Beijing Must Stop Relentless Punishment of Human Rights Lawyers


Beijing Must Stop Relentless Punishment of Human Rights Lawyers

UN Should Call Out Nine Years of Impunity since 2015 “July 9” Crackdown

(view on our website)
(Chinese Human Rights Defenders – July 5, 2024) Nine years after the Chinese government launched its sustained assault on human rights lawyers, CHRD renews urgent calls on Beijing to cease its campaign to crush the human rights legal profession in China. We stand with the victims of the government’s rights abuses and continue to demand that UN member states hold Beijing accountable for its systematic human rights violations.On July 9, 2015, authorities initiated an unprecedented nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers (known as the 7.09 Crackdown). Police seized over 300 lawyers and legal assistants in the days following and disappeared and arbitrarily detained dozens for months. Courts convicted ten lawyers and activists on baseless charges and handed heavy prison sentences ranging from three to eight years.

In the years since, lawyers and their families continue to be targeted as purported threats to national security. Police wield criminal and administrative measures, including disbarment, to prevent lawyers’ efforts to uphold the rule of law, protect human rights, and advocate for the rights of detainees. Family members are often punished in draconian acts of collective punishment.

No domestic or international authority has sought to hold Chinese officials implicated in these crackdowns accountable. The persistent impunity for the 709 clampdown and ongoing assault on lawyers and their families is reflective of continuous failures by the international community to effectively pressure the Chinese government to stop the devastating suppression of human rights, which has been orchestrated under Chinese leader Xi Jinping over the past decade.

Lawyers and their families face punishment

Since 2015, the government has effectively made human rights lawyers “enemies of the state” by prosecuting some of them for crimes of “endangering national security.” In April 2023, prominent activist and legal scholar Xu Zhiyong and lawyer Ding Jiaxi, were sentenced to 14 and 12 years in prison, respectively, on charges of “subversion of state power” in a process rife with abuse and denial of due process rights. Lawyer Chang Weiping is serving a 3.5 year prison sentence on the same charges after he exposed torture he had suffered at the hands of police.

Police detained human rights lawyer, Yu Wensheng and his wife, activist Xu Yan, on route to attend an event at the invitation of the EU Delegation in Beijing in April 2023. In October of that year, they were indicted on charges of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and “inciting subversion,” and have been denied access to lawyers of their own choice. Despite Yu’s and Xu’s ongoing detention, and over human rights groups’ objections, the EU held a human rights dialogue with the Chinese government in June 2024. Lawyer Xie Yang, who was detained for a period of time and subjected to torture during the 709 Crackdown, has again been held in pre-trial detention since January 2022 and denied a lawyer of his choice for defending the online freedom of expression of a school teacher.

Even after release, or outside of formal detention, lawyers face surveillance, harassment, and other extra-legal measures. In March 2024, lawyer Li Yuhan was released after serving a six-and-a-half year prison sentence on trumped up charges which were brought after she acted as the defense lawyer for lawyer Wang Yu – whose detention on July 9, 2015 sparked the 709 Crackdown. In April, Beijing police expelled Li from the city after she tried to stay with Wang Yu to seek medical treatment. An emblematic case of extra-legal harassment, or “non-release release” is the treatment of lawyer Jiang Tianyong. He was harassed and monitored for years after his release in 2019 and continues to be denied a passport to reunite with his family abroad.

Such extra-legal measures also display the inhumanity of the police state. In February 2024, Tang Zhengqi, the 27-year-old daughter of lawyer Tang Jitiandied in Japan after falling ill in 2021. Tang had pleaded with the government to let him travel to Japan on humanitarian grounds to be at his daughter’s hospital bedside but was refused. Tang was repeatedly detained incommunicado between 2021-2024, including after appealing to be permitted to travel to his daughter’s funeral in March.

Many of the children of lawyers detained in the crackdown have faced collective punishment. The pre-teen son of lawyer Wang Quanzhang and activist Li Wenzu has been repeatedly denied enrollment in schools and suffers from PTSD, according to his mother. The children of lawyer Li Heping and activist Wang Qiaoling, now 24 and 14 respectively, have been denied schooling and are subjected to exits bans. They have also been forced to endure for years the round-the-clock police surveillance, stalking, and harassment levelled against their parents. The 19-year-old son of Yu Wensheng and Xu Yan was placed under de facto house arrest after their detention, despite suffering from depression and severe mental health effects, who is now hospitalized under police watch.

