For many of China’s 200,000- plus lawyers, life is looking good.
A thriving economy has boosted demand for corporate legal advice and family lawyers are benefiting from a rise in the number of divorce and child custody cases.
But for the few hundred Chinese lawyers that have chosen to specialise in civil and human rights law, the last few years have not been so good.
In 2010 new legislation made it a crime to take on “sensitive” cases and dozens of lawyers were harrassed, disbarred or detained in the wake of the more recent political unrest in north Africa and the Middle East.
And now, another new development: the government has announced that it requires all new lawyers to swear allegiance to the ruling Communist Party.
“The new oath is yet another ominous step in a continuing campaign in recent years to restrain lawyers from representing clients seen as challenging Party rule,” Stanley Lubman, an expert on the Chinese legal system, warned in an article published on Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time website.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the People’s Daily begged to differ, quoting officials at the Ministry of Justice as saying that the new oath was required to “raise the ideological and political quality, and professional ethics and skills” of the legal profession.
The previous oath – which required that lawyers “uphold China’s law and the constitution” – was a broadly similar commitment to that made by legal professionals in the US and Europe.
The new wording reads thus:
“I will faithfully perform the sacred duties of a legal worker under socialism with Chinese characteristics; to be faithful to the motherland and the people; to uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system; to safeguard the dignity of the constitution and the law.”
A note accompanying the new oath on the Ministy of Justice’s website says that all new lawyers must make the pledge within three months of starting to practice.
It was not clear whether lawyers already holding licences will have to swear the oath too.
“Why not just make them all join the Communist Party?” one weibo user quipped.
Some Chinese media outlets have also made it clear they consider the move another backwards step, especially given the recent controversy over the new ‘secret detention’ law (see WiC143).
“The problem is that traditionally the rule of man is greater than the rule of law here,” an editorial on the Xinhua Baoya newsportal observed. “Our country is trying to feel its way across the river by feeling the stones, but the government keeps removing them.”
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