BEIJING — Lawyers are undeniably critical to any society that values judicial due process. The fact that they are still marginalized in China is another notable sign that the country's justice system is still fledgling compared to its Western counterparts.
After 30 years of legal construction and judicial development since China opened up in the late 1970s, lawyers as a group have grown from basically non-existent to a significant professional group. And yet even as they have been gradually accepted by society, their status hasn't enjoyed a parallel lift. The profession is regarded almost as an alien force, and it remains excluded and suppressed by prosecutors, the public security apparatus, and governmental legal departments. That's particularly true in criminal cases.
For instance, Article 306 of China's criminal code indicates restrictions on the right to a criminal defense and threatens defense attorneys with prosecution for criminal liabilities. Lawyers also face constant barriers when asking to meet defendants, for the transfer of documents for review, and when making simple inquiries. There have even been escalating conflicts between defense attorneys and trial judges in recent years.
China's harshest treatment of lawyers comes from within the judicial system. Even at court hearings, lawyers are sometimes not allowed to enter the courtroom if the defendant is not present. They neither expect nor have the luxury of equal status with the prosecution. They often wind up compromising for their own safety or simply giving up on cases.
Building a society ruled by law is more than just an abstract concept. A legal structure without lawyers enjoying a respected status within a courtroom is simply incomplete. And a legal environment where lawyers are rejected is a distorted one.
It's unfortunate for China that its lawyers are still forced into work in humble and embarrassing conditions. The day Chinese lawyers enjoy a dignified status will be the day China can truly call itself a society of rule of law.
*Tian Wenchang is a director emeritus of King & Capital law firm.