WASHINGTON—China is now reaching a crisis point on how the regime commits to the rule of law. 2009 marks an acceleration of repression of rights defense lawyers, weiquan, the name for attorneys in China who take on “sensitive” cases. On Oct. 29, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) took oral testimony from three such attorneys—Zhang Kai, Dai Jinbo, Jiang Tianyong.
The hearing, held in the Canon House Office Building, is the first time practicing lawyers in China testified before a Congressional commission. The three lawyers spoke of their difficulties in working within an environment hostile to their work, especially in protecting religious freedom—abductions, beatings, house arrests, surveillance, detentions, threats to them and their members of their family and, most recently in 2009, Chinese authorities not renewing their annual licenses to practice law.
“I and other human rights attorneys in China are suffering an increasing level of harassment, suppression, and persecution, because we serve as defense counsels in cases of safeguarding the freedom of religious belief,” said Beijing attorney Jiang Yianyong.
Their testimony was much more direct and disturbing than that of the various China experts from academia and think tanks who in the past have testified before the Lantos Commission.
“I think your testimony is some of the most courageous testimony I have ever heard in my entire years in Congress,” said Representative Frank Wolf (VA), chairman of the Lantos Commission, at the conclusion of their testimony.
“If any of them are arrested or harassed when they get back, I will do everything I can to create as big a problem as possible for the Obama Administration and for the Chinese government,” said Wolf.
Despite Wolf’s promise of support, almost certainly they will face reprisals when they return home. Their faith undoubtedly provides them strength to face their adversaries; all three are practicing Christians who belong to the “illegal” house churches and not the state-run “patriotic” churches.
Police Beat Worshippers in Linfen, Shanxi
Perhaps the most shocking testimony was that given by Dai Jinbo on the status of religious freedom and the rule of law in China. The youngest of the trio, Dai, 24, passed his jurisprudence exam in 2008, and travels about the country helping to defend the rights of house churches. Dai described more than 300 police officers who on Sept. 13, stormed into a factory that was being used as a venue for house churches in Linfen, Shanxi.
Dai said the police used “military weapons, wood sticks, bricks, iron hooks and other sharp instruments to beat the people, while smashing and looting the property. They severely beat more than one hundred Christians who were caught entirely off guard. Many lost consciousness and many more collapsed in pools of their own blood.”
Bulldozers and other heavy equipment were dispatched to demolish many buildings. The Christians in the area resort to using a factory as a venue for their services because unregistered religious organizations in China cannot obtain legal church assets, and applications for a building permit are rejected. Local authorities ban and crackdown on house churches and other religious organizations, “illegal” venues, and “illegal” Bible workshops.
It is well known that the house church movement is peaceful. So any crackdown only reflects that the rule of law in China is dysfunctional said Dai. He requested that the Linfen case be brought to the attention of President Obama as well as relevant information on religious freedom in China.
Congressman Chris Smith (New Jersey) stated that the Linfen incident was “a huge human rights violation.” He asked Dai several questions about the status of the victims. Dai said that seven to nine of the church leaders were still being held and many of the injured were still in the hospital. Smith asked, “Did our embassy in China or the State Department make any comment criticizing [the Linfen assault]?” Dai said that as far as he knew, there was no such action.
Lawyer Jiang Tianyong, 38, testified that he was praying and singing hymns on May 13, 2007, “with my brothers and sisters in Christ” in Beijing when several dozen intruders broke in and stopped their activities. Most of them were not wearing uniforms, but they said they were from the municipal Bureau of Religious Administration. They recorded the identification of the worshipers and conducted long interrogations. The worshipers were told their gathering was illegal. It was after 1 AM before he was allowed to leave.
Persecutions of Buddhist Clergy and Torture of Falun Gong Practitioners
Last year, China began a “Campaign of Education in Patriotism” in the Tibetan prefecture, said Jiang. Monks and nuns in the Burongna and Ya-tseg convents in Ganzi, Sichuan province, were commanded to criticize the Dalai Lama and to call him a jackal. “Everyone of them was commanded to trample on the portrait of the Dalai Lama and to spit on the portrait before he or she was allowed to pass the test,” said Jiang. Regarding this testimony, Congressman Wolf exclaimed, “Civilized people don’t do that.”
