Pioneering Chinese Lawyer Group Faces Closure

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These are difficult times for Chinese lawyers. Several lawyers who handle difficult human rights causes have been unable to renew their licenses. Now the Beijing-based Open Constitution Initiative, a legal think tank that is involved in several sensitive cases, is under threat of closure due to $208,000 in tax penalties that landed this week, the Chinese Law Prof Blog and Danwei are reporting. We’ve interviewed Xu Zhiyong, the rights lawyer who heads the group, a few times in recent years, most recently this spring for a story about an OCI report into the causes of the riots in Tibet last year. When I interviewed Xu about the Tibet report, I asked how his organization could write about such a sensitive subject. He replied succinctly that he didn’t think it was a sensitive subject. Later I wondered whether he truly thought it wasn’t a touchy subject, or he wanted to treat Open Constitution’s work as routine in hopes that the government would also accept it as routine.

Xu acknowledges that there may be minor errors in OCI’s accounting, but won’t be drawn out on what other factors could be at work. The Chinese Law Prof’s blog, which is run by George Washington University Law School professor Donald C. Clarke, states that “one can reasonably suspect that more is going on here that just tax problems.” In other words, OCI is being punished for its work. But given the variety of projects the group is involved in–representing victims of China’s tainted milk powder scandal, pushing for open records, involvement in the Deng Yujiao case, the Tibet report–it’s hard to say if it was one case or the combination of many that led to its current dilemma.

In a statement Xu says:

The $208,000 penalty might mean nothing to many companies. But for us, it is cruel and evil. It’s not just a punishment against us, it is punishing the children poisoned by milk powder, the kids of migrant workers, the property owners bullied by developers, and those petitioners who tirelessly demand justice… it is a punishment against thousands of the disadvantaged who are the most needy for help. This punishment is utterly devoid of conscience.