Two American congressmen visiting Beijing were blocked from meeting a group of Chinese lawyers over the weekend. Readers of Out of Mao’s Shadow may recognize the names of some of the lawyers — Li Heping, Teng Biao, Jiang Tianyong, Li Fangping, Li Baiguang — because they figure prominently in the fledgling legal movement that is the subject of the last two chapters of the book. These weiquan, or “rights defense,” lawyers have been pushing the Chinese government to live up to its own rhetoric about the rule of law — a subtly subversive challenge because the Communist Party has always considered itself above the law. The party wants to use the law as a tool to rule the population, but these lawyers — and a growing portion of the general public — think of the law as a check on the power of party officials.
For a while, the weiquan movement was considered one of the most pragmatic channels for pursuing political change in China — and one of the best hopes for gradual reform. But in recent years, the campaign has begun to stall, as party officials have resorted to increasingly repressive tactics and the lawyers themselves have divided among themselves over tough questions of ethics and tactics. They have been asking themselves: How hard should we push? Should we back down when our peaceful, legal actions provoke party officials to use violence? If so, what about our obligation to fight for our clients? If not, are we just showboating and strengthening the hand of hardliners in the government?
A similar set of questions confront policymakers in the United States and other nations concerned about human rights in China. Does the attempt of these two Republican members of the House, Frank R. Wolf of Virginia and Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, to meet these lawyers in Beijing help their cause? Or does it simply strengthen those party officials who have already been arguing that the lawyers are traitors working with foreign enemies determined to weaken China?
Read how the Chinese security services detained these lawyers to prevent them from meeting with the American visitors here in the Washington Post and here in the New York Times. I welcome your thoughts in the comments.