Rights defence lawyers as dissidents in contemporary China

Publication Type:
Journal Article
International Journal of China Studies, 2012, 3 (3), pp. 325 - 344
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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 partystate 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.
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