AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Being a human rights lawyer in China is dangerous and lately more so. Advocates there say police have detained or questioned nearly 150 lawyers and activists in recent days in an extensive nationwide campaign. Most have been released; some are missing and unaccounted for. But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the charges against the lawyers, such as disturbing the peace and spreading rumors, seem fairly mild.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: This state TV report and others focus on one particular Beijing law firm. They accused its lawyers of organizing protests and spreading rumors on the Internet to influence the outcome of court cases they were involved in. What the reports did not mention was that the police detained or questioned scores of other rights lawyers in more than a dozen provinces around China. Veteran human rights lawyer Tung Biao (ph) says that this is the biggest single crackdown on his colleagues since they became active in China more than a decade ago. He reckons China's relatively young legal system has about 200 to 300 active human rights lawyers. He doubts authorities are capable of silencing or locking them all up.
TUNG BIAO: (Through interpreter) Authorities would like to sweep up all the rights lawyers at once because their defense of human rights and their demands for more freedom are becoming better organized and are increasingly seen as a threat.
KUHN: Tung was speaking from Cambridge, Mass. He fled mainland China two years ago to avoid arrest. As for the lawyers who were accused of taking to the streets and to the Internet to influence court cases, Tung says lawyers in China have to resort to such methods because the legal system is stacked against them.
BIAO: (Through interpreter) Lawyers do this because they have exhausted all other legal procedures. That's why they turn to the media or hold protests, sit-ins or hunger strikes outside the courthouse.
KUHN: Lawyers complain that police routinely deny them access to their clients or even torture confessions out of them. Officials often instruct judges what verdicts to reach. In recent days, state media have made many other accusations against the rights lawyers, that they promote subversive Western values, they draw attention to politically sensitive cases and they use public opinion to put pressure on the government. Beijing-based rights lawyer Shaung Bao Jun (ph) notes that none of these are illegal under Chinese law.
SHAUNG BAO JUN: (Foreign language spoken).
KUHN: "The government just wants us lawyers to be obedient," he says with an exasperated laugh. "They just don't want us to make unharmonious noises." Since he took power two years ago, President Xi Jinping has emphasized the rule of law and even the protection of citizens' rights. But his administration has taken a hard line on civil society, academic and media freedoms. Alarmed Chinese activists suggest that President Obama should respond by canceling President Xi's state visit to the U.S. in September. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.