The harassment and detention of human rights lawyers in China continues at an alarming rate. Most notable in recent months has been the arbitrary detentions of Chen Jiangang and that of his former client Xie Yang, who is himself a rights lawyer. Xie was accused of ‘subverting state power’, and claimed to have been detained and tortured by the Chinese authorities. As of May 2017, Xie’s trial has been suspended indefinitely, with no indication as to when he might be released.
Xie’s charge was that he had “long been influenced by the infiltration of anti-China forces and gradually formed his idea of overthrowing the current political system”; at his early May 2017 hearing prior to the indefinite suspension of his case, he pleaded guilty to ‘subversion’ as well as ‘disrupting court order’; he denied claims that he had been tortured, and asked for leniency from the court. Yet in January 2017, Xie had confirmed with his lawyer Chen that he had suffered sleep and water deprivation, interrogations, beatings, as well as threats against himself, his friends and his family.
“It was around 6 a.m. when we arrived at the station, at the crack of dawn. Someone took me to a room in the investigations unit and had me sit in an interrogation chair—the so-called “iron chair.” Once I sat down, they locked me into the shackles on the chair. From that point, I was shackled in whether or not they were questioning me.”
“They have a kind of slow torture called the “dangling chair.” It’s like I said before—they made me sit on a bunch of plastic stools stacked on top each other, 24 hours a day except for the two hours they let me sleep. They make you sit up there, with both feet unable to touch the ground. I told them that my right leg was injured from before, and that this kind of torture would leave me crippled. I told all of the police who came to interrogate me.”
- Xie Yang’s testimony to Chen Jiangang, cited from China Change
Xie’s apparent change of heart comes at the end of a brutal, lengthy ordeal. He was detained – where he remains – during the “709” crackdown that occured during July of 2015, and no charges were officially made against him until January 2016. The “709” crackdown saw over 300 lawyers detained under broad powers that allow officials to enforce administrative detentions of individuals without making a formal arrest or charge. Of those 300 lawyers who were detained during the “709” crackdown, the majority were released; though as of 2016 there were still 16 lawyers in incommunicado pretrial detention, without access to legal representation or even to their families. Most were held for over 1 year in such conditions. Xie Yang’s guilty plea came at what was supposed to be an open hearing – questioned by his wife and other supporters – and looks prima facie to be self-incrimination.
Xie’s lawyer, Chen Jiangang, was himself detained in the southern province of Yunnan, whilst holidaying with his family and friends. Chen, his wife and their two children were detained without charge on a Wednesday afternoon, and subsequently released on the following Thursday morning; Chen’s wife, Zou, and their sons were allowed to fly back to their home in Beijing, but Chen was required to make the 2,000 mile journey by car, with an escort of 3 police officers. Chen’s exact whereabouts, however, are unknown, as he did not join his wife and children in Beijing. It was reported by Hong Kong Free Press that over 100 fellow Chinese lawyers have signed a statement demanding his release, making it clear that they believe he is being detained by the Chinese authorities.
The authorities in China are keen to emphasise that they are governed by and are following the law, and that any individual detained and subsequently imprisoned is done so in accordance with those laws. But individuals who have been detained or imprisoned complain that they have been poorly treated, and physically and at times violently coerced into self-incrimination for offences that they did not commit. The authorities are well-versed in torture and inhumane treatment, and are careful so as to not leave incriminating marks on the detainees; according to Terry Halliday of the American Bar Foundation, the Chinese security apparatus “have perfected forms of enormous pressure on individuals that are so powerful that they can compel almost any individual to comply, but yet they are not so manifest with broken bones, or the shedding of blood or external marks that can be used by the media or advocates around the world to criticise the government for inhumane treatment.”
The “709” crackdown also saw the arrest of noted lawyer Zhou Shifeng, acclaimed as ‘Beijing Excellent Lawyer’ three times from 2012 to 2015, and whose firm Beijing Feng Rui Law Firm – known for their legal activism – represented claimants in the 2008 tainted milk scandal. Zhou, much like other lawyers before and since, confessed to his ‘crimes’, and was sentenced to 7 years imprisonment for ‘subversion of state power’.
The conditions prevalent in China are hardly conducive to legal or judicial independence. It is not only arbitrary detention and imprisonment with which the Chinese authorities can intimidate lawyers; after their release, they can also be punished with the ‘deprivation of political rights’, such as freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of publication, and it is hardly a surprise that many lawyers and activists claim to have had their electronic communications monitored by the authorities. In a further sting to the independence of the profession, all lawyers must be members of the CCP-controlled All China Lawyers Association, and must swear allegiance to the CCP upon issuance of or renewal of their licence to practice law. With this level of state interference and intimidation, it is small wonder that many lawyers will not represent defendents in criminal cases – where they would be responding directly to the Chinese authorities – and outright refuse to take on cases with a degree of political sensitivity.