China

In China, Where 'Attorney-At-Law' Is An Ever More Dangerous Occupation

China's modern legal system has thousands of laws governing every aspect of life. But instead of using this system to further democracy, Chinese officials increasingly use it to harass and intimidate the civil rights lawyers fighting for justice.

Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng (Channel 4)
Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng (Channel 4)
B. Pe

BEIJING - Xu Zhiyong is one of the most active civil rights lawyers in China. He established a nonprofit legal center called Gongmeng, which the government shut down, citing fallacious reasons. Xu confirmed our meeting using a friend's mobile phone, sign of the tense climate for attorneys in Beijing. He ended up cancelling a few minutes later, saying he had just been "stopped" by the political police.

In China, police harassment has always been unpredictable and irrational, but after Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident and self-educated lawyer, was able to deceive his warders recently, it's blowing hot and cold. Even more so in the months preceding the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, to be held next Autumn.

In this Internet age, the struggle for human rights in China involves civil society as a whole: owners, intellectuals, Internet users, workers, artists and writers. More and more of them are fighting for their rights, on issues that affect them personally or by solidarity with victims.

Lawyers are at the core of this struggle. "Fighting for rights is what lawyers do. But there's a difference between those who take on sensitive cases and defend civil rights, on the one hand, and commercial lawyers, on the other," says Mo Shaoping, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo's legal counsel. "The first category is finding it harder and harder to work. A rising number of lawyers are steering away from sensitive cases, because there are too many risks and not much money. This is sad."

Party controls, forced oaths, police harassment and wire taps

Lawyers are caught between two opposing systems: the one-party system and the rule of law. "Repression against civil rights lawyers in China is rising," Mo says. "They are prevented from becoming members of the Bar. And when they have to renew their law licenses, everything is done to prevent them from doing so. There are more and more controls from the Party, which is actually putting its people inside the law firms."

Mo goes on to say that lawyers are strongly encouraged to pledge an oath to the Communist Party, something that has become compulsory for new attorneys. "Big cases have to be registered with the relevant justice department and the Bar association, and authorization needs to be granted before they can be taken on. Policemen and security agents follow us on our business trips and monitor our phone calls," he explains.

Ironically, thanks to modernization and reform, the Chinese legal system has made great progress. "There are now hundreds of laws and more than 1,000 administrative by-laws, covering every single aspect of life. But the main problem is the failure of the government or state institutions to uphold the law," says Mo Shaoping.

Conservative ideologists from the Party defend "a legal system with Chinese characteristics," that voids the need for a separation of powers.

According to Xu Zhiyong, the result is a "continual repression that will probably force us to fight harder and harder for democracy." A few years ago, Xu and most of his colleagues would have never taken such a stand. But these days, there seems no other way of looking at things. "Only democracy can guarantee a future for China," he declares.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Channel 4

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