Ding Jiaxi is caught in a sprawling crackdown in which hundreds of lawyers and others have been harassed, disbarred, detained or jailed. Their offense: using the courts to wage a battle for civil rights in China. The story of Ding’s ordeal, including allegations of torture and years of separation from his family, shows the Communist Party’s determination to crush the movement – and the activists’ resolve to carry on.
Filed: 22 September, 2022, 11 a.m. GMT
After years apart from his family, a Chinese lawyer put aside his high-stakes work and flew to America for a reunion with his wife and two daughters.
Ding Jiaxi, formerly a successful corporate attorney, was now practicing a perilous vocation: human rights law in China. It was the fall of 2017. A year earlier, Ding had been released after serving three and a half years in prison for his rights activism. He had only now managed to join his family, who’d taken refuge in Alfred, a leafy town of clapboard homes in western New York, where some locals don’t bother to lock their doors.
His wife, engineer Sophie Luo Shengchun, begged him to stay. But he went back to China after two months. “I knew it was no use,” Luo said in an interview on the verandah of her small house.
Ding found his calling irresistible. As a lead member of a band of legal activists, he was waging a longshot battle for justice in Chinese courts, always under police surveillance, rarely staying long at any one place. “In China, you need to be on the ground,” Luo said Ding told her. “You need people to know that you will be there to go through difficulties with them.”
Two years later, he was back behind bars – where, Luo says, he was tortured and denied access to a lawyer for more than a year.
Ding’s ordeal is described in a submission to a court in Shandong Province by his lawyer. Jailers bombarded Ding with the soundtrack of a propaganda film about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule, blared at maximum volume, 24 hours a day, for 10 days. Interrogators later strapped Ding to a “tiger bench” for seven days straight. In this rack-like form of torture, the tightly bound prisoner sits bolt upright with legs stretched out horizontally, joints and muscles straining in agony.
After more than two years in custody, Ding, 55, went on trial in Shandong’s Linshu County on June 24 on charges of subverting state power, according to a copy of the indictment. The trial lasted one day and was held behind closed doors. The verdict has yet to be announced; Ding’s fellow rights defenders expect a heavy sentence.
Ding is one of the highest-profile targets of the ruling Communist Party’s sprawling, multiyear clampdown on rights lawyers and legal scholars. That campaign has intensified since Xi took power a decade ago and began crushing rivals in and outside the Party. It escalated in 2015 with what’s known in China as the “709” crackdown, a reference to July 9 of that year, when security forces began arresting and harassing rights lawyers across the country.
As Xi maneuvers to secure a third term as leader at a Party congress next month, the campaign grinds on. Hundreds of lawyers, legal academics and activists have been swept up. Some have been tortured and given lengthy prison sentences, while others have been disbarred and subject to secret detention, according to Chinese lawyers and human rights groups.
Among those arrested is Xu Zhiyong, a close friend of Ding. Xu was also tried on subversion charges, two days before Ding. That verdict too is unknown. The two lawyers were instrumental in founding the New Citizens’ Movement, a loose collection of civil rights groups and individuals that came together in 2011 and 2012 in a bid to end authoritarian rule in China.
Ding and Xu are in detention and couldn’t be interviewed. This account of Ding’s struggle is based on interviews with his wife, six fellow human rights activists, lawyers and legal scholars, as well as court documents related to his two trials.
China’s Justice Ministry and Ministry of Public Security did not respond to questions from Reuters for this report. Beijing rejects criticism that it violates basic rights of its citizens, saying China is a country of laws and that individual rights are respected.
The Party’s vast internal security apparatus dwarfs this movement of idealistic legal activists – but sees it as a real threat regardless. From 18th century France to the democratizing Asian tigers of South Korea and Taiwan, lawyers have been instrumental in pressuring authoritarian regimes to establish basic but potentially revolutionary legal protections, political freedoms and property rights.
