BEIJING -- On July 17, agents of Beijing's Civil Affairs Bureau raided and closed the office of the Open Constitution Initiative, a local nongovernmental organization. This center had been the primary meeting place for China's nascent movement of "rights lawyers," in which I have been an active participant. There are not too many of us. China has 140,000 lawyers but only a few dozen lawyers who focus on citizens' rights.
Our work is frustrating and sometimes hazardous, but we have had considerable success in protecting the rights of individuals and in highlighting cases that have raised awareness of the law among people all across China. This happened last year when we defended families of victims of the toxic baby formula produced by Sanlu Milk Co. It happened again this year when we defended Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed an official as he was attempting to rape her, and again when we opposed the Chinese government's attempt to require "Green Dam" Internet censorship software on every computer sold in China. We have also defended Liu Xiaobo, the writer who faces prison for signing Charter 08, a manifesto that calls for democracy and human rights.
We can do these things not because China's rulers are becoming more tolerant (they are not) but because, for several reasons, they find that they need a legal system in order to rule. A few decades ago problems such as property disputes, domestic violence and even murders were handled by Communist Party functionaries inside communes or "work units." But now, because communes and most work units are things of the past, the role of lawyers and courts has to expand. Modern business also needs law. And, perhaps most important for us who do "rights law," the government needs, for reasons of prestige at home and abroad, to pretend that it strictly observes the law. Officials still violate the law, especially in political cases, and get away with it. But they always have to pretend that what they do is "according to law," because their claim to legitimacy depends on it.
This divergence between practice and pretense is what gives space to rights lawyers. When we insist on the rule of law and are public about it (because of the Internet, millions of people might be watching), we can at least embarrass government officials for their illegal actions and hypocrisy, and embarrassment sometimes stays their hands. But they do not like this, and sometimes we pay a price.
Nearly all of us, in the past few years, have experienced threats. We have also lost books, bank accounts and computers during raids on our homes. I am among those who have been forcibly ejected from courtrooms; others have been blindfolded, abducted or beaten while trying to visit clients. In 2007 my colleague Li Heping was beaten by thugs who used bottles and electric batons and told him to "get out of Beijing or we will beat you whenever we see you." Our colleague Gao Zhisheng, who has defended Falun Gong practitioners, has been imprisoned and tortured. More than five months ago, he "disappeared." Neither his colleagues nor his family know where he is being held.
What most impedes our work, though, is the revocation of our licenses to practice law. China's cities and provinces have "lawyers' associations" that appear to be modeled after the bar associations of Western countries, and these groups decide annually who is qualified to practice law. This is a good example of where pretense and reality diverge in China's legal world. The lawyers' associations are, in fact, puppets of the government whenever a political question arises. Last year my license to practice law was revoked. The China University of Politics and Law, where I teach, assisted in the revocation. Recently the results of the 2009 "review" of qualifications were announced, and about a dozen more rights lawyers had their licenses taken away.
Still, somehow, rights lawyers as a group have not lost their spirit. The letter of the law remains on our side. Moreover, the growing appetite of the Chinese people for the idea of "rights" is easily apparent on the Internet as well as through the many demonstrations, large and small, that happen almost every day in one part of China or another. We feel that history is on our side, and we put our faith in the proverb that says, "The darkest hour is right before the dawn."
The writer, a former lawyer, is a lecturer at the Chinese University of Politics and Law. He lives in Beijing.