Washington Post: A lawyer in China fought for the vulnerable. Was he killed for it?



Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Washington Post
By Editorial Board
March 28 at 7:19 PM

ON FEB. 25, a Chinese human rights lawyer, Li Baiguang, checked into a military hospital in Nanjing, China, complaining of stomach pains. Within hours, he was dead, reportedly of liver failure, even though he had no known medical problems. His death at age 49 can be described only as suspicious and comes at a time when China continues to tighten the screws against human rights work and democracy.

Mr. Li was on the front lines of that struggle. His early activities included defending peasants who were forced off their land by local Communist Party officials and government authorities. Later, he defended worshipers at unofficial churches that were subject to persecution. He came to Washington in 2006 with a delegation organized by ChinaAid, a Christian human rights group, and met with President George W. Bush twice. When he was given the 2008 Democracy Award by the National Endowment for Democracy, Mr. Li noted that China’s breakneck economic growth had left the country “lagging behind in advancing freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law.” But, he declared, it was still worthwhile to use China’s laws to defend the most vulnerable against “abuses of official authority.” Mr. Li was among those who signed Charter 08, the daring manifesto unveiled in December 2008 calling for democracy and human rights in China, pioneered in part by Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who later died after spending years in a Chinese prison for his beliefs.

Mr. Li was also repeatedly detained and imprisoned; his lawyer’s license was withheld; and he was sometimes treated violently. According to ChinaAid, he recently received anonymous death threats after being kidnapped in Zhejiang province and beaten up for his work representing victims of an illegal governmental land grab. “Frightened, Li left and reported the incident to the police, who discovered that the car he was abducted in was owned by a female official,” the group said.

Li Baiguang, second from left, and other Chinese
human rights activists. (Handout/Reuters)
For more than two years, Chinese authorities have been trying to dismantle the network of lawyers who help defend victims of human rights abuses, arresting them arbitrarily and closing down law firms. The campaign underscores once again that China has laws but has not yet established rule of law. In a genuine rule-of-law state, no one is above the law, not even the Communist Party, which lords over the population with impunity.

The party’s grip has recently grown still stronger. A reorganization being undertaken after the removal of term limits on President Xi Jinping has put the party more directly in control of such important areas as the news media, books, film, the economy, foreign affairs, religion and other matters. Government departments that had overseen many of these areas are being absorbed into the party apparatus, giving the reins directly to the Communist Party officials.

By his labors, often challenging the powerful, Mr. Li showed that lawyers in China could make a difference against a powerful and entrenched system. That ideal must not be abandoned.


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