February 11, 2016
The detainment of over 200 human rights lawyers and legal activists in China in July 2015 garnered international headlines and sparked renewed attention on the status of rule of law in China. But what’s arguably more worrying for these ‘cause lawyers’ are the covert, methodological means with which the government has gradually limited their space for advocacy. In her book, China’s Human Rights Lawyers, Eva Pils draws on hundreds of interviews with rights (weiquan) lawyers in mainland China to explore the struggles of the Chinese legal profession under the country’s strict party-state control. The Diplomat’s Bochen Han interviews Pils, Reader in Transnational Law at King’s College London, about the intellectual, political and moral resources that China’s lawyers use to survive in an increasingly repressive environment.
The Diplomat: What gave rise to the rights movement and how was it connected to the possibility of top-down, controlled and incremental rule of law reform in China?
Pils: After Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping’s promise of “Reform and Opening” was part of an effort to banish the ghosts of the Cultural Revolution, which had seen terrible lawlessness and devastation. The reconstruction of the legal system was a way of stabilizing governance. Law also served to reassure foreign investors – it created legally protected ways of trading, investing, and accumulating wealth.