In early December, I chose to accept an invitation for UIA to attend the first Global Lawyers Forum, an event hosted by the All China Lawyers Association (ACLA) in Guangzhou with support of the Chinese Ministry of Justice. I joined hundreds of lawyers from China and other countries around the world, local and international bar association leaders, and Justice Ministry officials from the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, for two days of panel discussions on December 9-10.
It was not an easy decision.
On the one hand, ACLA is a member organization of UIA. It represents all of the more than 400,000 lawyers practicing in China, a hugely important legal sector that was built from scratch starting 40 years ago. (The legal profession was abolished altogether in 1958 and allowed to resume only in 1979.) Chinese lawyers are deeply entwined with the country’s Belt and Road economic initiative and are increasingly important to the international legal scene, with major US and European firms implanted in Beijing, and Chinese firms branching into many cities abroad.
But UIA’s Institute for the Rule of Law (IROL) has called out the Chinese government repeatedly in recent years for harassing, persecuting and prosecuting lawyers. Members of the bar have been “disappeared”, subjected to show trials on vague charges of “subverting” the state, and denied any meaningful opportunity to defend themselves. Some are still in custody. As IROL has pointed out, these lawyers have done nothing more than exercise their profession and represent their clients zealously. They have paid a dear price for it.
In the end, though, I believed that engagement with our fellow Chinese lawyers was the better course over boycotting the Forum, especially given the UIA’s principal mission of advocating international exchange of views across borders. As a keynote speaker, I planned to directly address the importance of the Rule of Law as defined by international standards, including its essential aspects of protection of human rights, separation of powers, and a free and independent bar.
I ended up taking heat from both sides. Certain human rights defenders decried the participation of international bar leaders (including the Presidents of UIA, IBA, CCBE, Lawasia, IPBA, and the Bar Association of England and Wales). They argued that our presence only served to legitimize a ruthless regime. Although I disagreed with their ultimate judgment about whether to attend, I certainly understood their viewpoint and the serious rights violations that underlay it.
Chinese authorities were also unhappy with my intended speech. When I submitted my final advance draft as required by conference organizers, which included several paragraphs on the meaning of the Rule of Law, I was promptly told through official channels that there was no longer “time” for my remarks at the opening ceremony. I further listened with grave concern as the Minister of Justice explained at a private gathering the morning of the Forum that China had a different Rule of Law, the “socialist” version, necessary for the prosperity and security of its 1.4 billion people. This alternative version made no reference to judicial or bar independence or to human rights. It emphasized instead, for example, the need for law to serve the ultimate goal of national economic success and the role of lawyers in helping draft legislation favored by the authorities.
At this point, I decided to double down. At a private meeting with the ACLA President, I objected to the fact that my opening ceremony speech was cancelled so abruptly. He apologized by saying in essence that he had no choice. He further assured me that I would have the opportunity to speak at a round table organized by ACLA for international bar leaders. And so, when given the floor in a crowded albeit smaller amphitheater later that afternoon, before scores of national and international bar representatives, I used the short time allotted to me to emphasize that there is only one Rule of Law, not different versions for different countries. I insisted that the Rule of Law is immutable, and that it necessarily includes protection of human rights, separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary and of the bar. Several other speakers echoed that message. We rejected twisting of the phrase “Rule of Law” to mean simply enforcement of government-decreed laws, regardless of their lack of substantive and procedural fairness or of systemic injustices. Our comments were met with polite silence, downward gazes, and scribbled notes — before courtesy and protocol kicked back in.
I left China with conflicted feelings. I had met wonderful Chinese lawyers whom I came to consider as friends. They were anxious to get involved in the international legal scene, eager to exchange information, and excited to learn how UIA could help them interact with colleagues around the globe. Their hospitality was heartfelt and generous. I attended an interesting panel discussion on international arbitration fora that was no different in tone than arbitration discussions in the US. I also visited Chinese wonders — from a nighttime cruise along the Pearl River in Guangzhou, as spectacular laser lights danced across towers lining the waterway, to the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing and its daunting stone courtyards abutted by shaded alleys with delicate carved arbors.
But I had also witnessed first-hand the risk of the manipulation of the concept of Rule of Law to mean its opposite. I listened to the invocation of lofty principles to legitimize state control rather than an independent bar. And I heard the understandable pride of a nation in its historic economic achievements used to justify rejection of universal values that lawyers cherish around the globe. Though I tried to maximize what little time I was afforded to speak out against the distortion of the Rule of Law, it is difficult to measure what impact — if any — my brief comments may have had.
With the benefit of reflection, I remain deeply committed to China and to the many lawyers of good will I met there. I look forward to continuing this critical debate, as tumultuous as it may be. I remain convinced that we at UIA can respect the challenges China faces while doing our utmost to influence change in favor of the free, independent bar and judiciary that a great nation like China deserves.