Rule of Law: Chinese lawyers continue human rights fight in face of tyranny

While China’s economy is rocketing towards G8 status, evidence shows that its attitude to human rights remains firmly in the developing world.

Although an amendment to the constitution last year stated that “the state respects and protects human rights”, Chinese lawyers who challenge the authorities continue to risk being threatened, attacked and imprisoned.

One such lawyer is Zheng Enchong. Based in Shanghai, Enchong has advised or represented numerous families that have been evicted due to city redevelopment with little or no compensation from the authorities.

As a result, Enchong’s licence to practice was revoked by the Shanghai Justice Bureau (SJB) in July 2001, on the basis that he failed to comply with regulations governing legal practice – although the SJB did not specify exactly how he had failed to comply.

In spite of this, Enchong continued to aid the plaintiffs and was arrested on 6 June 2003, days after a group of evictees he had advised appeared in court attempting to sue the authorities for adequate compensation, alleging collusion between officials and the property developer. In October that year, Enchong was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of “illegally obtaining state secrets”.

Fellow Chinese lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s case is equally sinister. Beijing-based Zhisheng and colleagues were involved in a number of high-profile cases, including the Shanwei dispute in which Zhisheng represented 40,000 people from the small southeastern town of Shanwei, who had lost their livelihoods to make way for a power station. Zhisheng himself published an open letter to President Hu Jintao urging an end to the persecution of practitioners of Falun Gong, the banned, quasi-spiritual form of meditation.

In December both his personal licence to practice and that of the Shengzhi Law Office, of which he was director,
were suspended. Then, on 13 January 2006, Zhisheng noticed Beijing police officers filming him, prompting him to start filming the police and leading to a brief period in detention. Zhisheng claims that a police officer even warned him while he was detained: “You know if we wanted to kill you, it would be as easy as killing an ant.”

On 17 January, Zhisheng was driving in Beijing when a car travelling in front of him stopped suddenly and he narrowly avoided colliding with it. According to Zhisheng, its licence plates were covered with newspaper.

As he got out of his car, the car that had stopped reportedly started moving towards him, forcing him to jump out of its path. A military vehicle had been following behind his car, also with covered licence plates, leading Zhisheng to believe that the incident was instigated by the authorities.

For further information, contact The Law Society (internationalhumanrights@lawsociety.org.uk) or Amnesty International (020 7413 5566).