A Chinese law firm linked to the defense of one of 12 pro-democracy activists who allegedly attempted to flee Hong Kong for Taiwan has been ordered to disband, a development that reflects tightening constraints on rights lawyers in China.
Human rights lawyer Ren Quanniu, who represented one of the so-called Hong Kong 12, confirmed to VOA Mandarin that authorities told him to close the Henan Guidao Law Firm, located in China's Henan province, of which he was a partner.
The activists took to sea in August after Beijing enacted a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong in June. Beijing Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted, "Seriously?! Fact check: The 12 people were arrested for illegally crossing the border in waters. They are not democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate #HongKong from China."
Seriously?! Fact check: The 12 people were arrested for illegally crossing the border in waters. They are not democratic activists, but elements attempting to separate #HongKong from China. pic.twitter.com/bnoCVdjpgE— Hua Chunying 华春莹 (@SpokespersonCHN) September 13, 2020
"The vice chairman from the Zhengzhou Lawyer Association told us that we have to disband, and all associates will have to move to other law firms," Ren said of the order on Sunday. "If these lawyers fail to obtain offers from other law firms within the statutory time limit, their license will be revoked."
Ren was retained by the family of one of the Hong Kong 12, who were detained at sea on August 23 by the Chinese coast guard. They were subsequently taken into custody in China. In December 2020, 10 of the 12 were sentenced to jail by a Chinese court for crossing the border between Hong Kong and China illegally. The two detainees who were under 18 years old were sent back to Hong Kong.
Ren said he had been trying to represent his client but was denied access by authorities. One of the differences between the Hong Kong and Chinese legal systems has been that people in Hong Kong choose their lawyer, but in China, lawyers are assigned to clients, particularly in politically sensitive cases.
In February, the Henan Provincial Justice Department revoked Ren's law license. Authorities told him that comments he made in court in 2018 defending Falun Gong practitioners had a "negative impact on society."
Ren said that representing the members of the Hong Kong 12 was the real trigger that stripped him of the right to practice. Chinese law requires a law firm to have three partners. After Ren lost his license, his law firm sought permission to hire a new partner.
"We have submitted all the necessary documents, but the local judicial bureau refused to process our application," Ren told VOA. "They are forcing us to dissolve."
Lawyer unable to leave
Meanwhile, authorities have banned a lawyer who had worked with Ren on defending the Hong Kong 12 from leaving China.
Human rights lawyer Lu Siwei intended to travel from the southwest province of Sichuan to Beijing last Sunday to obtain a visa to the United States. Authorities warned him not to go to the U.S. Embassy and said they would not allow him to leave China.
Lu's license was revoked in January for intending to represent one of the 12 Hong Kong activists. He told Radio Free Asia that "at the very least, the Hong Kong case was a very important factor" for his travel ban.
Chen Jiangang, a U.S.-based Chinese human rights lawyer, told VOA that the restrictions placed on the two lawyers reflect the limitations Beijing is placing on rights lawyers who practice in China.
Chen fled China in 2019 after being warned he would "disappear" if he continued to represent the daughter-in-law of former Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang, who has been serving a life sentence since his conviction in 2015 for bribery, abuse of power and "deliberately disclosing national secrets," according to China Daily.
"Lu doesn't even have freedom of movement," Chen said, "For human rights lawyers in China, they are not only being deprived of working opportunities, but they face real danger just by defending their clients. I know multiple lawyers currently in jail just for doing their job."
History of repression
A U.N. human rights expert in December 2020 expressed dismay at the treatment of human rights defenders and lawyers in China, saying they continue to be charged, detained, disappeared and tortured five years after the start of a crackdown on the profession under the guise of national security concerns.
"Since the so-called '709 crackdown' began on July 9, 2015, the profession of human rights lawyer has been effectively criminalized in China," said Mary Lawlor, U.N. special rapporteur.
According to Human Rights in China, Beijing has been using a combination of bureaucratic and procedural roadblocks and illegal tactics to deprive lawyers of their right to practice their profession.
These tactics include pressuring law firms to dismiss or warn lawyers who handle "sensitive" cases to drop the representation; publicly smearing the lawyers, their firms, their colleagues, and their families; and threatening lawyers' family members.