In October 2014, the Chinese Communist Party announced that rule of law would be a top priority for the country. However, just one year later, over 150 lawyers and 150 more colleagues, family members and other activists had been questioned, detained, or disappeared in a crackdown which began on 9 July 2015.
Journalists and legal experts have speculated about what ‘strengthening rule of law’ might mean for China’s ruling Party: whatever it means, it doesn’t seem to include rights lawyers.
China’s weiquan lawyers
China’s weiquan lawyers (referred to in English as rights lawyers, rights protection lawyers or human rights lawyers) have long suffered repercussions for their work defending vulnerable social groups and “political” or “sensitive” cases. Their clients include church leaders and Christians as well as other religious adherents, journalists, editors, scholars, activists, fellow lawyers, and victims of land grabs and corruption.
For years these lawyers, pioneers in the advocacy of human rights in China, have been beaten, arrested, tortured, imprisoned, harassed and defamed by the authorities. Yet their numbers continue to grow: in 2009 lawyer Teng Biao estimated there were only ‘a few dozen’ rights lawyers nationwide. In 2015, Eva Pils, a legal scholar at the King’s College London, estimated that there were between 200 and 300.
A noticeable number are Christian. When I first met a Christian rights lawyer, I asked him why so many people in his field shared his faith. I heard his reply echoed many times in the words of others I would go on to meet.
“Christian lawyers are inspired by their faith and driven by the search for justice… This is their strength and their motivation.”
This does not mean that lawyers who are not Christian are not motivated by the search for justice. The point this lawyer was making was that for many Christian lawyers, it is their beliefs that drive them forward when they face threats and challenges. As another lawyer explained, there’s very little money to be made in this work, and there’s certainly no fame or glamour to it: rights lawyers have to have a different motivation. For some, this is their faith.
Defending China’s Churches
Many, if not most, Chinese Christians do not see their faith as politically sensitive or subversive, and many support President Xi Jinping’s fight against corruption, and consider themselves to be law-abiding, patriotic citizens.
When the authorities began to remove crosses from churches in Zhejiang, a province known for its relatively large Christian population and its entrepreneurial spirit, Christians there asked why it was happening.
As one observer told me: “[After Zhejiang] Christians began to ask, ‘Why doesn’t the government let us do what we want with our own money? We are not political!’
However, when letters and petitions failed to stop the cross removals in Zhejiang, some churches started looking to rights lawyers for legal advice. The events in Zhejiang have shown that even registered Three Self churches and unregistered churches which have not been at odds with the authorities before can suddenly find themselves in need of a lawyer. For unregistered churches which have long experienced harassment and restrictions, lawyers have been instrumental in defending Christians in court and training congregations about their rights under Chinese law.
Politics Affects Everyone
In China, both Christian human rights lawyers and their non-Christian colleagues increasingly feel the repercussions of their work – which frequently puts them at odds with the wishes of officials – in their personal lives. More and more, the authorities are also harassing and restricting their husbands, wives, siblings and children. Earlier this year, Wang Qiaoling, the wife of Christian human rights lawyer Li Heping, detained six months and now formally arrested on suspicion of “subversion”, released a letter describing her experiences on the night Li was taken away by police and the 130 days that followed:
“I was truly afraid! I was hardly sleeping at night—always restless. Before, I rejoiced to hear the sound of a knock on the door: [it was] either a messenger delivering things or friends stopping by to talk. But now, whenever I hear a knock, I always grab the children, warily ask [who is there], then dare to open the door…”
If the authorities continue to try to control the space for religious activities, we may see an increasing number of churches looking to the lawyers for advice and protection. As such, the crackdown on rights lawyers and civil society in China may be more relevant for Chinese Christians – even those who steer clear of politics – than it first appears.
As Wang Qiaoling observes: “The day before yesterday [it was] a writer, yesterday [it was] a public welfare advocate, and today, a lawyer—who will it be tomorrow?
By CSW’s China Desk Officer