State Department spokesman John Kirby expressed U.S. alarm at the detentions, which Chinese state media said were meant to break a “rights-defense” movement suspected of instigating protests to manipulate opinion and influence court rulings. The crackdown comes days after China’s parliament passed a sweeping national security law vowing to “defend the people’s democratic dictatorship” and preserve “social tranquility.”
“We are deeply concerned that the broad scope of the new national security law is being used as a legal facade to commit human rights abuses,” Kirby said in statement issued Sunday night in Washington. “We strongly urge China to respect the rights of all of its citizens and to release all those who have recently been detained for seeking to protect the rights of Chinese citizens.”
The detentions are the latest move to squelch dissent under President Xi Jinping, who has since taking power in 2012 assumed personal control over an overhaul of China’s national security apparatus. Lawyers have been under particular pressure, with authorities indicting rights advocate Pu Zhiqiang for “picking quarrels and causing trouble” despite U.S. objections to his yearlong detention.
Among those targeted in the latest crackdown are Fengrui Law Firm director Zhou Shifeng and at least five others affiliated with the Beijing-based firm, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
The lawyers are accused of “disrupting public order and seeking profits by illegally hiring protesters and swaying court decisions in the name of defending justice and public interests,” Xinhua said, citing a statement by the Ministry of Public Security. The group worked with petitioners to organize more than 40 public incidents since July 2012, including protests over a fatal police shooting in the northeastern Heilongjiang province in May, the report said.
More than 50 human rights lawyers and activists had been targeted as of Saturday, Amnesty International said.
Representatives for the Fengrui Law Firm couldn’t reached for comment. The firm’s website has been shut down and its phone number was no longer listed.
“To a large extent, this seems like a politically motivated purge,” William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, said, adding that the “sensitive cases” cited by authorities was a euphemism for ones the government doesn’t support. “They used social media and peaceful protesting as advocacy tools to help improve their chances of getting favorable outcomes for their clients.”
China passed its new security law at a time of growing anxiety for the Communist Party, which is grappling with slowing growth, market turmoil, ethnic unrest and territorial disputes with the country’s neighbors.
Wu Hailong, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations’ Geneva office, defended the law as necessary to protect the country from severe threats, Xinhua reported Sunday. Provisions asserting the rights and freedom of citizens showed that the law was “people-centered and human rights-oriented,” Xinhua quoted Wu as saying, citing a written response from Wu to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’Ad Al-Hussein.
Zeid said last week that the “extraordinarily broad” and vaguely worded law “left the door wide open to further restrictions of the rights and freedoms of Chinese citizens.”
The lawyers “confessed” to receiving financial support from overseas, Xinhua said, echoing the Communist Party’s oft-leveled charge of foreign meddling in China’s affairs. Guancha.cn, a state-backed, Shanghai-based news site, cited links between the firm and U.S. Representative Chris Smith, of New Jersey, the Republican chairman of the House subcommittee that overseas global human rights.
Smith issued a statement after the first sweeps were reported last week, saying he had met some of the lawyers held and that he condemned their detention.