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Guest Post: If lawyers in China have no human rights, is there a rule of law?

The online news and social platforms are overwhelmed with news of mainland Chinese lawyers facing persecution and hardship in and out of the courthouse. In fact, many of their rights to practise and to represent clients are threatened in today’s China.
Unlike their international counterparts, Chinese lawyers are obliged by the Bureau of Justice to have their licence reviewed and renewed annually, usually in April and May, by the Lawyers Association in their localities. This is commonly known as the “Annual Registration”, “Annual Assessment” or “Annual Licence Review” system” (年檢).
Instead of being a way to maintain professional standards, the system has become notorious for being used to suppress lawyers who take up “sensitive cases”, such as religious and speech freedom cases. According to the Lawyers’ Law, lawyers without a licence cannot practise. Most notably was Mr. Gao Zhisheng, a rights lawyer suspended for a year in 2005 during which he was followed and put under surveillance.
The review system is manipulated in different ways. For some, review may take an exceptionally long time. What normally takes days can be extended to months or even a year, during which, lawyers cannot practise, or else lawyers at stake may have their licences revoked abruptly. The lawyers’ representations have to be halted or called off during the review, prejudicing their clients’ positions as a result. This cripples a fair justice system which is founded on the right of access to legal representation.
On top of the “Annual Assessment”, law firms could be pressurized by the authorities to unlawfully terminate employment contracts with rights lawyers. Mr. Fan Biaowen, for instance, lost his position in his firm as a result of conducting “sensitive cases”, and the new law firms he has applied to are barred from accepting him. According to the 6 months’ requirement stated in the Lawyers Law, Fan’s licence is bound to be withdrawn soon. While the same law says licences can be re-applied for, no lawyer debarred in this way has ever managed to recover his or her licence. At the time of writing, Fan has only about 30 days left until when he would be deprived of his right to practise. There can be no fair trial and justice while such illegitimate pressure on frontier freedom fighters exists.
The number of lawyers who were disbarred and interfered from normal practice tripled in 2014. Harassing and threatening lawyers have become convenient means for the Chinese authorities to interfere into the judicial process. In the last decade, about 20 lawyers who represented human rights cases have been prohibited from practising, undocumented cases could be more.
The implication is far-reaching. The suppression of lawyers means that the rights of citizens are concurrently sabotaged. Citizens involved in those “sensitive cases”, such as forced eviction and petition, will not be able to find lawyers to represent them in court. Even if they could, their lawyers may not be able to function properly. This is a portentous matter that demands immediate attention. The world must not remain silent.