Last week’s government crackdown on human rights lawyers pitted two friends and colleagues against each other as one accused the other of embezzlement and sexual misconduct.

Zhou Shifeng, chairman of the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm, is at the centre of the storm which saw 23 legal professionals arrested in one day. He has been accused by state media of leading a “criminal gang” which paid protesters and petitioners to hype up legal cases, mislead the public and sway court decisions.

But one of the most crushing accusations comes from his friend, colleague and former classmate Huang Liqun. Huang is a lawyer also in police detention, who told investigators that Zhou once sexually assaulted a female employee, whilst a state media report published on Saturday accused Zhou of “having inappropriate relationships with at least five women.”

Both Zhou and Huang have now been in custody for a week. Both have “pleaded guilty” according to official media reports which did not specify the charges. Whilst it was not possible to contact either lawyer to confirm the allegations, state media has portrayed a spectacular betrayal between two of the country’s top legal professionals.

china lawyers crackdown
Left: Zhou Shifeng; Right: Huang Liqun.

“Confession” On National TV

On July 10, Zhou was taken away by police from a Beijing hotel hours after his client Zhang Miao, who was arrested for helping a German magazine report on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, was released.

On the same day, Huang was also detained in the nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers and activists, which has seen more than 200 people targeted. Fengrui Law Firm was searched by security forces and several employees were taken in for questioning.

Huang now appears to have turned against his friend and colleague Zhou. On July 11, the 58-year-old “confessed” on national TV, painting Zhou as a fame-seeking criminal who has “ulterior political motives.”

“He organised, planned and represented some so-called sensitive cases. He put pressure on judges inside the court. Outside the court, he organised, planned and hired professional troublemakers to hold banners, shout slogans to echo his actions inside the court in order to reach goals which could not have otherwise been reached by performing legal procedures. This is his ulterior political aim. He also made money out of it,” Huang said on CCTV.

Xinhua News Agency quoted Huang as saying Zhou considers himself the Song Jiang of the legal sector. Song Jiang, often called “China’s Robin Hood”, is a historical figure from the Song Dynasty who led a group of 108 justice-promoting outlaws.

The news agency also quoted Huang as saying Zhou likes to hire lawyers who don’t abide by the law, citing one lawyer Liu Sixin as “an ex-convict who doesn’t have a lawyer’s license.”

According to publicly available information, Liu has a Master of Laws degree from the Chinese University of Political Science, an international law degree from the American University Washington College of Law and a doctor’s degree in criminal law from Peking University.

Once Friends

Huang Liqun and Zhou Shifeng met in 1993 when they both enrolled on the Master of Laws class at China’s prestigious Peking University.

After graduation, the two friends took different paths. Huang, coming from a family of legal professionals and having worked for the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court – a local court – pursued his legal career “inside the system.”

Huang worked for China’s legislature the National People’s Congress (NPC), held key positions in the NPC’s legal affairs and judicial affairs committees. He was later put in charge of the NPC’s complaints bureau, which deals with petitioners from across the country who come to central authorities to lodge against local officials.

Zhou on the other hand made his name as a civil rights lawyer, taking on many high-profile cases including the tainted milk scandal that shocked the nation in 2008. He founded the Beijing Fengrui Law Firm in 2007, building a team of some of the best legal talents from the country’s most prestigious law schools. He received an “outstanding lawyer award” from 2009 to 2011 and “excellent legal service individual award” in 2010 and 2011 from the Beijing municipal government.

The two classmates’ paths crossed again in 2013 when Huang quit the NPC to join Zhou’s law firm as a junior lawyer. Huang was 56 at the time, and his departure from a high-level government job just four years before retirement caused a stir.

In an interview with The Beijing News in October 2013, Huang said being a lawyer needs passion. “I want to fulfill my dream while I can still run.”

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.