By Cheung Yiu-leung, vice-chairperson of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group

The unrest in Hong Kong since June is unprecedented since the 1967 leftist riots. History seems to be laughing in Hong Kong’s face today: the essence of the current conflict in Hong Kong regarding the extradition bill is Hongkongers’ distrust of mainland China. Was that not the case as well 52 summers ago?

In the past few months, the Chief Executive, Senior Counsel within the Executive Council, former senior legislative officials, and “patriotic” legal professionals in Hong Kong have all claimed that Hong Kong people “should believe that the mainland legal system has already improved a lot.” Is this true?

709 crackdown anniversary court of final appeal
Lawyers mark the fourth anniversary of the 709 crackdown in mainland China. Photo: CHRLCG.

In the past year, banners and slogans against the “New Five Black” can be seen in cities all over China. In today’s China, where surveillance is omnipresent, are there really that many triad and criminal organisations?

The Ministry of Public Security said that up till 2019, the police have “uncovered 1,292 criminal organisations and 5,593 criminal gangs involving evil forces, authorities investigated 14,000 cases regarding criminal corruption and ‘protective umbrellas’ of organised crime, and received more than 300,000 complaints from citizens through various means regarding the national criminal syndicate combat online.”

In the process of this movement to “protect the rule of law” with Chinese characteristics, most of the cases have been tried in jurisdictions outside of where the incidents took place. Arrested individuals’ rights to meet with lawyers have been severely restricted, given that they are under “residential surveillance in a designated location.”

Until this very day, all defendants have been convicted in the Court of First Instance, and the original verdicts were upheld on appeal without a proper trial. This has resulted in a lot of renowned Beijing criminal defence lawyers being reluctant to accept cases related to such organisations and individuals.

The Chinese legal sector, especially experts in the study of torture, once optimistically believed that with the amendment of the Chinese Criminal Procedure Law, which dictates that suspects have to be sent to a detention centre in a timely manner to avoid abuse of power by investigators, the use of inhumane means to force confessions had already greatly decreased.

This might be the basis for those in Hong Kong who claim that the Chinese legal system has greatly improved. However, in China’s version of the rule of law defendants are still placed under residential surveillance, stripped of the right to meet their lawyers, accompanied day after day only by investigators sent by the state, and have no hope of a confession forced by torture being overturned in court. The current legal procedure is fertile soil for forced confessions.

709 crackdown anniversary court of final appeal
Protesters call for the release of those jailed after the 709 crackdown. Photo: CHRLCG.

The Zhu brothers case in Hunan last year caused quite a stir in China. Zhu Chengzhi was a renowned local private entrepreneur, and was a deputy of the National People’s Congress and a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in addition to being deeply involved in charity work.

However, he was arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” While Zhu was under residential surveillance in a designated location, public security agents began collecting complaints regarding Zhu, which resulted in another dozen additional charges against him. Zhu pleaded not guilty to all of them.

After half a year, Zhu finally had the chance to meet his lawyer for the first time, and he listed the torture that he had to endure during his detention: in addition to the more routine deprivation of food and water he was also hung from the ceiling and beaten, had to endure corporal punishments and humiliation, and the most shocking of all, he was forced to eat his own faeces.

Reassurance regarding China’s so-called “rule of law” does not come as simple as having the Secretary for Justice say “We will ask Mainland Courts to guarantee the legal rights of surrendered persons.”

China police
Photo: Wikicommons.

During two meetings at the beginning of this year, the Deputy Attorney-General of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, Zhang Sunqian, also condemned the tactics used in the crackdown on organised crime: “The Procuratorate issued an emergency notice in the past year, asking local procuratorates to be strict regarding arrests and prosecutions. If the organisations are not actual criminal organisations, they cannot be defined as such.”

If even the Supreme People’s Procuratorate does not have confidence in the ability of local procuratorates, namely the people who can arrest and prosecute persons, to be fair and accurate over what constitutes a criminal offence, then how can Hong Kong people be asked to believe that “China’s legal system has greatly improved?”

Barrister Cheung Yiu-leung is the vice-chairperson of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, which advocates the rule of law and legal reform in mainland China.

Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.