Article: Can Lawyers Build a Legal Complex for the Rule of Law in China?

Can Lawyers Build a Legal Complex for the Rule of Law in China?

Authored by Fu Hualing Professor at the University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.

His research interests are constitutional law and human rights, with a special focus on the criminal justice system and media law in China. He is coauthor and co-editor of Liu Xiaobo, Charter 08 and the Challenges of Political Reform in China and Resolving Land Disputes in East Asia: Exploring the Limits of Law. He is Co-chair of the board of directors of Human Rights in China.

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Weiquan—rights defense—lawyering had two defining characteristics prior to the 2010-2011 crackdown on lawyers and civil society activists. First, weiquan lawyers were high-profile in their style of lawyering and did not shy away from political issues. They courageously accepted cases that other lawyers rejected. They intentionally chose cases for their sensitivity to attract attention and create impact. Picking “high-hanging fruits” is of course a costly business, and for that reason, weiquan lawyers were commonly perceived as radicals and attention seekers and were not understood by their peers. They were a unique group of lawyers of a unique quality who fought alone.

Second, their agenda was overly political, and law served as an entry point to a larger, yet ill-defined, battle against the system. They used litigation as a part of their media and social mobilization strategy, since there was not a legal community of shared identity and objectives upon which to rely. In their view, the whole legal system, including the courts, was repressive and had to be challenged.

In response to the challenge of the Arab Spring that began in December 2010, the Chinese government launched one of the most severe crackdowns on human rights advocates in China. Although the crackdown itself was limited in its scope and surgical in its operation, weiquan lawyers were among its primary targets. One by one, leading weiquan lawyers were “disappeared” and secretly detained for weeks and, sometimes, months. The intimidation created a repressive moment when most of the weiquan lawyers were silenced and that chilling effect lingered for months after the lawyers’ release.

These weiquan lawyers eventually returned to the same battlefield of human rights protection, but with two significant changes in the way they conduct weiquan lawyering.