Support silent supporters of the rule of law in China

Human Rights lawyer Teng Biao, Photo credit: May Tse/South China Morning Post

Human Rights lawyer Teng Biao, Photo credit: May Tse/South China Morning Post

Here is a stimulating op-ed by Chinese law scholar and activist Teng Biao. I hope US funders, public and private, will take it into account. I believe, after giving due regard to Teng Biao’s admonition against funding the oppressors, funders should continue to support those non-Chinese institutions that do not pull their punches in studying and reporting on legal developments in China while also continuing to conduct legal and human rights education of not only Chinese lawyers but also Chinese judges, prosecutors, justice officials and even police.

The point that needs greater recognition here is that hundreds of thousands of legal specialists in China are extremely unhappy with Xi Jinping’s oppressive policies, policies that they feel forced to live with and practice while awaiting a less repressive regime and the renewal of true legal reforms. At a time when they are being ordered to reject universal human rights values, we should not abandon these silent supporters of the rule of law, but should keep up contacts and professional nourishment that will sustain them until a better day dawns.

Years ago, the late Senator Arlen Specter asked me to emphasize this point in a letter to then House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, recalling the importance of foreign funded legal education and training given to officials of the Chiang Kaishek dictatorship in Taiwan and the Park Choon-Hee dictatorship in South Korea. Those efforts paid rich dividends when political circumstances permitted legal liberalization. Indeed, they helped fuel legal officials’ opposition to dictatorship, as occurred when Taiwan prosecutors and judges rebelled against their masters and successfully established their independence of political interference.

The U.S. Congress, other countries and private foundations should also fund basic research on the many complex aspects of the evolving Chinese legal system, not only education and training in China but also efforts to enhance foreign understanding of both contemporary events and the country’s political-legal culture.

In addition, there is a great need to fund the support and activities of the increasing number of Chinese refugee lawyers, law professors and human rights activists who, like Professor Teng, are turning up outside China as a result of the terrible situation they confront in China.

Finally, in fairness to the America Bar Association, we should note that, after long internal debate spawned by external criticisms, it has decided to establish an international human rights award and next week at its annual meeting in San Francisco this new award will be bestowed, in absentia, on another of China’s courageous human rights lawyers, Ms. WANG Yu, who, sadly, is jailed in China and awaiting criminal conviction and a long prison sentence. 

A biographical sketch of Mr Chen Guangcheng

I have written a short biographical sketch of Mr Chen Guangcheng, the blind “barefoot lawyer” who escaped post-prison house detention in China in 2013, sought refuge in the US embassy and eventually set foot in the US. This sketch has just been published in the Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography, Vol. 4.

Those interested in how Beijing and Washington negotiated over Chen Guangcheng’s departure for the US can read Chen’s account in his book, The barefoot lawyer: A blind man’s fight for justice and freedom in China, as well as Hillary Clinton’s differing account in her own, Hard choices. I first offered my own, slightly different view of the Embassy portion of the negotiations in the Washington Post here and the Wall Street Journal here, based on long phone calls that Chen made to me during his stay in the Embassy.

Chinese Communist Party’s Persecution of Churches: China Change’s Interviews with “Pastor L”

By Jerome A. Cohen

Photo from  ChinaChange : "Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. TIME Magazine has a video report  here "

Photo from ChinaChange: "Believers and SWAT clashed when the cross of this church in Wenzhou was removed on July 21, 2014. TIME Magazine has a video report here"

China Change has just released a remarkable interview with “Pastor L.” The interview not only updates us about the plight of Christianity in an important area of China but also offers a persuasive analysis of what underlies the Chinese Communist Party’s persecution of religions generally. Indeed, it demonstrates the similarities between the CCP’s persecution of religions and its systematic attacks on all freedoms of expression, media, teaching, research and publication, and the legal profession to which victims of suppression vainly turn for protection against an arbitrary and repressive state. This interview deserves widespread dissemination. One need not be a religious person – and I am not – to appreciate its significance.

The interview does prompt a few immediate thoughts. It consistently refers to “Christianity” without distinguishing among the varieties of organized believers who have earned that designation. Readers who are interested in how many of the affected church groups are “Protestants” of one kind or other and how many are “Catholic” can find more information in the first interview China Change released here.

The interview’s account of how local business people, a formidably successful group, have helped to spread the faith during their business trips throughout China evokes thoughts of Max Weber and the connections between capitalism and religions.

It also offers the pathetic story of how Beijing lawyer Zhang Kai, one of several counsel seeking to defend the churches but secretly detained like many of his clients, has been coerced, like them, to issue a jailhouse statement claiming that he no longer wants the help of defense lawyers. This is a vivid illustration of the “rule of law” in practice, as distinguished from the speeches of Xi Jinping, the preaching of the Party plenums and the reformist norms of the National People’s Congress and the Supreme People’s Court. Church believers could render further service by doing empirical studies of the many cases involving interaction of the legal system with their daily lives.

I look forward to further reports from the estimable “Pastor L” and China Change. 

The struggle of Chinese public interest lawyers to have their voice heard by their lawyers associations

by Jerome Cohen

According to this report, some public interest lawyers in China are now calling for abolition of the national lawyers professional group, the All China Lawyers Association, which is organized and controlled by the Ministry of Justice and has rarely lent support to lawyers attacked by the government.

