US accuses China of harassing lawyers for 12 Hongkongers arrested at sea

Owen Churchill
·4-min read

The US State Department is “deeply concerned” about the Chinese authorities’ treatment of two human rights lawyers who were barred from representing a group of Hong Kong fugitives, and Washington is ready to counter China’s “aggressive and coercive actions”, a department spokesman said on Tuesday.

The two mainland lawyers, Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu, were recently stripped of their licences, having previously been pulled from the case and replaced with public defenders. Lu told the South China Morning Post in January that authorities had targeted him over tweets he posted about the case of the 12 Hongkongers, accusing him of “endangering national security”.

Human rights lawyers Lu Siwei, left, and Ren Quanniu. Photo: Handout
Human rights lawyers Lu Siwei, left, and Ren Quanniu. Photo: Handout

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“We’re deeply concerned by the People’s Republic of China’s attempts to disbar and harass human rights lawyers Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu for representing the Hong Kong 12,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Twitter. “We urge Beijing to respect human rights and the rule of law and to reinstate their legal credentials at once.”

The 12 Hongkongers were captured in August last year as they sought to flee to Taiwan by boat, amid moves by both the Hong Kong and central governments to crack down on the city’s pro-democracy movement.

Ten of the individuals were sentenced to prison terms ranging from seven months to three years in late December, while the remaining two suspects – both minors – were handed over to Hong Kong authorities.

In their justification for disbarring Ren on Tuesday, authorities cited an earlier 2018 case in which he represented a follower of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice branded a cult by the Chinese government. Ren previously told the Post he believed the citation was a pretext for revoking his licence, and has pledged to continue working in the human rights field.

The lawyers’ plight marks an early test for the Biden administration, which has promised a hardline approach, in coordination with allies, to challenging China on its human rights record and economic practices.

Biden makes early push for diplomatic recruits to team USA against China

Speaking earlier on Tuesday at his inaugural department press briefing, Price said the Biden administration “will counter China’s aggressive and coercive actions, sustain our key military advantages, defend democratic values, invest in advanced technologies and restore our vital security partnerships”.

Those comments came in the wake of a warning from Beijing’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, that the Biden administration should not follow the “misguided policies” that had characterised former president Donald Trump’s approach to China.

Yang had also laid out Beijing’s red lines around “core issues” that the US should stay away from, including Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and Taiwan.

Apparently undeterred, Price on Tuesday accused Beijing of unleashing “military, diplomatic and economic pressure against Taiwan”, and urged the government to instead “engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected leadership”.

China’s top diplomat tells US not to follow ‘misguided’ Trump policies

Biden’s various cabinet secretary picks have also pledged to hold firm against Beijing, amid bipartisan pressure from lawmakers who have coalesced around the need for a strong China policy.

China was the “most significant challenge” facing the US, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NBC on Sunday, vowing to stand up for “American values” when it came to Xinjiang and Hong Kong, where he said Beijing had acted “egregiously”.

Blinken also voiced support for the US providing “haven” to political refugees fleeing Hong Kong.

Neither Blinken nor Biden have yet spoken with their counterparts in China, with Price emphasising on Tuesday that the new administration wanted to first prioritise engagement with allies.

“As a first step we want to make sure that we are in lockstep with those allies and in lockstep with those partners and then … you can expect that there will be engagement in several areas with China,” he said.

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