My lesson in human rights

New Statesman
Heel! Ai Weiwei's version of communist ideals comes under attack. (Cartoon: @thomasycwong)

On the afternoon of 2 April 2011, Beijing police suddenly summoned me to the local police station. Without any legal procedure or permission, they turned on my computer and inspected my email account and QQ chat records. I was detained for more than ten hours. Before I was released, the police made me sign a summons saying that I had posted material online that was suspected of “causing disturbances”. At three in the morning, the police took me home and warned me to move immediately. This was the first time that the police had threatened me with detention. I was frightened.

Not in line

A few hours later, the artist and activist Ai Weiwei disappeared while trying to leave the country through Beijing international airport. Ai Weiwei and I are friends. We met in 2008 when we both followed the case of the Beijing youth Yang Jia, who attacked police in Shanghai. After Ai went missing, I started writing articles questioning the authorities’ procedures in handling the case. I also accepted interviews from a number of foreign media outlets. Shortly afterwards, officials from the Beijing Judicial Bureau came to speak to me, warning me not to write articles questioning Ai’s disappearance and not to be interviewed by foreign media.

On the evening of 14 April, I was followed by plain-clothes police. At 10pm, seven or eight of them pulled a black hood over me and took me to a hotel in the suburbs of Beijing. They ordered me to take my clothes off for inspection. I was slow at taking them off, so they kicked me. The interrogators warned me not to “sensationalise” Ai Weiwei’s disappearance and that, if I didn’t listen, they could “break up my family”.

I was detained for five days. Before I was released, the police forced me to write a letter of guarantee that I wouldn’t concern myself with Ai’s disappearance. After I was released, the police also met me many times to warn me to respect the “letter of guarantee” and threatened my family through police in my home town.

Not long after that came the yearly official assessment of lawyers and law firms. Beijing Judicial Bureau and Chaoyang District Judicial Bureau set up many obstructions for my law firm, saying that my “office was not in line with requirements”, but they did not dare to issue a written notice. I was forced to rent a new office. They used other excuses to continue stalling the annual inspection. Then, this year, my own lawyer’s assessment was also stalled. I became an unlicensed lawyer. The real reason for this was that I had ignored their advice and taken on a “sensitive” case.

Reform of China’s political system has lagged behind economic development. The gap between rich and poor is widening. Official corruption, and tensions between officials and the people, have become increasingly serious. In recent years there have been tens of thousands of incidents of social unrest each year. The government wants to maintain stability. Lawyers want to uphold human rights. In a system where stability is paramount, lawyers have been portrayed as a threat to “maintaining stability”, or even as “the enemy” by government and judicial organs.

Flight risk

As a human rights lawyer, I have handled many cases and helped many vulnerable groups. I have been warned by the judicial bureau several times, chased out of my residence by police, prevented from travelling outside the country because “leaving the country might threaten national security”, been disappeared and had my annual inspection suspended. My situation is not uncommon. Often human rights lawyers are suppressed by public authorities. Some are detained, some forced out of court by judges, some framed and convicted by judicial organs; some have their practising licence revoked; some are kidnapped by secret police and go missing; some are even tortured. A human rights lawyer being summoned by law-enforcement officers for a chat and being warned is a common occurrence.

The rights of human rights lawyers are often violated. The root of this is the Chinese judicial system. China is a one-party state. The Communist Party rules over everything and the judicial organs are not independent. When the judiciary deal with a major case, it must be led by the party’s committee of political and legislative affairs. The case must be handled jointly by “procuratorial organs and people’s courts”; even sentencing must be decided by the party committee of political and legislative affairs. In 2009, the minister of justice, Wu Aiying, said: “We must strengthen education management for lawyers. When lawyers are representing sensitive and collective cases, they must observe politics, the big picture and discipline.”

Currently, more than 14,000 law firms in the country have established a party branch or appointed instructors, realising ahead of schedule the party’s control over the legal industry. The legal system in China has, in fact, regressed. The rule of law has not been truly realised. It is still primarily a “rule of man”.

To change this situation, it is not enough to rely on legislation. There must be deep reform of the political system and separation of the three powers. But promoting reform of the political system is very difficult. In 2011, the chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress(NPC), Wu Bangguo, in a report to the 11th NPC, said: “We don’t want multiple parties ruling in turn, diversification of guiding thought, tripartite division of powers, bicameral system, federal system, or privatisation.”

Wu’s speech represented the position of the NPC standing committee and the central government. This political statement of the “six don’ts” has already stifled political reform of any depth in China.

Liu Xiaoyuan is a human rights lawyer born in 1964 in Jiangxi. Between 1982 and 2004, he worked in the government of Suichuan County, Jiangxi Province, and in Communist Party committee organs. In 2004, he resigned from public office and practised at the Beijing Yitong Law Firm. He is now director of the Beijing Qijian Law Firm. He mainly takes human rights cases and works to uphold the human rights of vulnerable groups.