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Politics

Chinese rights lawyer's new strategy: Outlast the oppressors

Attorneys and activists lay low as Xi's government bares its teeth

Relatives of lawyers and activists detained in July 2015 stage a protest in Beijing in July 2017.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- A Chinese human rights lawyer knew it was time to put his battles with the government and state enterprises on hold when he saw his young son waiting for the "bad guys" to come.

"My son was looking out the window at night with a stick in his hand, like he was keeping watch," the lawyer said. "And he said, 'I'm going to beat up the bad guys if they try to take dad away.'"

The lawyer, who is in his late 40s, has handled cases involving land expropriations, arbitrary decisions by authorities and commitments broken by state-owned enterprises. His clients have included both individuals and businesses. But he fears the effects on his son's psyche, not to mention the risk that the increasingly oppressive government might retaliate against his family.

The tide started to change in 2012 and 2013, coinciding with President Xi Jinping's rise to power. "I had this scope where I could feel safe," he said, "but I felt it start narrowing fast."

In July 2015, the government turned more aggressive, detaining over 300 activists, lawyers and other individuals. The lawyer said there was little he could do to help his comrades; he is still not sure why he was not taken in, too.

Today, the lawyer speaks out little and avoids participating in overseas protests like he used to. Inaction, for him, is a survival strategy.

"You can't move from place to place without being tracked by the authorities these days"

A Chinese lawyer

Insiders say international criticism has not made the authorities more lenient, just more cunning. In some cases, rather than make arrests, they often strip lawyers of their licenses or force their offices to close. Beijing may argue it is trying to enforce the rule of law, yet it is undermining the very purpose of lawyers -- to ensure the law is applied fairly, not arbitrarily.

"You can't move from place to place without being tracked by the authorities these days," said another lawyer in eastern China.

China's surveillance state is all-encompassing. Tickets for flights and high-speed trains are linked to personal identification numbers. Facial recognition systems are being installed at ticket gates. Ubiquitous cameras record vehicle license plate numbers.

The second lawyer said that in northern China, security officers tailed him each time he came out of a station, without even bothering to be inconspicuous. He traveled there a number of times to support a fellow lawyer who was held after a battle with a local government-affiliated company.

The lawyer dares to remain active because his son is living overseas.

"I think I'll be OK as long as I obey the law," he said. Still, he said it is always difficult to know what lines not to cross, since they can change abruptly. Just in case, he prevents his son from returning home.

Lawyers and activists are not the only targets. Beijing operates what it calls "education" facilities in the autonomous region of Xinjiang. It says its policies in the area are designed to promote stability and fight extremism among the Uighur population there. But according to reports, in some places over 10% of residents are sent to what amount to detention camps. Beijing denies claims that at least 1 million people have been detained.

Those who hope for change in China may have no choice but to wait.

The lawyer with the vigilant son now makes a living by performing only common legal services for businesses. He sees two factors that might allow him to resume his old battles. One is a plan to send his wife and son to live abroad. The other is an inevitable generational shift in China's political machine.

"Fortunately, there is no age limit for attorneys, and I'm younger" than many incumbent politicians, he said.

The government's view of the rule of law has varied over the years. So his strategy is simple: outlast the current crop of leaders and hope their successors are less heavy-handed.

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