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The Law On Trial In China

Posted by on 2009/07/27. Filed under Opinions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

By Teng Biao
Jul 27, 2009 – 3:24:01 PM

BEIJING — On July 17, agents of Beijing’s Civil Affairs Bureau raided

and closed the office of the Open Constitution Initiative, a local
nongovernmental organization. This center had been the primary meeting
place for China’s nascent movement of “rights lawyers,” in which I have
been an active participant. There are not too many of us. China has
140,000 lawyers but only a few dozen lawyers who focus on citizens’ rights.

Our work is frustrating and sometimes hazardous, but we have had
considerable success in protecting the rights of individuals and in
highlighting cases that have raised awareness of the law among people
all across China. This happened last year when we defended families of
victims of the toxic baby formula produced by Sanlu Milk Co. It happened
again this year when we defended Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed an
official as he was attempting to rape her, and again when we opposed the
Chinese government’s attempt to require “Green Dam” Internet censorship
software on every computer sold in China. We have also defended Liu
Xiaobo, the writer who faces prison for signing Charter 08, a manifesto
that calls for democracy and human rights.

We can do these things not because China’s rulers are becoming more
tolerant (they are not) but because, for several reasons, they find that
they need a legal system in order to rule. A few decades ago problems
such as property disputes, domestic violence and even murders were
handled by Communist Party functionaries inside communes or “work
units.” But now, because communes and most work units are things of the
past, the role of lawyers and courts has to expand. Modern business also
needs law. And, perhaps most important for us who do “rights law,” the
government needs, for reasons of prestige at home and abroad, to pretend
that it strictly observes the law. Officials still violate the law,
especially in political cases, and get away with it. But they always
have to pretend that what they do is “according to law,” because their
claim to legitimacy depends on it.

This divergence between practice and pretense is what gives space to
rights lawyers. When we insist on the rule of law and are public about
it (because of the Internet, millions of people might be watching), we
can at least embarrass government officials for their illegal actions
and hypocrisy, and embarrassment sometimes stays their hands. But they
do not like this, and sometimes we pay a price.

Nearly all of us, in the past few years, have experienced threats. We
have also lost books, bank accounts and computers during raids on our
homes. I am among those who have been forcibly ejected from courtrooms;
others have been blindfolded, abducted or beaten while trying to visit
clients. In 2007 my colleague Li Heping was beaten by thugs who used
bottles and electric batons and told him to “get out of Beijing or we
will beat you whenever we see you.” Our colleague Gao Zhisheng, who has
defended Falun Gong practitioners, has been imprisoned and tortured.
More than five months ago, he “disappeared.” Neither his colleagues nor
his family know where he is being held.

What most impedes our work, though, is the revocation of our licenses to
practice law. China’s cities and provinces have “lawyers’ associations”
that appear to be modeled after the bar associations of Western
countries, and these groups decide annually who is qualified to practice
law. This is a good example of where pretense and reality diverge in
China’s legal world. The lawyers’ associations are, in fact, puppets of
the government whenever a political question arises. Last year my
license to practice law was revoked. The China University of Politics
and Law, where I teach, assisted in the revocation. Recently the results
of the 2009 “review” of qualifications were announced, and about a dozen
more rights lawyers had their licenses taken away.

Still, somehow, rights lawyers as a group have not lost their spirit.
The letter of the law remains on our side. Moreover, the growing
appetite of the Chinese people for the idea of “rights” is easily
apparent on the Internet as well as through the many demonstrations,
large and small, that happen almost every day in one part of China or
another. We feel that history is on our side, and we put our faith in
the proverb that says, “The darkest hour is right before the dawn.”

The writer, a former lawyer, is a lecturer at the Chinese University of
Politics and Law. He lives in Beijing.

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