In fact, there were efforts in the past to try to reform the lawyers associations in China, such as calls by some public interest lawyers in 2008 for the Beijing Lawyers Association to hold direct elections, in the hope of making the group more autonomous (see Jerome Cohen, "The Struggle for Autonomy of Beijing’s Public Interest Lawyers," April 2009). Obviously, the struggle is still ongoing today, especially given the current severe crackdown in which the local and national lawyers associations have not only remained silent but also continued to aid the government, for example, by not renewing the license to practice law of some lawyers unwelcome by the authorities. 

The ABA's statement about the crackdown on lawyers in China

The recent crackdown by the Chinese government on human rights lawyers has raised the question of what is an appropriate response by foreign organizations working on the rule of law in China. The statement released by the President of the American Bar Association on August 4 has further prompted such discussion as well as frustration of those who want to see a stronger statement of the ABA in support of China’s beleaguered lawyers, as in this op-ed by Robert Precht in the Washington Post.

Below are some thoughts of Professor Jerome Cohen about the ABA statement and the broader question of what considerations foreign organizations, including bar associations, universities and NGOs, have when they think about how to respond to the recent challenge.

Jerome A. Cohen

August 4, 2015

First of all, I am impressed by how little interest has been expressed in the ABA statement. Perhaps it’s the mid-summer doldrums and holiday schedules, perhaps many people feel what the ABA says is of little significance in influencing the PRC to cease its attack on human rights lawyers, and perhaps there is little appreciation of the importance of human rights lawyers and the Party’s attack on them.

The ABA statement does not meet my standard for what would have been appropriate. I had helped draft a stronger statement, yet one that also emphasized the ABA’s hard work over the past 17 years and the importance of continuing, indeed expanding this effort with the support of some of the other lawyers’ organizations that condemned the PRC purge. Some of the language of our draft is in the compromise final draft decided upon by the ABA president.   I think the final statement is adequate since it shows the ABA is not happy with what the PRC is doing, which is a lot more than the original draft produced by the staff of its Rule of Law Initiative did. So I think the statement is helpful, since it adds to the protest the voice – however timid – of one of the world’s greatest bar organizations. Of course, even the outpouring of protest is not likely to be helpful in the sense of persuading XJP to call off the hounds, but it surely is helpful in supporting the victims and their colleagues and families and the hundreds of thousands of Chinese legal officials, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, legislators, law professors, journalists and activists who have been coerced into suffering this abomination in guilty silence. It is also helpful in letting the American legal profession and general public know more about reality in China today.

ABA's logo on its website:

ABA's logo on its website:

It would be painting too quickly and with too broad a brush to say the mild ABA response is a result of meretricious, mercenary motives on the part of law firms, universities, or NGOs.  Individual American law firms with offices in China or otherwise engaged in China practice have never shown the slightest interest in human rights problems. That surely is for business reasons. Yet bar associations have often been active regarding PRC transgressions as well as those taking place in many other countries. I am glad to say the NY City Bar has in this case, as in many others, made its condemnation loud and clear, n Chinese as well as English.  The Hong Kong Bar Association, whose opinions really carry some weight in China, is terrific in this respect.

The situation with universities has its own characteristics. Universities and their centers and institutes seldom go on record as institutions condemning Chinese human rights violations, but many individual faculty members and research scholars do express themselves even while many keep silent for their own good reasons. I do not think that the failure of universities and centers to speak out can generally be attributed to concerns over loss of money, although some might suffer financial consequences from doing so. I think there are other explanations readily available, some reflecting worthy considerations and some not (does visa denial constitute primarily a monetary concern?).

NGOS also need careful analysis. Human rights NGOs that cannot set up shop in China have no hostages to fortune. Those like the ABA that have labored long and hard in China, with some staff devoting their lives to this kind of work, have a lot to lose if their protests lead to their ouster and the closing of their office. That was the principal articulated consideration motivating those within the ABA who preferred no statement or one that would have been ludicrous in the eyes of the world. Of course, one can say that their view too is based on money since their jobs and funding could be cut off by a hostile PRC reaction, but I think that a genuine zeal for law reform and a belief that their efforts have already produced tangible progress and will in the long run bear greater fruit was their primary motivation. Concern was also expressed that a strong statement might lead the PRC to impose sanctions against the persons of their American and especially Chinese staff in Beijing, an idea that seemed to carry weight with some within the ABA who know little about China.

So ABA leaders were called on to balance conflicting considerations, essentially to balance the speculative consequences of a strong statement against the less speculative consequences of failing to meet the challenge, including the ongoing but impossible to stop attack on China’s human rights lawyers and the damage to ABA’s reputation. Hence the compromise. Many ABA lawyers were undoubtedly unhappy with the outcome, judging by their words and votes during various group discussions. I know nothing about ABA practices and procedures but what I witnessed from afar (I did my pro bono consulting by phone, skype and email from the soothing beaches of Cape Cod!) made me think a bit of law reform is overdue within the organization!

A SEPTEMBER 7 POST-SCRIPT: The ABA’s dilemma has surely not ended. Public criticism has begun to rise at summer’s end. Some within the organization are properly calling for further consideration in a special meeting. There is already an effort under way to persuade the ABA to seek to add to the agenda of its long-scheduled November conference with Communist Party-controlled Chinese lawyers a discussion of the current repression of human rights, public interest and criminal defense lawyers.