Lawyer Yang Bin paid a heavy price for sheltering prominent Chinese civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong in her house for a week.
Since Xu was taken away by police from her home on February 15, there have been four cameras installed in the alleyway outside Yang’s home to monitor everybody who comes and goes.
The former prosecutor has also not been able to take up a job offer at a Beijing law firm. The Beijing Lawyers Association has not approved her application and her lawyer’s licence was suspended recently because she had not practised for a year.
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Yang said all these hardships were linked to her daring move to shelter Xu.
Xu had been on the run since late 2019 after a meeting with other civil rights activists in Xiamen in southeastern Fujian province. The meeting discussed the prospect democratic reforms in China, a taboo topic that challenges the one-party rule of the Communist Party.
Six of the participants were later arrested and Xu, 47, had been hiding in various places for two months by the time he arrived at Yang’s farmhouse in Guangzhou in southern Guangdong province.
Throughout the time, he had been careful not to leave a trace, throwing away his mobile phone when he left Xiamen, taking care when accessing the internet and telling no one where he was staying.
But during the two months, Xu called attention to himself in one major way: he wrote an open letter calling for President Xi Jinping to step down, demanding that Xi be held responsible for the government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic.
Xu hid for about a week in Yang’s three-storey farmhouse on Seagull Island before about two dozen police besieged the property on February 15.
Xu, who was staying on the third floor, shouted something at Yang as the police led him downstairs, but she could not hear it. He has since been detained without access to a lawyer.
“I’ve always regretted not having a long talk with Xu before he was arrested, to ask him if he had anything to say,” Yang told the South China Morning Post.
How the authorities found Xu is not known. But Xu’s girlfriend, Li Qiaochu, a Beijing-based labour activist and feminist, said she heard from the police that he was identified via facial recognition cameras in Xiamen. The video clips were sent to Beijing police for verification.
Li was detained the same day Xu was caught and held in custody for four months. Yang, her husband and her 20-year-old son were detained for 24 hours.
Yang said that during the interrogation, the police repeatedly asked her why she helped Xu.
“I respect him,” she replied.
“I’m not afraid of the police. I was just so angry. I called them gangsters to their faces.”
Before that, Yang and Xu had only met once in at meeting in Beijing. Yang said she had heard about Xu’s human rights work and how he had been jailed for four years for his activism.
But Yang was no dissident then.
She had spent 23 years in as a prosecutor in Guangzhou and had high hopes for the Communist Party and the country’s legal system. She came to national prominence in 2011, when despite being a prosecutor, she pleaded for mercy for an impoverished mother who drowned her one-year-old sick daughter.
Yang said to the judge at the time: “We can’t ignore the social structure behind this disaster, we can’t forget the grass-roots people who are struggling for survival, and their suffering and fate. This is also the conscience that the law should have.”
Yang helped to take care of the defendant's other children. Her behaviour sparked widespread debate but also made her popular among the public.
She was given an award by a newspaper under the Supreme People’s Procuratorate as “a person of justice of the year”.
Three years later, she founded an NGO called Tianxiang Compassion, helping people whose lives have been affected by criminal cases.
In 2015, she resigned as a public prosecutor to become a private lawyer, saying she wanted to have the freedom to choose her cases.
She would not bow to any pressure and she trusted she could fight for justice by making use of the legal system.
Her first case after becoming a lawyer was to sue the Guangzhou Lawyers Association for requiring lawyers to apply for a certificate stating that they have no criminal record before they can practise.
The requirement was not written in Chinese law and Yang eventually won, although through withdrawing the case.
In 2019, she represented several villagers in Kunming, Yunnan province, whose houses were forcibly demolished and she posted on social media about the case. When authorities asked her to delete the post, she refused, arguing that she was exercising her freedom of speech.
She believes that this offended her boss and her contract was not renewed when it expired in May last year.
Yang found a job with a law firm in Beijing, but the Beijing Lawyers Association has not arranged a time for an interview with her, a requirement for lawyers to practise in the city.
On August 17 this year, the Guangdong Department of Justice told her they decided to suspend her lawyer’s licence because she was had not been hired by a law firm, a decision she plans to file a lawsuit against.
Li Jinxing, a prominent Beijing human rights lawyer, said Yang’s treatment was related to her activism.
“If she had turned a blind eye to these injustices, as most people do, she would not have been met with such retaliation.” he said.
“Yang Bin has earned the respect of lawyers across the country. Every one of us lawyers should learn from her.”
Yang said her experience as a prosecutor had made her tough.
“I’ve seen too many big waves, even death penalties. Losing a lawyer’s licence is nothing.”
Yang is a party member and was once a true believer in the party’s ability to transform itself and carry out political reforms.
But that all changed with the death of Li Wenliang, a doctor in the central city of Wuhan who was reprimanded for warning his friends about the new Sars-like virus emerging in the city. He later died from the new coronavirus, prompting an outpouring of public anger at his treatment and calls for freedom of speech.
She said it was difficult for people to hold their anger after Li’s death.
“We were too angry about the handling of the epidemic.”
Yang criticised the government’s handling of the outbreak on her social media account before it was suspended for two weeks.
“Since Li Wenliang’s death, the censorship has been much stricter. We now face a darkness worse than the virus.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- Chinese Communist Party critic Xu Zhangrun offered Harvard University research post
- Chinese 709 rights lawyer Xie Yang loses professional licence
- Chinese law professor hires legal team and human rights advocate to fight charge of soliciting prostitution
- Chinese professor known for challenging the party leadership sacked by university
- Missing Chinese citizen journalists highlight risks of telling Wuhan’s story during coronavirus outbreak
This article ‘A darkness worse than the virus’: why a Chinese former prosecutor chose to harbour a dissident first appeared on South China Morning Post