On the one-year anniversary of the Chinese government’s widespread crackdown of the country’s civil rights attorneys, the American Bar Association (ABA) finally made good. After its tepid response last summer to the Chinese government’s detention of over 300 lawyers and advocates, on Friday, the ABA boldly awarded its inaugural International Human Rights Award to Chinese civil rights attorney Wang Yu (pronounced Wong U).
But Wang Yu won’t be in San Francisco on August 6 to accept her award. For Wang Yu and 23 other advocates are still being held by the Chinese government, many charged with the very serious crime of subverting state power, which can carry a life sentence. All because of their representation of some of society’s most vulnerable: the poor, religious minorities, child sex victims, intellectuals that the state has deemed an enemy such as Ilham Tohti. In other countries, this type of representation would be celebrated. But in China, it is seen as a threat to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rule. Ironically, the rights these advocates fought for on behalf of their clients – the right to meet with their attorney (only 6 of the 24 have had access to an attorney), the right to a fair trial, the right to a speedy trial in accordance with Chinese law – are being denied to them as they are isolated in prison.
Arrests and persecution of China’s civil rights lawyers have been ongoing since Xi Jinping ascended to power in 2012. But what makes the July 9 Crackdown unprecedented is its scope and its public nature. Prior arrests and prosecutions, such as that of Xu Zhiyong, have not received the public attention and the vilification that the July 9 Crackdown has received. Soon after the mass round-up of advocates, the state-run Legal Daily ran an infographic calling these lawyers a “criminal syndicate” and heavily suggesting that these lawyers are mere conduits of foreign money and ideas as opposed to their motivation coming from their own intrinsic sense of justice. (Translation of the infographic courtesy of China Law Translate)
But what the Chinese government doesn’t get with its July 9 Crackdown is that it is its own lack of transparency, unbridled corruption and squelching of citizens’ rights that ensures that this movement will continue. Chinese civil rights advocates might be weakened but they are far from dead; to think otherwise does not give these advocates the credit they are due. As long as the CCP continues on its course of one-party rule with little space for public disagreement, their rise is inevitable. Wang Yu became a civil rights lawyer after the police mistreated her in a railway station and then bizarrely charged her with “intentional assault.” Cao Shunli (pronounced Tsao Shun-lee) was just a civil servant until she was fired from her job for alerting her supervisors to the corruption of the local housing lottery. After that, she became a rights activists only to die in police captivity in 2014. Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Gee Tea-an) was a prosecutor for seven years before he could no longer stand the daily injustice and corruption endemic in the system. He then took the test to become a criminal defense lawyer to represent those whose rights were being trampled by the state.
For sure the ABA’s awarding of its International Human Rights prize falls on the CCP’s increasingly deaf ears. But that doesn’t mean we should remain silent as the CCP dismantles a rule of law society. For Wang Yu, and the advocates imprisoned with her, the ABA’s award is important recognition of their work, recognition that their own government refuses to bestow even as it adopts a few of the changes they have called for to make China a more just society.