“In country after country, lawyers have been in the vanguard of those transitions,” said Terence Halliday, a professor at the American Bar Foundation who has worked closely with Chinese rights defenders. “We see it time and time again, and the Chinese Communist Party has arrived at the same conclusion.”
Chinese and foreign legal scholars say the use of the legal code to stifle dissent delivers the appearance of legitimacy in an era when Xi is calling for the Party to rule China through “law-based governance.” China has expanded its legal profession in recent years, but rights attorneys find the deck stacked against them.
They account for a tiny fraction – about 300 – of the country’s more than 500,000 registered lawyers. They are up against the so-called “iron triangle,” the prosecutors, judges and police who cement the Party’s absolute control over the justice system. For suspects in politically sensitive cases, verdicts are usually determined in advance, and the rights of defendants are routinely violated during investigations and pre-trial procedures, some Chinese lawyers and human rights groups say.
Like Ding, rights lawyers face harassment and intimidation on lonely trips to help clients in far-flung courts, prisons and police stations. Ordinary citizens stand little chance against the state. Conviction rates in Chinese trial courts have reached almost 100%, according to a report this year by the Madrid-based rights group Safeguard Defenders. Of the 1.715 million judgments delivered last year, just 511 were not guilty. The conviction rate of 99.97% was the highest since data was first recorded in 1980, the group said.
An ambitious dream
Beyond a quest for justice, the most outspoken lawyers admit they have a bigger goal: to chip away at the power of the Communist Party, one case at a time. Each trial is an opportunity to use the law to restrain authorities, they say. They dream of a China where the rights and freedoms enshrined in the country’s constitution become a reality.
Ding expressed this hope in a statement to the court in his first trial, in April 2014. “I want to be a citizen who has an opinion and a voice,” he said. “I want to be a butterfly. The incessant fluttering of the wings of butterflies will certainly fan the wind of social transformation.” In tomorrow’s China, he said, citizens will “enjoy freedom of expression, assembly, and association. Justice belongs to us!”
Still, before Ding left his wife in Alfred, he was under no illusion victory was near. “Wait for me for 10 years,” Luo recalls him saying. “If after 10 years I don’t succeed in my idea for China, to bring civil society to China, I am going to come back and reunite with you, any way I can.”
The crackdown on lawyers has spread to Hong Kong, where the Communist Party has clamped down on opposition after anti-government protests paralyzed the city in 2019. The imposition of a draconian National Security Law in 2020 is paving the way for the Party to tighten control over the city’s traditionally independent, British-style system of justice.
Under the law, the city’s chief executive gets to appoint a panel of judges who preside over security cases. Senior officials in Hong Kong now openly dispute that there is a separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches, long seen as a cornerstone of the city’s political system. According to a July report by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Hong Kong prosecutors played a key role in carrying out political prosecutions in the city.
Some of the city's leading pro-democracy lawyers have been arrested and prosecuted in the crackdown. Others have fled abroad or renounced pro-democracy activities.
In response to questions from Reuters about the crackdown, a Hong Kong government spokesman said all defendants “will undergo a fair trial by an independent judiciary” and that judges “administer justice without fear or favor and without bias, based only on the law.” The spokesman added: “Cases will never be handled any differently owing to the profession, political beliefs or background of the persons involved.”
From engineer to lawyer
A native of central China’s Hubei Province, Ding originally trained as a jet-engine engineer at Beihang University, an elite science and technology school in Beijing. He joined the student demonstrators during the 1989 Tiananmen Square upheaval, but wasn’t there when the military crushed the protest, he said in a 2017 interview with Cao Yaxue, a Washington-based researcher who chronicles the legal human rights movement on the website China Change.
After working in an aircraft engineering institute, Ding returned to Beihang for post-graduate study. Luo was a fellow post-grad there when the couple met in 1992.
“I’ll always remember the first time I saw him,” said Luo. “He had such a bright smile and big teeth. I felt my heart fall in love with him right away. From that moment, my life changed.” Just over a year later they married.
