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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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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