21 September 2019
In China, there are fewer than 250,000 lawyers serving a population of 1.35 billion, or just 1.8 lawyers for every 10,000 people. Photo: Bloomberg
In China, there are fewer than 250,000 lawyers serving a population of 1.35 billion, or just 1.8 lawyers for every 10,000 people. Photo: Bloomberg

China likes lawyers even less than you do

It’s a universal truth that nobody likes lawyers. Lawyers know that. And they don’t care.

With a time-worn image as greedy and over-aggressive manipulators, liars and cheats, lawyers get no respect.

In the United States, where there are about 40 lawyers for every 10,000 people, Gallup polls taken over two decades consistently show that Americans rank lawyers “low, very low” in ethical standards, alongside car salesmen and labor union leaders.

They’re even the butt of stupid jokes like why don’t vultures eat lawyers when they die? Answer: Professional courtesy.

Or, what do you call 25 lawyers buried up to their chins in cement? Not enough cement.

Or, how many lawyer jokes are there? Only three. The rest are true stories.

In China, where there are fewer than 250,000 lawyers serving a population of 1.357 billion, or just 1.8 lawyers for every 10,000 people, things are a lot more nuanced.

Chances are the average Zhou Blow doesn’t even know an attorney to make fun of. (A report by China’s Ministry of Justice notes that 200 counties do not have a single lawyer.)

But those that do saw a mass police roundup of at least 114 lawyers from 18 provinces over the weekend, in an unprecedented nationwide crackdown targeting attorneys who take on cases involving free speech, human rights and abuses of power.

Government authorities presented many of them as motivated by greed and a reckless disregard for social order.

“Their objective was to win fame and profit and to create social chaos,” according to a report carried by People’s Daily and Xinhua News Agency.

All of which opens up a whole new realm of sick lawyer jokes like how do you get a lawyer out of a tree? Answer: Cut the rope.

Or, do you know how to save a drowning lawyer? Take your foot off his head.

Or, where can you find a good lawyer? In the cemetery.

China defended the national dragnet claiming they had evidence of a “criminal syndicate” of rights activists and lawyers who purportedly profited from illegally organizing paid protests.

At least five lawyers from a firm in Beijing were placed under criminal detention and accused of exploiting public grievances to undermine the ruling Communist Party, said the New York Times.

Among those who were detained and questioned by police was Feng Zhenghu, a veteran human rights activist based in Shanghai.

“The government asked us not to poke our nose into this business, to ignore the missing lawyers,” Feng told CNN.

“They wanted us to know that they don’t want us to post or repost anything on this matter on the internet,” he added, pointing out that he has been detained and questioned dozens of times by Chinese authorities in just the last two years.

Ge Yongxi, a 41-year-old lawyer with Guangdong An Guo Law Firm, was also briefly detained.

“Around 9 p.m. on Saturday, police came knocking on my door and asked if we had a water leakage problem in the house,” Ge told Voice of America. “I knew something was not right and asked if they had a subpoena. The police said no because it wasn’t a formal subpoena.”

“Five police officers, including two un-uniformed [officers], entered my house and had a chat with me. They later asked me to continue talks in the nearby police station for another hour until after midnight, when I was escorted home.”

The Wall Street Journal spoke with a family member of Li Fangping, another one of the lawyers interrogated over the weekend.

“They came and took him away without saying why,” the family member said.

Based in Beijing, Li was visiting his parents at their home in Jiangxi province when plainclothes officers showed up. His parents “were very scared”, the person said, adding that Li had done nothing wrong.

As of Sunday night, China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based organization that monitors and promotes the rule of law on the mainland, said at least 82 of the detainees had been released.

Still, it remains unclear what fate will befall the remaining lawyers, who have not yet been heard from.

For their families, supporters and the international community at large, the crackdown—described as the country’s worst in two decades—is no joke.

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A strategist and marketing consultant on China business