Skip to main content

China’s Abuse of Lawyers Alarms Notable Jurists: American Bar Foundation expert Terence Halliday contributes to open letter to President Xi Jinping on China's crackdown

January 18, 2016, Press releases

China's harsh crackdown on lawyers has taken a dark turn in the last few days as prominent criminal defense and rights lawyers have been charged by the government with the crime of "subverting state power."  If convicted, which almost certainly will be the case, these lawyers face jail sentences of up to life in prison.

In an open letter to China's president Xi, co-drafted by American Bar Foundation scholar Terence Halliday and published January 17 in the The Guardianeminent jurists from around the world have publicly called on the president to adhere to U.N. conventions and universal legal standards. The signatories call on President Xi to honor China's international commitments to provide the whereabouts of forcibly disappeared laywers, to provide immediate access to legal counsel, and to assure the world that those detained are not subject to torture.  Halliday is an internationally recognized researcher specializing in criminal and rights lawyers in China and helped to draft and organize the letter.

These charges are the latest act, observes Halliday, in an unprecedented program of attacks on China's rights lawyers that began on July 9 of last year.  Such attacks have led to the  interrogation and detention of more than 300 lawyers and their staffs across China.  Law firms have been shut down. Client files have been seized.

Brutal tactics have been used to pressure lawyers in this crackdown, notes Halliday, who has been researching Chinese criminal defense and human rights lawyers for over a decade.  Such tactics include character attacks by the state media, using children against their parents, husbands, wives and siblings against one another, the withholding of medical care or medicine from detainees to threaten their health or lives, and snatching family members from foreign countries to ratchet up pressure on detainees.  Just days ago Wang Yu, the eminent lawyer whose disappearance marked the onset of the anti-lawyer campaign, was charged with "state subversion" and her husband charged with "incitement to state subversion."

What is most remarkable, said Halliday in an interview with the New York Times is that (American Bar Foundation) "research over many years demonstrates these laywers are defending rights in ways thoroughly familiar to rule-of-law societies across the world." He added, "extensive research shows that these supposed 'crimes' are nothing more than energetic defense by zealous lawyers for China's most vulnerable populations, including criminal suspects."

In his ongoing observation and study of rights lawyers in China, Halliday notes that, " an 'Alice in Wonderland' world is emerging in China where words mean their opposite.  'Rule of Law' has become repression through law. Those seeking restraints on arbitrary police and security powers get accused of 'subversion of state power.'  Lawyers' speech in social media becomes 'causing a disturbance.'

Some lawyers, such as notable criminal defense and rights attorney, Li Heping, are entirely "disappeared" with no information on their whereabouts. Based on evidence from earlier crackdowns in 2011 and 2007, Halliday worries that it is entirely likely that detainees without access to their families, legal counsel, or the outside world are suffering severe psychological duress and quite probably physical torture.

Halliday states that is it gratifying that the international spotlight remains focused on China's retreat from the rule of law.  He says, "The internationally renowned jurists signing this letter to President Xi are reinforcing the call by international and national bar associations, governments, human rights organizations, and  publics for China to protect the most basic legal freedoms of its citizens and the lawyers that represent them."

Halliday's activities have been covered extensively by major media outlets, including the New York TimesABA JournalThe Guardian, and Al Jazeera.

Please find a PDF of this press release here.

Posted by: Lucinda Underwood

« Return to Press releases

Site design by Webitects

© 2023 American Bar Foundation (
750 North Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611-4403
(312) 988-6500
Contact Us
Contact the Fellows
Media Contacts
Privacy policy
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in ABF publications are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Bar Foundation or the American Bar Association. The AMERICAN BAR FOUNDATION, ABF and related seal trademarks as used by the American Bar Foundation are owned by the American Bar Association and used under license.