China’s Attacks on Lawyers and Civil Society

By Anita Dhanvanthari

This Friday the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will select the host city for the XXIV Olympic Winter Games in 2022. The remaining contestants are Almaty, Kazakhstan and Beijing, China.

Although China has never hosted the Winter Olympics, Beijing played host to the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, and as Human Rights First previously noted, “China received harsh criticism on its human rights record during the 2008 Olympics.” The government evicted hundreds of thousands of citizens, imprisoned dissidents, and silenced many journalists in the run-up to the games.

Many advocates are opposing Beijing’s bid, but if the IOC elects China to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, China should not repeat its actions from 2008. Unfortunately, China is already cracking down.

Earlier this month, police detained more than 200 human rights lawyers, activists, and their family members, and some are still in custody. The government has denied them access to their own attorneys. The New York Times reported that lawyers call this “the most withering political assault on their profession in decades.”

This comes only a few months before President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Washington in September. The State Department has condemned the crackdown, as have international law organizations.

Li Fangping, a prominent human rights lawyer, was interrogated for several hours before being released. Many of the detained lawyers are associated with the Fengrui Law Firm, noted for representing politically sensitive clients. Wang Yu, a lawyer at the Fengrui Law Firm, was one of the first detained and is still being held at an undisclosed location.

The recent crackdown is part of a wider push by the Chinese government to silence civil society. Pending legislation regulating foreign NGOs and nonprofits would drastically change the landscape of Chinese civil society. The proposed law, expected to be enacted later this year, would restrict civil society when the Chinese government should be moving to protect it.

The draft law regulates every aspect of foreign nonprofits. It requires them to seek police approval for all activities and to find a government sponsor. Such regulations could encourage NGOs to move to a different country, because it would be too troublesome to continue operating in China.

Earlier this month, the New York City Bar Association, in a letter to the presidents of the Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou Bar Associations, objected to the the law, writing that it “will unduly discourage many foreign NGOs from engaging in a variety of beneficial exchanges with China” and “would unquestionably harm a wide spectrum of China’s cultural and economic interests, and seriously damage the fabric of international commerce, as well as scientific and cultural exchange.”

There are approximately 6,000 foreign NGOs in China working on legal, societal, medical, and environmental issues. This law would hit their work hard. China needs to promote a flourishing civil society, not close the space for it, if it is to achieve genuine stability.

Releasing the lawyers should be the first step.

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Published on July 29, 2015

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