Nine years after China’s infamous ‘709’ crackdown, human rights lawyers remain hopeful

Nearly a decade after a nationwide operation that ensnared dozens of prominent human rights lawyers and activists across China, key figures in the events have been released but remain under constant surveillance and harassment, while the rule of law remains seriously flawed under communist rule.

On July 9, 2015, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched a series of arrests targeting lawyers across the country who dared to represent sensitive cases, such as those involving political dissidents or followers of the persecuted Falun Gong spiritual community.

In a Kafkaesque twist, many targeted lawyers found themselves suffering the consequences of Chinese law, used as a political weapon in the hands of the CCP.

Among the main victims of the “709” crackdown – the name refers to the month and date of the first arrests – were lawyers Zhou Shifeng, Wang Quanzhang, Li Heping and Wang, as well as activists such as Wu Gan.

The detainees were imprisoned for many months before being subjected to show trials during which they were forced to admit their guilt. During their detention, they suffered various forms of physical and psychological violence.

After serving their sentences, lawyers for “709” and their relatives spoke out, sharing the hardships they continue to face under the CCP, as well as their hopes for a more just China.

Those persecuted under the 709 crackdown and their families continue to be monitored and hounded. Some lawyers have been disbarred, while others have recently been rearrested. Their landlords are being pressured to evict them, their public services are being interrupted, and their children are being prevented from attending school normally.

Lawyer Zhou Shifeng, who was released in 2022, expressed in a video shared with human rights groups overseas his firm belief that the rule of law would one day be established in his country.

He highlighted how that year, the CCP police officials who orchestrated the 709 crackdown — Fu Zhenghua and Sun Lijun — themselves ended up being caught up in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign and sentenced to life imprisonment.

“Evil forces and political gangsters will be severely punished by history and the people,” Zhou said in the video, which was edited into a compilation with other statements and published by the human rights website China Change.

Wang Quanzhang, known for his steadfast defense of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners, sees the fate of those involved in the 709 crackdown as a consequence of China’s lack of justice.

“I would really like to have the opportunity to ask these perpetrators: ‘When ordinary people like us are deprived of our human rights, can your human rights be protected?'”