On the night of 9th July, Wang Yu, a Fengrui lawyer, frantically sent her friends a text message saying that the internet connection and electricity had been cut off at her home and that people were trying to break in. Her disappearance early next morning signalled the beginning of a nationwide crackdown in the latest example of China’s human rights violations. Ms. Wang’s clients include practitioners of the religious group Falun Gong, who have been systematically persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party since July 1999, when the CCP launched an initiative to eradicate the practice.
Ms. Wang, whose whereabouts remain unknown, gained notoriety for becoming the first female Chinese human rights lawyer and defending Uighur economist Ilham Tothi, who is now serving a life sentence on separatism charges, and high-profile rights activist Cao Shunli, who died in police custody. Since Ms. Wang’s arrest over 100 human rights lawyers and activists have been detained or questioned. According to the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, many of those detained had signed a public letter calling for Ms. Wang’s release. Ms. Wang worked for Beijing Fengrui Law Firm which has subsequently been labelled as a “criminal platform” by state-backed media. Four lawyers from the firm, as well as an assistant and a lawyer’s husband, have been "criminally detained" for "seriously violating the law", the article said without specifying any charges.
Feng Zhenghu, a veteran human rights activist based in Shanghai, was one of those questioned by the authorities. He told CNN “the government asked us not to poke our nose into this business, to ignore the missing lawyers”. Feng also hinted at the cause of the crackdown stating the authorities “wanted us to know that they don’t want us to post or repost anything on this matter on the Internet”, showing the Chinese authorities’ fear of public mobilisation and damage to public opinion. With social protests and strikes on the rise and uncertain economic waters ahead, this crackdown sets a worrying precedent.
Furthermore, China unveiled a new “National Security Law” earlier this year which was widely viewed as giving authorities sweeping new powers to suppress human rights by defining ‘national security’ in broad and vague terms. The U.S. State Department released a statement on Monday expressing deep concern over the detentions and pointing out that the new law’s being used as “a legal façade to commit human rights abuses”. It’s nothing new for the U.S and China to trade human rights allegations, such as the lengthy report announced last month by the official Xinhua news agency drawing attention to “grim problems of racial discrimination” and the use of “cruel tortures indiscriminately” within the United States. Nevertheless, in this instance criticism has been widespread with Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both condemning China’s actions.
According to the Ministry of Public Security, the official charge against the lawyers is “disrupting public order and seeking profits by illegally hiring protesters and swaying court decisions in the name of defending justice and public interests”. There are two clear problems with this. Firstly, and most obviously, the widespread outrage and protest is not hired but very real and simply goes to show that the increasingly desperate security measures being enacted are in fact having the inverse effect and stoking public anger. Secondly, it seems likely that these arrests were made to deter foreign “meddling” in China’s internal affairs. Guancha.cn, a state-backed Shanghai-based news site, cited links between the firm and U.S. Representative Chris Smith, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees global human rights. Smith issued a statement confirming that he had indeed met with some of the lawyers. Thus, the aim of China’s crackdown is twofold, to suppress protest within the country and to deter foreign governments and NGOs from attempting to gather information on human rights transgressions. Just as the internal suppression is in fact fuelling the fire, the international community must not let China’s actions deter them from probing deeper into the ramifications of this “New Law”.