chapter  22
8 Pages

Legal education and the rise of rights consciousness in China

ByJohn Nguyet Erni

This chapter begins with what is widely perceived as a paradigmatic scene in Chinese political life at the grassroots level today. It is a scene set against the backdrop of thirty years’ constitutional and legal education reforms in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Yet it takes place far away from the seat of the Party or the corridors of law schools. Today, the scene of volatile popular unrest staged by villagers, farmers, migrant workers, homeowners, small investors, families of natural and industrial disasters, and ethnic minorities across China can be said to be emblematic of the economic and political fissures opened up by the country’s thirty years of dedicated but troubled legal reform, known as “rule of law reform.” In this scene, the staking of a variety of public claims by the masses (including

property interest claims, injury claims, citizenship claims, and human rights claims) is bolstered by the rise of a relatively new class of lawyers who are outfitted with strong legal knowledge and a passion for social justice. In China, they are often called weiquan (or rights protection) lawyers. But in the international arena, they are usually dubbed “human rights defenders.” Weiquan politics, which began to emerge in full force around 2003 in China, is characterized by actions of legal dispute in the interest of protecting citizens’ rights against state or corporate bodies.1 Its political objective goes beyond advocating the rights interests of the specifically injured, to reach a deeper level of structural reform of the law to force the state to recognize citizens’ rights. From the perspective of the masses, the unique iconic force of the weiquan lawyers is derived from both their legal legitimacy and their passionately defiant ethical stance. Insofar as they are seen as public heroes – and sometimes as public intellectuals – they embody the battle line between the law and its limits.2