Starting in 2008, Jiang began to defend Falun Gong practitioners. Even for a veteran human rights attorney like Jiang Tianyong, the persecution he witnessed was particularly extreme. “My clients were arrested simply because of the practice. They were tried simply because they gave practice books to others… there are special funds, special locations, special people and special tools in torturing Falun Gong practitioners,” he said.
Jiang cited four examples of practitioners he defended in court where severe torture was obvious. In court, attorneys cannot mount a legal defense due to special restrictions on Falun Gong cases.
Jiang says that he and his family have been repeatedly threatened, detained, and held under close government surveillance. The secret police often stalk, harass and threaten human rights defenders, he says. He was stalked for defending lawyer Gao Zhisheng and placed under house arrest for five months. He has been repeatedly placed under house arrest for June 4 and Oct. 1 anniversaries, the Beijing Olympics, and state visits by important diplomats. “When President Obama visits China next month, I will be forced to stay home,” said Jiang.
In June, lawyer Jiang’s license was officially revoked.
No Legal Redress for Christian Believers
Lawyer Zhang Kai spoke of the banning of house churches on grounds of being “cults.” He said the regime has identified 14 types of cults which the state says propagate “superstitious” activities, or disrupt security and order, or harm the health of people. Eleven of these 14 are related to Christianity, including the Shouters, the Disciple Union, and the Total Scope Church. The regulations on so-called “cults” have “led to the confiscation and damages of large amounts of church assets as well as the detention or reeducation through labor of believers,” said Zhang.
State religious affairs departments appoint or remove clergymen at the house churches, said Zhang. “Even the programs celebrating Christmas by believers must be reviewed and approved,” said Zhang.
It has been tremendously difficult for lawyers to provide legal services for believers. “For example, courts refuse to take the cases; when they do take cases, they don’t hold hearings; and when they hold hearings, they do not give rulings,” said Zhang.
According to his bio, Zhang, 30, has represented numerous religious freedom cases. After visiting a client in May 2009, Zhang experienced physical harassment, detention, and interrogation by police, and his license to practice law was not renewed. He recommended that more people at the U.S. embassy in China attend worship services in house churches in China.
Jiang also described the legal hurdles that he has gone through to bring a lawsuit for clients who underwent forced abortions or sterilizations. He said the Bureau of Justice called and told him to cancel his lawsuit for several women. The trial keeps being postponed. His colleague was beaten physically, and both have been threatened. He also mentioned a case he had in 2005 of a forced abortion of a woman carried out on the baby’s due date.
Congressman Smith pointed out that at Nuremberg, “barbaric” forced abortions by the Nazis were regarded as war crimes.
The Silence of Our Friends
Chairman Wolf asked the lawyers: “Would it be helpful if the leaders of the Christian church of the United States spoke out [on human rights]?”
Zhang Kai answered, “From the point of view of Christianity, all men are brothers or sisters… so if church leaders can express their concern related to human rights and freedom in China, then… it can encourage people in China to make an effort in establishing a social environment for religious freedom.”
Jiang agreed it was an excellent idea. The consensus was that not only can Christians outside of China be more supportive of religious freedom, but so could the U.S. government.
All three attorneys said they were very disappointed in Secretary of State Clinton’s statement that human rights would not “interfere” with negotiations on climate change, etc. Jiang said he heard from many people who said they were “confused” by that speech. Jiang said that his family and he were harassed by the Chinese regime following her statement. He said he did not hold her personally responsible but was disappointed because America always supported human rights and religious freedom.
Jiang quoted Martin Luther King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The lawyers agreed that President Obama should not fail to publicly speak out regarding Human Rights during his upcoming trip to China when asked by Rep. Wolf. Among the proposals mentioned at the hearing were these three:
(1) President Obama should meet with human rights defenders and attend gatherings of house churches during his visit to China; (2) President Obama should talk to China leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao about restoring the freedom of well-known dissidents that they named, and ask about the whereabouts of Attorney Gao Zhisheng; (3) The U.S. Embassy in China should make contact with human rights defenders and dissidents more often, and invite them to attend activities held at the embassy.
Based on the input that he heard at the hearing, Congressman Wolf said he would write to all the heads of Christian churches here in the United States and ask for their support of fellow Christians in China.