Who would have guessed that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is such a fan of William Shakespeare? Or at least the Bard’s purported anti-lawyer bias, as shown in Henry VI, Part 2, when Dick the Butcher says: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
Xi is not killing lawyers — at least not yet; he is just rounding them up for having the temerity and integrity to represent their clients by challenging the government and the authority of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
China’s actions over the past week against lawyers and human rights activists are just another nail in the coffin holding the remains of hopes that “Xi the reformer” would actually institute change to that nation’s political and legal systems — after all, just last fall, Xi said a better-functioning legal system was crucial if the CPP is to effectively govern an increasingly complex society, while the theme of the Fourth Plenum of the 18th Party Congress held in October last year was the “rule of law.”
Then there was the apology Zhou Qiang (周強), chief justice and president of China’s Supreme People’s Court, made on March 12 for the myriad of wrongful judgements made by the nation’s courts. Zhou had been widely praised for his efforts to make the Chinese court system more independent and to protect the rights of lawyers. Now he just looks like Xi’s court jester.
It turns out that Xi only wants a legal system that will continue to put the party first.
Amnesty International on Thursday said that lawyers Xie Yang (謝陽) and Sui Muqing (隋牧青), as well as activist Gou Hongguo (勾洪國), the latest to be detained, face charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” Amnesty also said that 177 lawyers and activists had been detained or questioned as of Wednesday, 31 of whom were still in police custody or missing.
Also on Thursday, the UN Human Rights Office issued a statement by five of its investigators demanding an end to the crackdown, which they said might have contravened the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Basic Principles of the Role of Lawyers and China’s own criminal procedures.
China’s Public Security Ministry said the lawyers have disrupted public order, sought illicit profits and tried to unfairly influence the courts.
State media reports complained that “these no-holds-barred lawyers staged open defiance inside the courtroom and on the Internet” — while the Xinhua news agency opined in an editorial that: “Lawyers should safeguard justice in the courtroom with the application of their knowledge, morality and skill.”
Judging Xi by his actions, not his words, shows that he clearly has no understanding of what “rule of law” means.
While lawyers are often the butt of jokes the world over, they are an indispensable component to a just and open society, and Xi’s assault on China’s lawyers should not go unchallenged.
As former US Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens wrote in a dissent from a 1985 case that centered on the value of lawyers to a court system and society: “As a careful reading of that text will reveal, Shakespeare insightfully realized that disposing of lawyers is a step in the direction of a totalitarian form of government.”
Stevens also said the function of an independent lawyer is “a guardian of our freedom.”
No wonder Xi is so afraid of them.