Starting last Thursday, July 9th, authorities in China launched a massive crackdown on rights lawyers and activists across the country. Over a hundred were arrested or detained in what is considered the largest single public crackdown in recent years. This is the latest in what some are seeing as an increasing campaign against civil society mounted by the government under President Xi Jinping. While China’s state media proclaims that those detained have been accused of subversive acts against the state, others in China, international human rights groups, and international media are taking a harsh tone against Beijing calling the crackdown a massive human rights violation and setback for the country.

China's Heavy Handed Crackdown On Human Rights Lawyers

The Crackdown

Over the past several days, 159 lawyers, staffers, and campaigners have been detained or brought in for questioning from all over China ranging from Beijing, to Shanghai, to Guangzhou. In the early hours of Thursday July 9th, Chinese security officials began the crackdown when they surrounded the home of lawyer Wang Yu and detained her. Wang is perhaps the most prominent female human rights lawyer in China and is part of the Beijing based Fengrui Law Firm which has in the past taken on politically sensitive cases such as last year when they defended a noted Uighur academic who faced separatism charges.

Last month Wang was accused by China’s state media of “blabbering about the rule of law and human rights” and shortly after when speaking to a reporter from Reuters, said that she believed she would be eventually arrested. On Friday the 10th in response to her detainment, over 100 Chinese lawyers issued a joint statement protesting Wang’s arrest which resulted in many of them also being detained.

That outpour of support for Wang from the legal community in China is believed to be the catalyst for the resulting crackdown. Shortly after Wang was detained, the director of Fengrui, Zhou Shifeng was brought in as well as others from the firm while authorities combed over the offices. Lawyers from  Fengrui have been linked by Chinese authorities to protests that resulted in May following the murder of an unarmed man by a police officer in northeastern China.

As reported this weekend in the state-run People’s Daily, the Ministry of Public Security in China has labeled the Fengrui Law Firm as a “major criminal organization.” Lawyers arrested at the firm have been accused by the Ministry of Public Security of disrupting public order, seeking illicit profits, illegally hiring protesters, and trying to unfairly influence courts.

The crackdown was not limited to Fengrui and over the weekend Chinese authorities swiftly moved to detain others elsewhere. Arrests were made ranging from “subversion of state power,” in the case of Guangzhou lawyer Sui Muqing to detainment of other prominent lawyers such as Li Heping, a prominent defender of dissidents and rights campaigners. The majority of those taken in were for questioning and in a statement from the Ministry of Public Security, it was noted that suspects included social media celebrities and petitioners but that lawyers constituted the majority.

The China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based group that monitors and promotes the rule of law on the mainland has provided a comprehensive list of those detained and the charges applied to them. According to the group 24 remain in custody as of late Tuesday evening. Some of those who have been released like veteran human rights activist Feng Zhenghu, have been warned by the government “..not to poke our nose into this business, to ignore the missing lawyers.,” and to limit their public commenting on the matter.

Responses

The pro-Beijing Global Times argued that the arrests at Fengrui Law Firm were against a “criminal gang involving several rights lawyers is a step toward realizing China’s social stability”. Meanwhile the official Xinhua News Agency said lawyers should “not undermine the law by rabble-rousing in the streets.” Chinese state media has been working overtime to paint those detained over the past several days as essentially enemies of the state.

In the U.S., opponents of this crackdown have launched a petition calling on President Obama to cancel the planned trip by Xi to the U.S. this coming September. The petition states “Since Xi Jinping came to power, China’s human rights record has kept worsening…Xi’s state visit to the US scheduled for September this year should be cancelled, and all official exchanges with the Chinese government should be suspended until this matter is resolved.” The petition has failed to generate much interest in the U.S. though the Obama administration is aware of the events taking place in China.

John Kirby, a spokesman for the State Department said that Washington “noted with growing alarm reports that Chinese public security forces have systematically detained individuals who share the common attribute of peacefully defending the rights of others, including those who lawfully challenge official policies.” Just last month the State Department released a report highly critical of Beijing for human rights abuses. The Chinese government in the report is portrayed as ruthlessly repressive politically and overly controlling over public discourse among other things. So far President Obama has yet to comment on the most recent incident.

China Under Xi Jinping

While China has engaged in numerous crackdowns over the years, this most recent is surprising to some due to how public it is. Since taking office in late 2012, Xi has taken a hard stance on dissidents and activists. While Xi has touted his support for the rule of law in China, critics of his contend that the rule of law only extends to those who are not opposed to the government. While the 1990s and 2000s saw legal reforms brought to China, Xi it is said seeks to expand them while containing threats that emanated from them as well; in this case the influence of rights lawyers. It is true though that Xi has cracked down on corruption in the government but opponents of the government and Communist Party are being targeted as well.

Recently, China unveiled a sweeping and controversial National Security Law. One of the new provisions allows the government to cut off the internet; China already exercises extreme censorship of the internet particularly with several social media sites. Under the new law, no concessions are made to human rights, or the rule of law while the definition of potential threats to the country has been expanded. This allows the Chinese government if it so chooses to label dissident groups as a threat to the state while the U.S. State Department fears that the broad scope of the new law will allow the Beijing to commit human rights abuses protected by the veil of national security.

Going Forward

No one can be certain what the government in China will do next. While there has been international condemnation over the crackdown the past few days, overall it has not received substantial coverage in the U.S. news media. This is troubling due to the breadth of the crackdown and who it was carried out against. China might feel compelled in the immediate future to carry out another such crackdown as so far the global political repercussions have been limited to statements. On the other hand, Xi might not want to push his luck with his upcoming trip to the U.S. in September. World opinion over the South China Sea dispute has turned against China and Beijing does not need another issue to galvanize worldwide support against it. Whatever the case will be, the actions by the government this past weekend are alarming and should be cause for concern.