Asking the Tiger for His Skin: Rights Activism in China
Posted: 25 Mar 2010
Date Written: 2007
Much of our contemporary discussion of human rights activism in rapidly changing or “developing” societies is dominated by a rule of law perspective, from which rights activism and cause lawyering are viewed as subservient to rule of law reform goals. Examining the conflicting attitudes of different Chinese human rights lawyers to their work, I suggest that attention should be paid to a radically different perspective, taken by some of those actually engaged in activism. The practice of caution and self-restraint, arising from awareness of the potentially dangerous consequences of rights activism, may appear to be the only sensible attitude in the current Chinese context, and is justified in part by the need to make “constructive” contributions to the rule of law. But the lawyer whose actions are discussed here was unwilling, for what is suggested are fully justified reasons, to practice such caution, as he acted to help those most in need of defense of their rights. The attitude of lawyers and activists like him accentuates the deep contradictions in China’s current legal and political system. Their experience indicates the limits of possible reform.
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