China’s human rights lawyers, a relatively small group of legal professionals who emerged in the post-Mao era, insist that the Party-State follow the law in all cases, including those deemed “sensitive” by the authorities. Throughout their existence, they have faced a repressive system that treats their advocacy as criminal acts of disobedience and subversion. In the Xi Jinping era, the contrast between their liberal outlook and a system in authoritarian (or neo-totalitarian) regression has become sharper, and rights defenders are now increasingly treated as enemies. As they are pushed to engage in legal resistance, the lawyers draw on, and test the boundaries of, the right of resistance as a human right.
This chapter discusses the Chinese authorities’ changing human rights rhetoric and practices around human rights, with a focus on the post-Mao era’s discourse of ‘human rights with Chinese characteristics’. It argues that an influential view, according to which human rights are politically neutral, has accommodated this discourse and muted human rights-based criticism of the Chinese political system and its systemic obstacles to better human rights protection. On this basis, it calls for a re-politicization of our understanding of human rights.