Without this stamp, I can’t practise law,” Jiang Tianyong says as he pulls a leathery booklet out of his shirt pocket. He points to a dog-eared page near the back of the book: A red imprint there grants him permission to practise law in China until 31 May. The following page, where his renewal stamp should be, is blank. In a few days, he’ll be disbarred.
Jiang is one of at least a dozen prominent human rights lawyers across China on the verge of disbarment, in what appears to be a clampdown on their practice. Chinese lawyers must renew their credentials every year in May at their local judicial bureau or lawyers’ association through a perfunctory process known as the “annual exam”, otherwise they cannot practise.
Jiang’s story is a case in point: A former schoolteacher from the Henan province, last year he led a group of lawyers who volunteered to represent Tibetans after the 14 March riots. That April, the judicial bureau sent his firm a warning letter; then, the head of his firm asked him to stop taking sensitive cases and giving interviews to foreign media.
He acceded to neither request, and the judicial bureau refused to renew his licence until the end of June, leaving him unable to practise for a month. This year, he has continued to handle high-profile cases involving Tibetan monks, one of whom was released a few weeks ago as a result of work by Jiang and his partner. He doesn’t expect his licence to be renewed before it expires on Sunday.
Last year, Jiang was one of at least three rights lawyers known to have temporarily lost their licences in this way, but this year there may be many more.
I spoke by telephone or in person to 16 human rights lawyers who have yet to renew their licences. Some of these lawyers may receive their licences before the 31 May deadline or shortly afterwards.
But none of them will miss the official warning signal. “Other lawyers and law firms have all been approved,” says lawyer Li Fangping, who recently handled a Tibetan case with Jiang. “It is only firms and lawyers who take human rights cases who will have to stop (practising).”
Lawyers believe the delay is linked to the sensitivities of the anniversaries of the 4 June Tiananmen crackdown and the founding of the People’s Republic, as well as a general tightening of control. “The ministry of justice uses an ‘annual exam’ to limit and restrict lawyers’ professional rights,” says Xie Yanyi, who handles cases for people with AIDS and represents farmers in land rights cases.
The last few months have also seen an increase in physical violence and detentions of these lawyers. In April, two were badly beaten by thugs in separate incidents. Earlier this month, lawyers Zhang Kai and Li Chunfu were beaten up and detained while investigating a case in Chongqing.
For lawyers who lose their licences, there is little recourse. Although technically they are allowed to sue the ministry of justice for reinstatement, there have been no successful cases of this nature in the past, according to several legal scholars.
The lawyers who face suspension as of Sunday have handled a variety of cases, from representing parents whose children died in flimsy school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake, to helping victims of the toxic milk powder scandal sue for compensation. What these cases have in common is that they show what a powerful ally the law can be for China’s underdogs.
“People like us want to use our professional knowledge to help society develop a legally based system,” says Jiang. “Also, I personally want to live in a society that is ruled by the law.”
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. Leslie Hook is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org