It's open season on lawyers in China today. To be sure, not on most of the almost 200,000 who foster economic development and international business, but on those unwise enough to become involved in human rights, criminal justice, and controversial public-interest cases. For them, law has become an increasingly hazardous profession. They risk informal warnings, 24/7 monitoring, interference with client and law firm relations, loss of their right to practice, hooded abductions, beatings, torture, "thought reform," coerced "confessions" and "guarantees," criminal prosecution, imprisonment, and incommunicado incarceration at home both before and after imprisonment.
Gao Zhisheng, once praised by the government as one of China's outstanding lawyers, suffered all of the above and more, including an alleged assassination attempt, after he began handling sensitive cases. Incredibly, he remained unbowed even after emerging in March 2010 from a mysterious yearlong extrajudicial detention. So, a few weeks later, the authorities "disappeared" him for the second time. Nothing has been heard from him since.
The families of Chinese lawyers often suffer along with them. Spouses are harassed and restricted in their movements; children are humiliated and denied educational opportunities. To end their nightmare, Gao's wife and children secretly fled to the United States. More sinister threats against families seem to have recently silenced some formerly outspoken rights defenders. Although no statistics are available and many incidents go unreported, the current campaign has directly interfered with at least several hundred lawyers, and thousands of their colleagues have felt the fear and been inhibited.
None of this is entirely new, of course -- China is still China -- and some abuses reflect the customary backlash of local authorities against "troublesome" lawyers. But the repression, and its focus on lawyers, has only intensified since the 17th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in the fall of 2007, when growing party concerns over internal security appear to have increased the influence of those responsible for police organizations. The subsequent publication of Charter 08, a courageous declaration of democratic principles that was ultimately signed by more than 10,000 people, added to the party's anxiety, as did the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the activist Liu Xiaobo, who had been imprisoned for helping to draft the charter. The 2010 government budget for the first time allocated more funds to internal security than to national defense, and when the impact of the Arab world's "Jasmine Revolutions" reached China this February, the country's increasingly insecure leadership cracked down even harder on lawyers as well as their controversial clients.