Since its restoration, the legal profession has played an indispensable role in China’s human rights protection. Together with journalists and NGO leaders, lawyers serve as the guardian of human rights in China, and this trinity of forces intimates a strong possibility for the development of human rights in authoritarian regimes. The purpose of this chapter is to identify three distinct types of legal advocacy for human rights in China, explore their internal dynamics, and examine their respective contributions to enhancing human rights protection and the corresponding limits. Theoretically this chapter also aims to explore a possible evolutionary trajectory of human rights lawyering in the authoritarian context which posits three stages, namely the provision of legal aid services for the poor; which is followed by public interest legal advocacy to facilitate structural changes; and finally political lawyering to catalyze potential systemic reforms
Since the late 1970s, China’s legal system has evolved via a process of juridification in which legal norms, institutions and actors have been expanding and playing a more meaningful role in creating social, economic and political regulations. However, abiding hallmarks of this system have been the limited space for legal advocacy and constraints on socio-legal mobilization. Through the prism of mass disputes, this chapter analyzes three phases in the development of China’s socialist, authoritarian legal system from the 1990s to 2018, shaped by alternating waves of political liberalization and repression: (1) a brief period of promoting individual rights to underpin economic reforms in the legalistic phase of the 1990s; (2) during the Hu-Wen administration an emphasis on stability and an effort to atomize mass disputes; and (3) a statist approach permitting the articulation of limited grievances through the procuratorate’s selective initiation of Public Interest Litigation in the spheres of environmental and consumer law. The chapter concludes that, notwithstanding some success in defusing mass grievances, the capacity of China’s authoritarian legal system to resolve collective disputes is fundamentally undermined by the weakness of civil society and a lingering suspicion of NGOs.