China has stepped up pressure on its embattled legal profession, requiring more than 100,000 lawyers to take a new national oath to "root out instability," particularly in ethnic minority areas of the country.
Justice minister Fu Zhenghua attended a collective lawyers' oath-taking ceremony in Hohhot, the regional capital of Inner Mongolia on Sunday, the same day as more than 100,000 lawyers took the same oath in hundreds of Chinese cities, the ministry of justice said in a statement on its website.
The lawyers swore allegiance to the People's Republic of China, and to "strive to build a socialist country ruled by law," it said.
The oath ceremonies were aimed at "strengthening lawyers' ideological and political education," the ministry said.
But under newly revised rules on oath-taking, lawyers who failed to take the oath could face professional sanctions.
The new rules say that oath-taking is a necessary prerequisite to professional practice, according to Shanghai human rights lawyer Dai Peiqing.
"We weren't invited," Dai said of himself and his fellow rights attorneys. "We have been marginalized."
"I wouldn't have gone anyway ... I have no need to stand up and wave my fist around and parrot these pretty-sounding words," he said. "I don't like the swearing with a clenched fist; it's like violence."
"I think it's a pretty ridiculous spectacle," he added.
‘Treating lawyers like communists’
Tan Yongpei, a former rights attorney stripped of his license by the local justice bureau for taking on too many "sensitive" human rights cases, said the collective nature of the oath was also problematic.
"This is treating lawyers like communists," Tan said. "A formal oath should be an individual, not a collective, matter."
But he said any lawyers who refuse to swear allegiance in this way will face serious sanctions.
"If you don't swear, you won't pass your annual inspection. This will be linked with the annual inspection," he said, referring to the process that renews a lawyer's license to practice.
Beijing lawyer Huang Hanzhong agreed.
"We believe that as a profession, lawyers' first loyalty should be to the service of their client," Huang said. "There is no such thing as a lawyer's oath ... It is really just a pet project of the ministry of justice."
Veteran dissident and political commentator Zha Jianguo said the oath-taking ceremonies are a disguised way to step up restrictions on who can practice law in China.
"When lawyers swear allegiance to the Constitution, this is really about their allegiance to the ruling [Chinese Communist] Party," Zha said.
"But lawyers aren't government officials ... So must all professions now swear an oath? This is too harsh," he said.
A nationwide police operation under the administration of President Xi Jinping has targeted more than 300 lawyers, law firms, and related activists for questioning, detention, imprisonment, debarring and travel bans since it launched in July 2015.
Reported by Gao Feng for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.