China's state media on Tuesday accused more than two dozen human rights attorneys rounded up in recent days of being troublemakers intent on illegal activism, as foreign governments and rights groups expressed growing concern over the crackdown.
In its latest tally on Tuesday, the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group said 21 human rights lawyers and civil activists had been detained or have disappeared since last Thursday. Another 125 people — mostly lawyers and activists — have been warned not to speak up or act on behalf of those detained. Many of those who were warned had been detained briefly themselves.
The crackdown targets Chinese lawyers who have joined with civil activists in publicizing alleged unlawful practices by police and courts, drawing public attention to wrongful cases, disputing official narrations of controversial events and challenging authorities to follow the letter of the law.
Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wang said the human rights lawyers had helped build a civil society in China over the past decade to hold authorities accountable, and that the crackdown was part of a "methodological dismantling'' of that civil society since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power.
The U.S. State Department condemned the detentions earlier this week and called for the release of the lawyers, who it said were "seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens.''
China's nationalist newspaper Global Times responded Tuesday by calling the U.S. criticism uncomfortable but inconsequential — like having "chewing gum stuck to your shoe'' — and said it was up to Chinese courts to decide whether the lawyers acted illegally.
State media reports have depicted the lawyers as self-promoters intent on spreading half-truths and arranging illegal protests outside court venues. The official state Xinhua News Agency said lawyers should uphold the law, not engage in "rabble-rousing'' and "mob rule.''
Many of the detained lawyers belong to Beijing law firm Fengrui, which has defended human rights activists and practitioners of the banned spiritual group Falun Gong. Its office was raided by police on Friday.
The Public Security Ministry accused the lawyers of disrupting public order, seeking illicit profits, illegally hiring protesters and trying to unfairly influence the courts, Xinhua said, saying more than 40 such incidents had occurred since July 2012.
The group of human rights lawyers and civil activists has been labeled a major crime gang, which the ministry claimed to have destroyed through a coordinated operation, Xinhua said.
Authorities have considered human rights lawyers a thorn in the side of the state for some time. Last year, state media began to question the reputations of many of the lawyers, saying they were more interested in seeking publicity than practicing their trade inside the courtroom.
A trigger for the crackdown may have been a police shooting in May in which members of the Chinese public questioned whether an officer acted properly in drawing a gun and fatally shooting an unarmed but irate man inside a train station in northeastern China.
Wu Gan, an activist with ties to the Fengrui firm known for his raucous but effective methods, obtained a video clip showing the police officer beating up the man before he was shot. Rights lawyers offered legal opinions, and liberal intellectuals wrote commentaries demanding that the authorities be held accountable in conducting an investigation.
To defend the police officer, authorities released earlier video footage highlighting the erratic and violent behavior of the man prior to the shooting. Still, public doubts lingered, showing the power of activists to thwart the official narrative.
Wu was detained on May 20 when rallying public support for a separate case in southern China. He's been arrested on charges of inciting to overthrow state power as well as libel and provoking trouble.
Wu was nominally an employee of Fengrui, as an administrative assistant, though it's unclear what work he did for the firm and how he was paid. Such an arrangement for activists by people who are sympathetic with their causes is not unheard of in China.
Zhou Shifeng, the firm's head, praised Wu for his effectiveness just one day before Zhou himself was forcibly taken away by police. The Xinhua report said Zhou was being investigated for "severe violations of law.''