After the July 9 (709) Crackdown: The Future of Human Rights Lawyering
31 Pages Posted: 23 Aug 2018
Date Written: August 14, 2018
Eighteen months after the 709 crackdown on human rights lawyers, a debate took place within China’s human rights lawyers’ communities. It was a brief, yet passionate and provocative debate focusing on some of the fundamental questions about law’s limits in seeking justice and protecting rights in an authoritarian state and the limited role of lawyers in their endeavour. The debate involved two issues: one specific and the other one general. The specific, pointed question is this: is the traditional case-focused and law-centred legal mobilization, moderate or aggressive, still a feasible approach to take to bring structural changes to the political system? In the aftermath of the crackdown, estranged lawyers started to reflect on their past success and failure, to cast doubts about the potential of their own profession in catalysing political transformation, and to express their deeply felt anxiety, frustration, and confusion about law, courts, and human rights lawyering. A more general question touches on a more sensitive issue relating to the politics of lawyering. For the rights lawyers who have experienced or witnessed the crackdown, the Party has revealed its true nature and whatever hope that lawyers may have on law’s potential to tame the Party must have proven false. The occasional success in a few legal battles, they admit, may have blinded their eyes to the true nature of the Party state. If that were the case, human rights lawyers should step out of the shadow of law, call a spade a spade and confront the Party head-on. Ultimately all the challenging questions boil down to this: is there a future for human rights lawyering in China as we know it? After examining the debate on the future of rights lawyering among human rights lawyers, this article proposes three overlapping alternatives for human rights lawyers in the post-crackdown era: a triviality thesis, a co-optation thesis, and a resilience thesis. While the authoritarian system can be suffocating for its enemies, human rights lawyers can struggle to create their own breathing space.
Keywords: China; 709; Rights Lawyering
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