Systematic administrative barriers to rule of law

In the aftermath of the 2015 crackdown, the government has tightened controls over, and increased retaliation against, human rights lawyers. In 2023, CHRD documented the cases of 20 rights lawyers whose law licenses were arbitrarily revoked, four lawyers who were refused applications to renew their licenses, four lawyers who did not pass the “political appraisal” needed to obtain renewal of licenses, and 18 lawyers who were forced to leave their law firms, often due to official pressure.

Authorities’ denial of detainees’ own choices of a lawyer has also become a common tactic since the 709 Crackdown to deny access of detained human rights defenders and ethnic and religious minorities to independent legal counsel. CHRD is unaware of any detained Uyghurs, including prominent intellectuals, being afforded lawyers of their choice.

In February 2024, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers raised concerns to the Chinese government about the Administrative Measures for the Practice of Law by Lawyers and the Measures on the Administration of Law Firms, pointing out that these regulations were not in line with international standards. The special rapporteur, in particular, was alarmed by a pattern of rights abuses that emerged from the implementation of these measures, including: the use of “residential surveillance at a designated location” (RSDL), which is a type of enforced disappearance where detainees are denied access to a lawyer for up to six months; the use of “government-appointed lawyers” in proceedings; the deprivation of political rights of lawyers; pressure on the families of lawyers; and de facto travel bans imposed on them. These concerns had been highlighted by CHRD in a submission with two other groups in 2019, drawing attention to these tactics used against many of the lawyers and their families highlighted above. The special rapporteur called on China to “review and reconsider”laws and measures that restrict lawyers.

Repression exported to Hong Kong

China’s attacks on lawyers has also spread to Hong Kong following Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law (NSL) in 2020. In March 2024, the local legislature passed the “Safeguarding National Security Ordinance” under Article 23 of the Basic Law. The new ordinance grants police the power to deny a defendant access to a lawyer in the first 48 hours of detention, and to deny lawyers of the defendants’ choice throughout their detention, in measures mirroring the mainland’s restrictions. In May, authorities arrested barrister Chow Hang-tung for sedition offences under the new Article 23 law. Chow has already been detained on “inciting subversion” charges under the NSL.

Perpetrators enjoying impunity

Lawyers and activists convicted and sentenced during the 709 Crackdown collectively served over 30 years in prison. “The officials responsible for arbitrarily detaining and torturing these human rights lawyers aren’t spending decades in prison—the lawyers are,” said Renee Xia, executive director of CHRD.

Last week, China’s fourth Universal Periodical Review (UPR) concluded, a process by which all UN member states’ human rights records are examined. The Chinese government categorically rejected all recommendations that it stop these egregious human rights violations and end impunity for the perpetrators. Despite the lack of good faith cooperation by the Beijing and its efforts to strong-arm states into supporting its record, some countries took a principled approach, and raised concerns and made strong recommendations. This included recommendations made by 10 countries that the Chinese government abolish RSDL and/or protect the rights of human rights lawyers and all rights defenders.

That principled approach should not conclude with the UPR but continue and become the norm for all UN member states. States should take overdue action to heed the call made by dozens of UN human rights experts in June 2020June 2022, and September 2022 to hold a Human Rights Council special session on China, and establish an impartial and independent UN mechanism to monitor the human rights situation in China.

States should also pressure China to cooperate with forthcoming treaty body reviews, including under the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both treaties have been violated by the government in its relentless persecution of human rights lawyers and their families.

In the nine years since the 709 Crackdown, the situation for rights lawyers and their families in China has become dire. “As these lawyers persist in promoting rule of law despite the obstacles and risks they face, their courage and hope should inspire concerned governments to act urgently on UN experts’ recommendations to end Beijing’s persecution of lawyers before the tenth anniversary,” Renee Xia said.


Renee Xia, Director (Mandarin, English), +1 863 866 1012, reneexia[at], @reneexiachrd