While Woeser’s piece yesterday certainly identified the incredibly difficult situation the Chinese government creates for human rights lawyers, especially in Tibet, today’s Washington Post op-ed on the assault on China’s human rights lawyers by Teng Biao is truly a break-through for American awareness in the plight of the rule of law in China. While the New York Times is America’s paper of record, the Post is our capitol’s paper. Teng’s detailed litany of abuses rights lawyers face by the government will surely open eyes in DC. Moreover, Teng identifies China’s desire to be a respected member of the global community that allows enough space for rights lawyers to function.
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.
The price Chinese rights lawyers pay is dear – from revoking their license to practice, to blackballing them at academic jobs, to arrest, detention, torture, prosecution, and in some cases, even disappearance. It is a testament to the strength of the desire for freedom that these lawyers continue to fight for human rights in the face of such brutal opposition. Teng concludes the op-ed with a sense of optimism:
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.”
As someone who has been highly critical of the Chinese government’s occupation of Tibet and paid close attention to their lack of respect for human rights, I too am heartened by the rise of this courageous band of human rights lawyers. Teng is right – there is just enough space for them to begin to hold the government accountable. There will likely come a time, hopefully someday soon, when the tension between the government’s refusal to follow their own laws and the commitment of lawyers to hold them to the law can no longer persist without dramatic change…to a government that is accountable to their people and their laws and no longer functionally criminalizes criticism of the government and its actions. At that point, one can only expect that the Chinese Communist Party will lose its grip on power and democracy may flourish in China.