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China's Lawyers Face a Crackdown

June 1, 2009

The message is don't bring inconvenient cases.
The Wall Street Journal
May 29, 2009

Beijing -- 'Without this stamp, I can't practice
law," Jiang Tianyong says as he pulls a leathery
booklet out of his shirt pocket. He points to a
dog-eared page near the back of the book: A red
imprint there grants him permission to practice
law in China until May 31. The following page,
where his renewal stamp should be, is blank. In a few days he'll be disbarred.

Mr. Jiang is one of at least a dozen prominent
human-rights lawyers across China on the verge of
disbarment in what appears to be a clampdown on
their practice. Chinese lawyers must renew their
credentials every year in May at their local
judicial bureau or lawyers association through a
perfunctory process known as the "annual exam."
There is no actual test involved -- the
association or bureau simply summons lawyers to
its offices, confirms they have paid their dues and gives them a stamp.

But it doesn't always work this way. Mr. Jiang's
story is a case in point: A former school teacher
from Henan province, last year he led a group of
lawyers who volunteered to represent Tibetans
after the March 14 riots. That April, the
Judicial Bureau sent his firm a warning letter;
then the head of his firm asked him to stop
taking sensitive cases and giving interviews to
foreign media. He acceded to neither request and
the Judicial Bureau refused to renew his license
until the end of June, leaving him unable to
practice for a month. This year he has continued
to handle high-profile cases involving Tibetan
monks, one of whom was released a few weeks ago
as a result of work by Mr. Jiang and his partner.
He doesn't expect his license to be renewed before it expires Sunday.

Last year Mr. Jiang was one of at least three
rights lawyers known to have temporarily lost
their licenses in this way, but this year there
may be many more. I spoke by telephone or in
person to 16 human-rights lawyers who have yet to
renew their licenses. Some may receive their
licenses before the May 31 deadline or shortly
afterwards. But none of them will miss the official warning signal.

"Other lawyers and law firms have all been
approved," says lawyer Li Fangping, who recently
handled a Tibetan case with Mr. Jiang. "It is
only firms and lawyers who take human-rights
cases who will have to stop [practicing]."

When asked about this trend, an official at the
Beijing Judicial Bureau pointed out that the
deadline for license renewal is still some days
away. "All lawyers are treated equally," said
Dong Chunjiang, a deputy director at the Judicial
Bureau. He disputed the premise that some lawyers
were "rights lawyers," saying: "Our 19,000
lawyers are all protecting people's rights."

Some lawyers disagree that the government is
treating them equally. They believe the license
delay is linked to the sensitivity of the
anniversaries of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown
and the founding of the People's Republic, as
well as a general tightening of control. "The
Ministry of Justice uses the 'annual exam' to
limit and restrict lawyers' professional rights,"
says Xie Yanyi, who handles cases for people with
AIDS and represents farmers in land-rights cases.

The last few months have also seen an uptick in
physical violence and detentions of these
lawyers. In April, two were badly beaten by thugs
in separate incidents. Earlier this month,
lawyers Zhang Kai and Li Chunfu were beaten up
and detained while investigating a case in Chongqing.

For lawyers who lose their licenses, there is
little recourse. Although technically they are
allowed to sue the Ministry of Justice for
reinstatement, there have been no successful cases of this nature in the past.

The lawyers who face suspension as of Sunday have
handled a variety of cases, from representing
parents whose children died in flimsy school
buildings during the Sichuan earthquake to
helping victims of the toxic milk-powder scandal
sue for compensation. What these cases have in
common is that they show what a powerful ally the
law can be for China's underdogs.

While those cases may have sealed their fates as
far as license renewal is concerned, many
human-rights lawyers in China say they are
working toward the same goals advocated by their
political leaders. "People like us want to use
our professional knowledge to help society
develop a legally based system," says Mr. Jiang.
"Also, I personally want to live in a society that is ruled by the law."

Ms. Hook is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.
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