My name is Li Jing and I’m 26. I have a law degree from a good university, and I’m currently working as a legal assistant in a law firm in Beijing while I look for opportunities for further study. The law firm mainly works on commercial cases, but we also help people who have clashed with the authorities in some way.
I’ve always been interested in social issues, especially gender equality. When I was a student I visited Hong Kong with a friend to go shopping and saw a group of students protesting about social issues in a park. Through them I learned about the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. They were surprised I had never heard of it before- I wasn’t. There’s so much about my own history I don’t know. That’s what really started my passion for human rights and democracy. Once I was back in China I did some research online, and it made me more and more excited about addressing social problems in China.
In July last year, six months after I started my job, we heard that the government was arresting and questioning dozens of lawyers from around the country. Just going to work was scary – we’d all look at each other as a new name came through, but we didn’t say anything. There didn’t seem to be much any of us could do.
When he came back to work he looked haggard and pale, and wouldn’t talk about what happened. I found out later that he’d been interrogated for two days. My colleagues had been working on a case involving an unregistered church, and another defending some migrant workers who were facing eviction – when he came back, our boss told them to stop working on those cases immediately.
A week later, I hear from a friend that someone we knew at college has gone missing. She was doing the same job as me – legal assistant for a well-known human rights lawyer. We were, no, are the same age. Though we were never that close at college, I start to refresh her social media obsessively. The pages remain static, unchanged – dead.
I try to get in touch with her parents to try and find out what’s happening, but I can’t get through to them at all.
Another week passes, and then another. There’s still no sign of my classmate, and more and more lawyers are being taken in for questioning. The media is reporting that these lawyers – people just like my boss – are part of a criminal network. That’s crazy – if they’re anything like my law-abiding, uptight boss then they’ve never done anything wrong.
A few days later I get a call from my mother. She tells me she’s worried about me, and that my father wants me to leave my job and work for a different law firm that only works on commercial disputes. He thinks I’ll be safer that way.
I know my parents are frightened, but I don’t want to leave my job just yet. Things are bad, yes, but I’m still here. I tell them, more confidently than I feel, that I’m still okay. And for a while it looks like I’m right: things go quiet, but the atmosphere at work remains tense. I hear from a colleague that the firm is being watched.
When I walk home I try to keep my eyes on the pavement, resisting the temptation to peer into the faces of the people around me. I don’t know what frightens me more: not being able to spot anyone watching us, or making eye contact with a security agent. On one particularly bad day, the church group we were working with send someone to ask us what happened. My boss sends them away.
Just before my 27th birthday I hear about a female lawyer in southern China who was sexually harassed on her way into court.
News comes out on social media of a male lawyer who was badly beaten just outside the courtroom. He was working on a case involving a land dispute with a big company. The post is removed by censors, but more and more cases like this are mentioned every day – each morning brings a new report; someone like me, or my boss, or my friends, in danger just because of our job. The censors rush to catch up but it’s too late, we’ve already seen it.
I’m getting more and more pressure from my family and friends to leave my job and break off all contact with the lawyers there. My colleagues are being euphemistically labelled ‘troublemakers’ – as if we’re naughty children, being sent out of school. The word still hurts.
And then, I hear rumours that my classmate is now in a ‘black jail’ – that she has, essentially, disappeared. Detained somewhere where no-one will ever find her, swallowed up by the system. There are rumours she’s been sexually abused by guards. Even worse, she’s apparently been accused of national security crimes: one of the most serious charges someone can face.
I’m more and more scared every day, and I feel close to tears most of the time. I’m desperate to ask other people, more experienced lawyers, for advice. But they’re vanishing almost as fast as I can look them up: they’ve all all been detained or disappeared.
I have to speak up about this. One of these other, more experienced lawyers has given me the email address of an international organisation that supports lawyers in China. They’re based in Hong Kong.
I don’t know what to do. I desperately need help and advice, and I want to let the world know what’s happening to us but if the authorities find out I’ve contacted this organisation I could be arrested. I open the window for the email, stare at the blank space, try not to think about my parents and colleagues scouring the web for mentions of my name.
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Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) works for religious freedom through advocacy and human rights, in the pursuit of justice.