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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The perilous lives of lawyers in China

July 28, 2009

As elsewhere they trade in justice. Guess who takes offense

(As published in Toronto Star) July 26, 2009

One of the more hopeful flickering signs of democracy in China in the
past few years has been the growth of public-interest lawyers willing to
challenge in court examples of abuse and corruption by the state or
local governments. Now, the empire is striking back.

On July 17 government officials descended on one of the best-known legal
research groups and took away almost everything it owned ? files, desks,
computers, even the water cooler. To make matters worse, the tax
authorities slapped on the group a colossal bill, ordering it to pay
1.42 million yuan, or about $207,900 (U.S.).

The organization, the Open Constitution Initiative, is so well-known
among Chinese nongovernmental organizations and so prominent in civil
rights cases that the government seems wary of confronting it directly.
Instead, taking a page out of the Russian book, officials are making its
life impossible.

In China very few NGOs are allowed to register as such. The only way
they can operate legally is as businesses. The OCI's name in Chinese
translates as the Public Alliance Information Consultancy Company (it is
often referred to by its abbreviation, Gongmeng). It has to pay business
taxes. Hence the tax bill, which the group says it has paid. The
authorities have also declared a research group within the organization
illegal because, they say, it is unregistered.

The group's leader, Xu Zhiyong, is bracing himself for possible arrest.
Last Tuesday, the owners of his office and residence called him to say
they wanted him out. Guo Yushan, the leader of another, less well-known
NGO, a free-market research group called the Transition Institute, says
he too has recently been accused of tax irregularities. A prominent
HIV/AIDS NGO, the Aizhixing Institute, was subjected to a tax
investigation last year. Last week, the government disbarred 53 lawyers,
including one associated with OCI.

Xu seems to have made some powerful enemies. Since it was set up in
2003, OCI, with half a dozen staff and numerous volunteers, has
specialized in giving legal advice to victims of official injustice.
After thousands of children were sickened by melamine-contaminated milk
last year, OCI helped their parents press for compensation, upstaging a
government-backed compensation scheme that offered lower amounts. In
May, OCI probably irritated the government further by issuing a report
on the causes of last year's unrest in Tibet. The government blamed the
trouble entirely on an alleged plot by Tibetans in exile led by the
Dalai Lama. The OCI study said that while the Dalai Lama was a factor,
there were "internal causes," such as the economic marginalization of
Tibetans and interference in Tibetan Buddhism by government officials.

This year is proving to be a difficult one for dissenters in China
because of the government's anxiety about politically sensitive
anniversaries (last year, preparations for the Olympic Games made the
government twitchy). Security will be stepped up in the coming weeks, in
advance of the 60th anniversary of the founding of communist China on
Oct. 1. China's independent lawyers have long risked beatings and
intimidation by local officials. Life for them seems to be getting even
harder.

The Economist
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