Authorities in China target volunteer lawyers helping anti-lockdown protesters
State security police across China have been questioning lawyers who volunteered to help people arrested during recent anti-lockdown protests, with some withdrawing from the scheme due to political pressure from the authorities, Radio Free Asia has learned.
Chinese human rights lawyers have been scrambling to assist the friends and families of people arrested during a wave of anti-lockdown protests at the end of November, many of whom have little experience being treated as dissidents by Chinese authorities.
Lawyer Wang Shengsheng, who compiled and published a list of dozens of attorneys offering to volunteer to help people detained for protesting China’s “zero-COVID” restrictions or mourning the victims of a Nov. 24 lockdown fire in Xinjiang’s regional capital, Urumqi, said state security police had starting investigating her after she started helping detained protesters.
Wang, who hails from the central city of Zhengzhou but works for a law firm based in the southern city of Guangzhou, said the city’s justice bureau had turned up at her law firm and taken away all of the files linked to previous cases she has represented.
“They sent people from the judicial bureau’s [Communist Party] committee,” she told RFA on Tuesday. “They were checking whether my records were in order, for example, we need to sign a contract when taking a new case, and issue a receipt when we receive our fees.”
“They’re trying to find some [error] they can pick up on, also whether or not I have taken any politically sensitive cases,” Wang said. “They are deliberately trying to catch me making a mistake.”
“The reason behind it was the fact that I offered pro bono legal advice … I don’t know why they think that was such a bad thing to do that they need to put pressure on me via my law firm,” she said, adding that the state security police had also contacted her.
“The Zhengzhou state security police came looking for me, because I’m in Zhengzhou right now,” Wang said.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party, faced with the biggest challenge to its rule in decades, is saying that the “white paper” protests were the work of “foreign forces” infiltrating China, a notion that has been met with widespread derision among protesters and social media users.
Wang told RFA in November that some lawyers had declined to take part in the volunteer network, believing they would risk losing their license to practice law by participating, as happened to many attorneys who spoke up in favor of human rights, or helped political dissidents and other marginalized groups considered a stability risk by authorities.
She said that since then, several other attorneys who offered their services have been contacted by state security police or justice bureau officials where they live.
“The justice bureau officials and the state police have been contacting them,” Wang said. “For example, Lin Baocheng was contacted by the state security police in Xiamen and Lu Siwei had the state security police come to find him in Chengdu.”
“I don’t understand what our actions have to do with the police,” she said.
Wang said she has now been prevented from logging onto the volunteer lawyers’ group on the social media and messaging platform WeChat.
“My WeChat account has been restricted, so I can’t send messages in the group, or make any changes to the list [of volunteer lawyers],” she said. “No one can post messages in the WeChat circle.”
The volunteer legal team has received more than 30 inquiries so far, she said.
“The authorities should understand how helpless the protesters felt … and their frustration, and treat them with compassion,” Wang said. “Why do those in power not trust their own people?”
Meanwhile, veteran rights lawyer Yu Wensheng said he didn’t take part in the volunteer legal team for fear of political reprisals, although he was cheered to see the lawyers standing up for protesters.
Jiangsu’s Xuzhou Intermediate People’s Court handed a four-year jail term to Yu on subversion charges in June 2020 after nearly three years in pretrial detention, finding him guilty of “incitement to subvert state power” in a secret trial.
The sentence was widely seen by fellow lawyers as a form of political retaliation for Yu’s outspokenness following a nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers and law firms that began on July 9, 2015, and his call for fully democratic presidential elections in China.
“After I got out of jail, I found that human rights lawyers had been decimated, almost wiped out by the government,” Yu told RFA on Monday. “Now, some lawyers are finally standing up [to the authorities]. This is a good thing.”
“But we should also be wary of another July 2015 [nationwide operation targeting rights lawyers], which would be very bad, and is entirely possible,” he warned.
Yu, whose license to practice law was revoked in January 2018, still has traumatic memories of his time in incommunicado detention under “Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location,” describing much of his incarceration as “unbearable to look back on.”
He said he would like to leave the country, but fears it may not be possible.
“My desire to leave China is particularly great now, because I really can’t bear the current situation, and I am very pessimistic about its future direction,” Yu said.
“A lot of very capable and professional human rights lawyers have basically had their licenses revoked, and the ones who remain are too afraid to stand up to the government when it comes to representing cases,” he said.
“It sometimes feels as if there’s not a lot of difference between life in prison and life outside,” Yu told RFA.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.