While at Beihang, Ding grew interested in the law, studied in his spare time and passed the bar exam. From 1996, he worked at a succession of law firms, eventually specializing in intellectual property, where his technical background gave him an edge.
While Ding was establishing his practice, Luo went to the United States to study materials science at Alfred University, leaving their three-year-old daughter with him in Beijing. They had a second child after Ding visited Alfred, and Luo later rejoined her husband and their two girls in China. By 2003, Ding and colleagues had set up the Dehong Law Firm in Beijing.
Under Ding’s management, the firm thrived. By 2013, when he was first arrested, it employed 20 lawyers and had an annual income of 25 million yuan (about $3.5 million), Ding told Cao in the 2017 interview. He lived large: He spent at least 100,000 yuan a year on golf, stayed in five-star hotels and ate delicacies such as bird’s nest soup and abalone every day. Luo recalls that Ding threw himself into his work, leaving home for the office before the family awoke and returning late at night after socializing with clients. At times she felt they lived separate lives.
In 2011, Ding went to Fordham University in the United States as a visiting scholar at the law school. The high-flying commercial lawyer had begun to see China in a different light. His new access to the internet outside China’s Great Firewall opened his eyes to a community of rights lawyers and activists working for change, Luo said. While Ding was at Fordham, Chinese police began rounding up activists and lawyers who had taken part in pro-democracy protests in February 2011, inspired by Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution.
“It was definitely a critical turning point,” Luo said. “He got a lot of information he could not see before. He completely changed. Now, everything in China was not okay.”
When Ding returned home late that year, he renewed contact with an activist he’d met in the early 2000s. Xu Zhiyong, a high-profile lawyer and scholar, was a pioneer of the Weiquan (Rights) Movement. Unlike Ding, Xu had been an activist since his student days, with a vision of a free, democratic China.
Xu and two close friends, Teng Biao and Yu Jiang, were studying for law doctorates at Beijing University in 2003 when a sensational story broke. A young college graduate named Sun Zhigang was beaten to death while in police custody in the southern city of Guangzhou. Sun had been arrested because he lacked the required residence documents to live and work away from his home in Hubei Province.
The scandal erupted as some Chinese media outlets were taking advantage of a brief period of relative freedom, now long extinguished. Reports of the killing sparked an uproar and forced authorities to punish the offenders. One was executed.
Xu and his two colleagues filed an appeal to China’s parliament to scrap the custody-and-repatriation policy used to control where people live and work. The policy “was obviously unconstitutional,” said Teng, who left China to avoid arrest in 2014 and now lives in the United States. “Lawyers and scholars played a significant role in that case.” Months later, the government abolished the policy.
The “three doctors,” as the law students were nicknamed, became famous. “That was considered the beginning of the Weiquan Movement,” said Cao.
Xu, Teng and others later established a movement known in English as the Open Constitution Initiative. Its lawyers took on clients including dissidents, victims of food contamination and persecuted Christians. Under police pressure, the Initiative closed in 2009, Teng said, but the lawyers carried on.
Once back in China, Ding began working closely with Xu, Teng and others, holding discussions and seminars on China’s constitution and law reform. As Xi Jinping was taking power, the New Citizens’ Movement was becoming active in politics. In a provocative 2012 essay published online, Xu described it as a “political movement in which this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism.” Xu’s essay was a direct challenge to the Party, and it was swiftly censored.
Xu and Ding became close friends, Teng said. “It’s a kind of perfect combination,” he said. “Xu has clear ideas and a view of the big picture. Ding Jiaxi is an effective organizer.”
Xu, 49, is openly confrontational, having published essays and letters online that call for the end of Party rule. Some colleagues say he has personal political ambitions, wanting to one day play a role in a democratic China. In 2020, while on the run from police, Xu wrote a searing open letter to Xi, accusing him of lacking intellect and courage and calling on him to step down.