Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Rights Defence Lawyers as Dissidents in Contemporary China

Academic journal article International Journal of China Studies

Rights Defence Lawyers as Dissidents in Contemporary China

Article excerpt

Abstract

Rights defence lawyers in contemporary China have attracted tremendous attention. Their supporters take them as a leading force for social and political change toward justice, the rule of law and democracy, whereas the hardliners of the ruling Chinese Communist Party regard them as a dangerous hostile force of political dissent. In this article, we will trace the resumption and development of the legal profession in China since the 1980s after its forced disappearance for three decades. Then we will explore the emergence of a group of "rights defence lawyers" in the context of recent economic, social and political changes. The article will end with a discussion about the potential role of rights defence lawyers in China's social and political transformation. We argue that the name "rights defence lawyer" reflects the current politically charged environment for the legal profession in China and the dual identities of socially concerned lawyers as both legal professionals and rights advocates. We also argue that lawyers in China become political dissidents when defending clients whose rights are violated by the party-state and power holders, and that, in response to political persecution, rights defence lawyers have interacted with other lawyers, other rights activists and the wider society to advance their causes of bringing about justice, the rule of law and democratic political reforms in China. We therefore identify a connection between their lawsuits, including their media campaigns as an extension of those lawsuits, and the rise of rights consciousness and quest for the rule of law in China.

Keywords: China, rights defence lawyers, rights defence movement, dissidents, rule of law

JEL classification: K14, K40, P26, P37

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

1. Introduction

On 31st July 2012 the overseas edition of the People's Daily published an influential and controversial article "What Are the Real Challenges for China", listing "rights defence lawyers, underground religions, dissidents, Internet opinion leaders and vulnerable groups" as the five major subversive forces in China.1 This analysis from the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) calls to mind the "Black Five Categories", namely Landlords, Rich Peasants, Counter-revolutionaries, Bad Elements and Rightists, designated by the party-state as the major categories of "class enemies" during the Maoist Era. Who are these "rights defence lawyers" (weiquan lüshi ...) in China? Why do they top this list of subversive forces? In this article, we will trace the resumption and development of the legal profession in China since the 1980s after its forced disappearance for three decades. Then we will explore the emergence of a group of "rights defence lawyers" in the context of recent economic, social and political changes. The article will end with a discussion about the potential role of rights defence lawyers in China's social and political transformation. We argue that the name "rights defence lawyer" reflects the current politically-charged environment for the legal profession in China and the dual identities of socially concerned lawyers as both legal professionals and rights advocates. We also argue that lawyers in China become political dissidents when defending clients whose rights are violated by the party-state and power holders, and that, in response to political persecution, rights defence lawyers have interacted with other lawyers, other rights activists and the wider society to advance their causes of bringing about justice, the rule of law and democratic political reforms in China. We therefore identify a connection between their lawsuits, including their media campaigns as an extension of those lawsuits, and the rise of rights consciousness and quest for the rule of law in China.

2. The Re-birth of the Legal Profession in China

The modern profession of lawyers was introduced in China during the Late Qing when the Chinese started to "learn from the West". …

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