When the Law Meets the Party

Activist Lawyers in Post-Tiananmen China

by Rachel E. Stern
Law & Social Inquiry, Winter 2017
2011 AFP
Protesters carrying placards featuring t

Like an army defeated but undestroyed, China’s decades-long human rights movement keeps reassembling its lines after each disastrous loss, miraculously fielding new forces in the battle against an illiberal state. Each time, foot soldiers and generals are lost, but new troops and leaders emerge to take up the fight.

This might sound like high romance, but it isn’t far from the truth. In the 1970s the banner was carried by the Democracy Wall pamphleteers, in the 1980s by the Tiananmen protesters, in the 1990s by the China Democracy Party, and through the 2000s by the liberal intellectuals who helped write Charter 08, the bold document calling for an end to one-party rule. Often unaware of one another’s existence because of the Communist Party’s domination of education and the media, these various activists still rise up, inspired by the values of equal rights and justice.

Early on, efforts to promote human rights in China were visionary and emotional. During the Democracy Wall movement (1978–1979), writers like Wei Jingsheng called for systemic change, while the student movement offered inchoate but stirring appeals for fairness and freedom. Slowly, the demands became more deliberate, from the more pragmatic aims of the China Democracy Party, which called for an end to one-party rule and implementation of constitutionally guaranteed civil rights, to the measured tones of Charter 08 and one of its initial signers, Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to eleven years in prison and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

But it is the weiquan (legal rights) movement that has arguably had the most concrete effect on Chinese governance over the past fifteen years. Weiquan activists seek not the overthrow of the system but its reform, which they hope can be achieved by taking seriously China’s growing body of laws. Equally striking, they are lawyers, a profession the government has consciously revived and expanded along with the rest of the legal system with the aim of modernizing the Chinese state.

Like other movements before it, the weiquan movement is small, involving no more than a few hundred of China’s tens of thousands of lawyers. And now, it too seems defeated. Two years ago, on July 9, 2015, the government launched a crackdown known by its date: the “709 Incident.” Dozens of rights lawyers were detained and arrested, with some reportedly tortured and a few sentenced to prison for overstepping the boundaries of legal activism permitted by the government. This was the culmination of a decade of harassment that had already resulted in the most well-known weiquan leaders getting locked up, exiled, or put under house arrest.

Does this signal the end of the movement or just a setback? After all, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made the rule of law one of his signature domestic policies. Can China’s rulers continue to develop a modern legal system while…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.