Since July 9th, human right lawyers and activists were questioned or detained all over China. Is the situation improving now again?
Nee: No, it is still getting worse. Our team tries to update the situation every day – we are looking at sources and try to figure out who is targeted. Up to now, more than 200 human rights lawyers or activists were questioned or detained, more than 20 are still missing or in custody.
Who is currently being targeted?
Nee: The government targets a certain type of human rights lawyer, called the die-hard-lawyers. These lawyers are very aggressive. When there is a procedural issue and the judge does not follow the procedures, they will be very insistent that the court adheres to the law. The targeted lawyers have been known to use social media to talk about their cases, to try to win support from the public. This is what the government is concerned about: These lawyers could have an influence on the public opinion, which is seen as a challenge to its power.
How do these measures compare to previous ones?
Nee: This is pretty much an unprecedented attack on human rights lawyers. There was a similar process in 2011 during the Chinese Jasmine Revolution, which was related to the Arab spring and the idea that democracy might be coming to China. Many lawyers were put under detention or to secret locations. But the scale and severity of this crackdown is far greater. Many of the lawyers are facing grave criminal charges, which makes it more serious than the 2011 crackdown.
What is the aim of the government?
Nee: I think there are three main messages. First, they do not want lawyers to take on sensitive cases. This can mean anything: Freedom of expression, free press, religious freedom, abuse of state power, torture, or death penalty. The second is: Do not use social media like Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, to whip-up support for your legal cases. Do not use the internet in a way. The third message is: Do not work with activists, and do not have a social campaigning component to your cases. Do not team up with civil society, for example, to organize protest to support your cases.
Is there a relation to the release of Zhang Miao, the Chinese assistant of the German newspaper “Die Zeit”, who was discharged from prison after nine months?
Nee: Just hours after the release, her lawyer Zhou Shifeng was woken up at 7am in the morning. Security men took him away. He works for Fengrui, which is the main law firm that has been targeted. But we do not have enough evidence to say whether or not the current crackdown was directly related. Her arrest in last autumn was part of a campaign in which more than hundred people were detained. Many of them were a long time without lawyers, many were tortured. In a way, this campaign served as a template for the current crackdown of lawyers.
What is the role of the new national security law that came into effect three weeks ago, which was criticized by Amnesty International as “draconian”?
Nee: The law has a desire to introduce broad and vague language to consolidate power to the communist party and to give the government the tools they need to really clamp down on any unwanted behavior. It is part of a series of laws. Recently, also a new anti-espionage law was installed. Currently, a draft for a “Foreign NGO Management Law” is discussed, which has a large national security element. An anti-terrorism law will probably be passed later this year. There is also a revision of the criminal law, which will clamp down undesired conduct at court rooms, and lawyers could get criminal sanctions for disrupting the court and “other” behavior. The “other” is a very subjective thing. The laws are used to perpetuate injustice. In total, this is a very frightening sign – and a destructive time for human rights in China.
So in general it should chill the human rights scene in China?
Nee: Yes. If you look at the way they detain people: Some were taken in the middle of the night by state security guards, who broke into hotels. Almost like in Hollywood movies. We are not talking about mass murderers – these lawyers are all law-abiding people. The massive scale of the crackdown and the way they did it was meant to frighten and scare people. The lawyers have developed a strong sense of professional solidarity, they have many message groups and frequently talk about their cases. If one of them gets into trouble, for example is detained in a court room for being too aggressive, they call the courts and the local police. They do everything to help each other. The communist party is trying to break this kind of professional solidarity that has developed.
Is it a new development that state-run media write about these actions?
Nee: It is very rare for the state-run press to comment on sensitive cases. On the night of July 11th, People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the communist party, released a long article together with Xinhua, the official news agency. This was a sign that it has a high degree of authority. It says that the lawyers are a criminal gang, its main platform should be the Fengrui law firm. A loud and clear message is sent to human rights lawyers and people in academia.
Simultaneously, the communist party tries to make it not a too big deal in the country in large. It is similar to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, when a firm message was broadcasted on TV that certain behaviors would not be tolerated. But at the same time – and also a few years later – they covered it up and did not talk about what was done. Now again, they want to send a harsh message to one group of people and really kind of frighten them, while trying to hide it to a broader audience.
On Saturday, Xinhua published a confession of the director of Fengrui law firm, Zhou Shifeng. He was quoted to plead guilty of illegal and criminal behavior. How do you classify his confession as well as previous ones?
Nee: They seem to be crafted to fit the government's pre-existing accusations against the lawyers. Across the nation lawyers have reported being interrogated about Zhou Shifeng and his colleague Wang Yu. The Xinhua article proves that the government wants to vilify them and making them out to be the main villains in a conspiracy. All lawyers who have been detained are at risk of torture or other ill treatment since the government seems to be heavily emphasizing the role of confessions in proving its pre-set narrative. Some of the crucial safeguards against torture – access to lawyers and family members – have so far been denied.
Can the news about the raid spread quicker due to social media?
Nee: It spreads more easily than before, that is for sure. Many of these lawyers have between 1.000 and 200.000 followers. But many messages are deleted, and the re-tweet function is disabled for others. Hence, it has very limited impact and cannot go viral. They really cramped down on the censorship on social media to make sure people aren't spreading the news – and the only news people do hear comes from the official press.
Who will defend the lawyers that are targeted currently?
Nee: Well, that is the problem. For example, there is the very famous lawyer Sui Muqing, who was criminally detained on the charge of “picking quarrel and provoking trouble”. This is a catch-all charge that can be used to detain activists and dissidents for almost every reason. Now he was charged of “inciting subversion of state power”, which is much more serious. It means that you are disseminating your capacity to undermine the government or the communist party. But his lawyer also was detained. The arrested lawyers will have problems to find people who are willing to represent them, especially those of the Fengrui law firm. The lawyers who have been interrogated were told by the police that they absolutely cannot talk or post on social media about Fengrui.
During his visit to Beijing last week, German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel did not only speak about industrial ties between Germany and China, but also demanded more freedom for the Chinese society. How should foreign governments react to the current campaign?
Nee: We hope that more governments will issue similar statements. However, the world is not paying sufficient attention. A severe crackdown in a country that is so crucial to global affairs and trade is bound to have enormous repercussions. It really hits a universal value. According to the United Nations’ "Basic principles on the role of lawyers", the advocacy of lawyers to their clients should not be confused with their clients’ cases. You should not go after the lawyer, because the lawyer is going to provide justice to a client. Those are lawyers who took on some of the most important human-rights cases. They are really the last line of defense for many vulnerable groups within China. If they are silenced, the human rights situation will deteriorate seriously.
Previously, Xi Jinping promised to strengthen the rule of law.
Nee: His administration has put a tremendous amount of rhetorical weight in promoting the rule of law. But the Party has two overriding and contradictory goals: Promote social stability through crackdowns on rights activists, which violates international human rights and some domestic law, and promote “the rule of law” to bring about greater justice and fairness in Chinese society. However, the long term implications of this crackdown have yet to be felt. If people involved in so-called “sensitive” issues feel that they cannot resolve their problems via the law, they may try to seek more explicit political solutions or extreme means of resolving their issues. This would be detrimental towards maintaining social stability.
This interview is a longer version of an interview published on July 19th, 2015 by the German newspaper Tagesspiegel.