TAIPEI, Taiwan — When the Chinese lawyer Ren Quanniu sought in September to pay a jailhouse visit to his client, a Hong Kong protester who was arrested while fleeing the city, Ren was told the letter from the defendant’s family appointing him didn’t bear the right stamp.
The second time he visited, Ren said, the jail rebuffed him with another reason: his client had other legal representation.
This week, authorities were more blunt. Ren was stripped of his practicing license on Tuesday, after another Chinese lawyer who sought to represent the detained Hong Kongers, Lu Siwei, was similarly disbarred.
“The justice bureau and state security officials all demanded that I withdraw from the case, saying the order came from high up,” Ren said from Henan province, where he is contemplating life outside the courtroom. “Perhaps if I had listened to them early on, I wouldn’t be disbarred,” he added, vowing to find some other way to continue his advocacy work.
Criminal defense lawyers in China have always faced an uphill struggle in a country where prosecutors win nearly 99 percent of cases. The Supreme People’s Court’s chief justice, Zhou Qiang, has dismissed the concept of an independent judiciary as a “mistaken Western concept” that does not belong in China, and acquittals in politically sensitive cases are unheard of.
But the ordeals facing the lawyers who sought to represent the “Hong Kong Twelve,” who were arrested by mainland Chinese authorities in August while fleeing Hong Kong by speedboat, were designed to send a message and pointed to the very heart of Hong Kong protesters’ fears about Beijing. The protest movement was sparked in 2019 by a proposed extradition bill that critics warned would send Hong Kongers into a Chinese system with flimsy criminal procedures and politically influenced hearings.
Police and security officials stand in front of the Henan provincial Justice Department’s office on the day of a hearing for Chinese lawyer Ren Quanniu in Zhengzhou, central China. Ren was stripped of his license.
Denied access to their family-appointed lawyers, the Hong Kong Twelve’s cases proceeded with government lawyers and ended in December after they reportedly pleaded guilty to illegally crossing the Hong Kong border. Sentences for 10 defendants ranged between seven months and three years while two who were underage were returned to Hong Kong authorities. Some also reportedly face charges in Hong Kong, including attempted arson and fighting with police.
In Ren’s disqualification letter, judicial authorities did not refer to his involvement in the Hong Kong case or his recent representation of Zhang Zhan, a citizen journalist who was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for live-streaming from Wuhan during the coronavirus outbreak. Ren’s offense, according to the letter, was his conduct during the 2018 trial of a Falun Gong practitioner, in which Ren repeatedly refused to refer to his defendant’s spiritual movement as a “cult,” as is required in China.
Lu was disbarred last month in Sichuan province for posting “unsuitable language online.”
In a statement Wednesday, the Hong Kong families thanked Ren and Lu for their attempts to help and said the disbarment was clearly retribution for their involvement in the case.
The decision “was meant to threaten Chinese lawyers from intervening in any cases related to Hong Kong,” the families said. “If Chinese authorities send Hong Kong people to China again in the future, it will be difficult for Hong Kong people to gain independent legal representation.”
A pro-democracy activist holds up a placard as police stand guard outside the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong on Feb. 1 during a bail hearing for detained media tycoon Jimmy Lai.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Ned Price expressed “concern” about Ren and Lu and urged Beijing to “respect human rights and the rule of law and to reinstate their legal credentials at once.”
Teng Biao, an activist and lawyer whose license was revoked in 2008 after he sought to defend Tibetan protesters, said disbarment was not a new form of punishment for nettlesome lawyers who belonged to China’s “rights defense” movement and challenged the government. But it has been wielded far more frequently since the 2015 crackdown on the movement, which included detentions of scores of lawyers.
“It’s an order of magnitude worse in the Xi Jinping era,” Teng said from New Jersey, where he now lives. “Today there are very few lawyers willing to take on risky cases. Even the few that still do are considered too close to the government.”
Just last month, pessimism in China’s legal circles deepened after the suspension of a Beijing lawyer, Zhou Ze, who posted videos on social media showing police using torture to extract confessions from witnesses and a client he represented. By publicizing the video, a Beijing court declared, Zhou had violated the lawyers’ code of conduct and sought to unfairly influence an ongoing case.
Wu Danhong, a professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing and a blogger with a following among lawyers, wrote a sardonic piece this week suggesting that China might as well eliminate the entire profession after he saw so many criminal defense lawyers disbarred.
It would mean “no more annoying lawyers to add chaos or allowing criminals to escape punishment,” Wu wrote. “The rare non-guilty verdict or verdicts overturned on appeal would be the result of our judicial organs wisely discovering problems with police investigations and taking the initiative to correct them.”
Lionizing figures like Clarence Darrow, the iconic American lawyer, would be “extremely dangerous” in China, Wu wrote bitterly, for “we adhere to criminal procedure with Chinese characteristics.”
Reached by telephone on Wednesday, Wu declined to comment.
“I’m afraid they’ll punish me for the article,” Wu said. “They’ve already shut down my social media account, I hope you understand.”