April 11, 2017
It is now clear that the strife still unfolding between Australia and China has its origins in Beijing’s nationwide campaign to shut down lawyers who take on human rights cases.
The impact of the co-ordinated arrests almost two years ago of 286 lawyers and their colleagues, followed by their jailing for up to 12 years for “state subversion”, continues to send waves throughout China and the region.
These law firms represented cases ranging from farmers whose land was stolen by local officials to writers prosecuted for criticising long-dead communist “heroes”.
A few months before the arrests, President Xi Jinping said on the role of law that the Communist Party must ensure “the handle of the knife is firmly in the hands of the party and the people”.
People who feel cheated or downtrodden must not get their hands on that handle. In recent years, lawyers, often acting pro bono, had begun to articulate such grievances, finding ways to challenge the authorities in the courts. This connection is now decisively being cut.
Six weeks ago, Australia’s ambassador to Beijing, Jan Adams, and envoys from 10 other countries, including Britain, France, Japan, Canada and Switzerland, signed a letter urging Public Security Minister Guo Shengkun to investigate reports that such lawyers are being tortured. The ambassadors called for an end to the government’s lengthy detention of people suspected of “political” crimes at secret locations.
The whereabouts of some of those seized in mid-2015 are still unknown.