent themselves. In 2008, he wrote an open letter to the Beijing Lawyers Association, demanding it to run direct elections and to reduce its membership fee by half. His petition was supported and co-signed by 35 lawyers and it pushed the Beijing Lawyers Association to run its first direct election in 2009. Since then, several other lawyers associations have started to revise their chapters and to run their election. Cheng reflects that, in general, lawyers are not very aware of their own rights and thus only a few of them have been defending themselves and it will take a longer time to achieve improvements.


The Ministry of Justice violates its yearly appraisal mechanism

As a Chinese lawyer, apart from losing his job and being put into prison for some “made-up crimes”, he has to renew his license at the Ministry of Justice each year. Many rights lawyers’ cannot get their licenses renewed, even though such an annual appraisal mechanism does not have legal grounds. Lawyer Cheng points out that the Law on Lawyers states that the annual appraisal should be done within the law firm and it does not require lawyers to have their licenses stamped by the Ministry of Justice each year. However, the majority of lawyers are afraid of violating the requirement of the Ministry of Justice, and the procuratorate and courts refuse to allow lawyers without the annual license from the Ministry to take up cases.
“In April 2015, I started a campaign, calling on lawyers to boycott such an annual licensing mechanism. 38 lawyers signed to support it but the rest did not dare to risk their license, as it might cost them the chance to defend others. If we could have more supporters, then such an illegal practice of a small group of people could not prevail.” Cheng commented.

Lawyer Cheng’s analysis explains how, for a rights lawyer, risks not only come from administrative obstacles or violent repression but also how the rights to work are restricted unjustifiably. The changes that Lawyer Cheng strives to bring about deserve more attention and support.

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