Six years after Beijing police raided the offices and key members of the now-defunct Beijing Fengrui law firm, rights attorneys Wang Yu and Wang Quanzhang say their profession no longer really exists in the wake of a prolonged crackdown by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The July 9, 2015 raid on Fengrui and the arrests of Wang Yu, Wang Quanzhang, and dozens of other rights attorneys, law firm staff, and associated activists launched a nationwide operation targeting the profession on an unprecedented scale.
Less than a decade later, attorneys who continue to take on cases deemed politically sensitive by the CCP can expect to lose their business licenses, which are subject to annual review, or are themselves detained, harassed, or sentenced to jail.
Wang Yu, who was honored by the U.S. as an International Woman of Courage (IWOC) this year, was once again held incommunicado in March after failing to attend an online award ceremony.
The award came as she and her husband Bao Longjun were assisting in the case of Niu Tengyu, who is currently serving a 14-year jail term for allegedly posting a photo of Xi Mingze, daughter of CCP general secretary Xi Jinping, to meme site Zhina Wiki, an act that was later blamed by police on Niu's Vulgar Wiki.
She says there are still multiple restrictions on her daily life, despite having been released in the wake of the 2015 crackdown.
"I don’t have a passport nor can I apply for one," Wang told RFA in a recent interview. "My ability to travel, even in China, is often subject to restrictions."
"For example, when I went to Guangdong, the Guangdong state security police put me under surveillance, and I was detained by state security police when I went to Shanghai," she said.
"It’s hard for me to get back to living a normal life," Wang said. "This is not just a question of unfairness; their behavior is completely illegal."
Threats from authorities
When Wang Yu, who has been stripped of her license to practice law, tries to help defendants in the capacity of personal agent, instead of as their lawyer, the authorities impose far more requirements on her than they would on a regular member of the public, she said.
She has also tried to assist detained Chongqing billionaire Li Huaiqing, who is being held on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power."
But doing so comes at a high cost, including threats from the authorities that she could be jailed herself if she doesn't stop getting involved in human rights cases.
"When we assisted in these two cases, we used the law to fight for the rights of the parties, but in the process, we just kept running into a brick wall and couldn't get justice at all," she said.
"We have also been personally threatened and suppressed, and other lawyers [who work with us] have been warned that they will lose their licenses if they don't withdraw from the cases," Wang Yu said.
"Chinese laws are useless, and just there to look pretty," she said. "They are never used to curb the government or anyone in a position of power: they are there to rein in anyone who disobeys."
She added: "We lawyers are struggling to survive, and to work, but there is less and less room to do that, and we can barely keep our heads above water."
'More effective action'
Fellow rights attorney Wang Quanzhang, who was held incommunicado for around three years following the 2015 crackdown and later sentenced to jail, said he hasn't given up trying to help people battling China's legal system, which remains in the stranglehold of the ruling CCP.
"When I share my experience with new victims, I will talk about how to respond if they are arrested, how to communicate with a powerful department, and if their relatives are arrested, to support them from outside," he said.
"That way, they can take more effective action, and make those who have been detained safer," Wang Quanzhang said.
"They consider my experience, and the fact that I am a tenacious human rights defender, and they also need my support and encouragement."
But Wang Quanzhang has run into impassable obstacles when trying to pursue justice on his own account, in the form of appeals and complaints about his treatment during his incommunicado detention.
"I wrote some petitions and complaints, but when I went to the court to file a civil case, they said I couldn't file a lawsuit because I was blacklisted," he said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Emily Chan.