For most of the last decade, lawyer Ren Quanniu made a name for himself in China representing members of the outlawed religious philosophical group Falun Gong — politically sensitive cases other attorneys would not touch.
In January, he was tasked with perhaps his hardest case of all: defending himself against disbarment. He ultimately failed.
Ren is the second lawyer to be disbarred after attempting to represent one of 12 people who tried to escape Hong Kong after the introduction of a repressive new national security law. They were caught by the Chinese coast guard and later tried for illegally crossing a Chinese border by a court in mainland China. They also face other criminal charges related to their participation in mass protests that rocked Hong Kong in 2019.
"Even if my lawyer's license is canceled, I have at least made good use of it," Ren said in an interview from his office in Henan province, shortly before he was disbarred. "Lawyers should be advocating for society's most vulnerable."
Ren is the latest among prominent rights lawyers in China to have been either threatened with disbarment, or disbarred, after taking on politically sensitive cases, or those which challenge the state's interests. Once a vibrant and growing profession, China's rights lawyers have been buffeted by a wave of political restrictions under President Xi Jinping, who has placed Communist Party rule above rule of law.
Lawyers say justice officials have also been blocking them from meeting clients, who have the right to legal representation in China.
The restrictions stem from a 2015 campaign that jailed or disqualified more than 200 of the country's most aggressive, civically minded legal advocates.
China still arrests and imprisons lawyers for their political advocacy. But now the state has increasingly relied on suspending or permanently revoking their licenses as a less attention-grabbing — and less draconian — punishment to dissuade them from taking on politically contentious cases.
Originally trained as a singer, Ren began his legal education after he sensed the profession promised a path out of his village in impoverished Henan province. Law was an attractive candidate because, "I had seen some movies with lawyers in them, and they seemed cool," says Ren. "A person needs a skill, something they are good at."
He worked odd jobs to pay his way through school. His first two attempts at the bar exam failed, because his side jobs left him no time to study. He succeeded the third time, in 2007.
Ren quickly took on urban demolition cases and rural property disputes that were common in the mid-2000s as a building boom relocated millions of residents. He eventually specialized in religious freedom cases, quietly writing legal briefs for dozens of Falun Gong adherents and Christians.
Last year, he tried to represent Zhang Zhan, a blogger who was sentenced to four years in prison for filming and posting online videos documenting desperate scenes from the early days of Wuhan's COVID-19 lockdown. Ren was removed from the case after Zhang was provided a state-appointed lawyer.
Ren was also unable to meet with Wong Wai-yin, one of the 12 Hong Kongers who tried to flee by boat to Taiwan last year. The attorney says he had Wong's family state in a video, and in a written letter, that Ren was Wong's personal lawyer. But Shenzhen prison guards barred Ren from speaking to Wong, saying he couldn't prove the detainee had hired him. Later, they said Wong had hired another lawyer.
In both Zhang Zhan and Wong Wai-yin's cases, Ren was never able to actually represent his clients — but he believes he was disbarred for simply trying to do so.
"I received several calls from national security officers. They said they had high-level orders from Beijing that I had to drop this Hong Kong case or my lawyer's license might be affected," says Ren. He thought they were bluffing.
In December 2020, Wong was sentenced to seven months in prison for immigration violations. Less than a week later, Ren received a notice from his provincial justice department notifying him he faced disbarment because of written comments he had made during a 2018 Falun Gong case. Ren disputes the charge, because the comments in question were part of standard briefs he submitted to the court.
Fellow lawyer Lu Siwei also lost his license in January after trying to represent one of the 12 Hong Kong escapees. China's justice departments do not divulge disbarment statistics, but Lu is the fourth prominent lawyer to lose his license last month alone.
"They choke you off"
To disbar lawyers, authorities are using 2016 rules banning them from engaging in outspoken behavior outside the courtroom. Lawyers are often their clients' most vocal advocates online and in media interviews.
"They choke you off, step by step, without having to finish you off themselves," says Liu Xiaoyuan, a former partner at the now defunct Fengrui law firm in Beijing. Liu and his firm took on high-profile cases, including the artist Ai Weiwei and Uighur academic Ilham Tohti. His license was revoked in 2019 after nearly four years of legal proceedings prevented him from taking on new cases.
A dozen former and current rights lawyers tell NPR their work has become more difficult in the last five years because of increased surveillance and harassment from local authorities.
"Maybe there's a kind of uptick in measures taken against human rights lawyers just simply because the authorities basically have not so far succeeded in controlling them," says Eva Pils, a King's College London law professor who has known many of China's rights lawyers for years.
"Within half an hour of visiting your client in detention, law officials somehow know who you are representing, and they will call you with their demands: no talking about the case publicly or you lose your license," says a rights lawyer who asked to remain unnamed because he could lose his license for speaking to a reporter.
He says he encountered particular difficulties when representing corporate clients in anti-corruption cases: "Law enforcement officials will find all kinds of excuses to prevent you from meeting your client in such cases, which is a crucial legal service we provide."
The threat of disbarment means lawyers risk their financial livelihood when accepting sensitive cases. "I was a sought-after lawyer so my lawyer fees were also quite high. Losing my license meant a huge loss in income," says Sui Muqing, a Guangdong-based lawyer whose license was permanently revoked in 2018 for his legal advocacy.
The economic sanctions are absolute: Sui's essays remain censored and social media accounts he opens are abruptly frozen, cutting him off from writing revenue.
Progress rolled back
In the mid-2000s, China's rights lawyers notched notable victories that were celebrated nationally. They helped expose a tainted baby formula scandal that led to food safety regulations, defended Christian groups and represented villagers in rural land-grab cases.
That progress coincided with reform efforts. In particular, China's courts were undertaking ambitious measures to increase judicial independence and accountability, even bringing in American judges for training exercises with their Chinese counterparts.
The reforms helped Chinese citizens gain basic legal protections against a powerful party-state, a balance that has tipped back in favor of the latter under Xi.
"The goal of the state is to create an atmosphere where no one dares speak up or take a stand," says Yang Bin, a former lawyer.
Yang was once a prosecutor in southeastern China's Guangdong province, working inside the justice system to institute legal reforms. She became nationally famous in 2005 after asking for clemency while prosecuting Zhou Moying, a single mother of three who was found guilty of drowning her infant because she could not pay their medical bills.
But with the recognition also came more bureaucratic restrictions. A decade after the Zhou case, Yang quit her job within the system and switched sides, becoming a rights lawyer instead.
Her second career was short-lived. In 2019, law authorities canceled her lawyer's license, arguing Yang had violated legal codes of conduct by writing an essay she refused to delete about a rural demolition case she had taken on.
A Beijing law firm offered her a new job and the chance to apply for a new license. But the city's bar association ignored her repeated attempts to schedule an in-person interview, a core application requirement. After months of trying, Yang gave up. She now runs a legal advocacy group.
"I am worn out," Yang said in a phone interview. "Defendants put their hopes on you, but it is difficult to make any legal headway at all, so why shoulder such an immense emotional burden?"
And yet there are lawyers who still try to make legal headway.
Last month, Beijing-based Zhou Ze had his license suspended for one year for posting video stills online showing his client, a fellow lawyer, allegedly being tortured in custody in relation to an anti-corruption case.
A lawyer who tried to represent Zhou was pressured by authorities to stay silent regarding the case. He eventually withdrew from the case in protest, according to an essay Zhou wrote. The essay was deleted from Chinese social media platforms after only a day online.