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Climbing the Weiquan Ladder: A Radicalizing Process for Rights-Protection Lawyers

  • Fu Hualing (a1) and Richard Cullen (a2)

It is commonly acknowledged that weiquan lawyers operate in a narrow space, and lawyers with a radical stance work within a harsh environment. Weiquan lawyers advance and retreat in response to the changing macro-political-legal environment, but there is no sign that they are giving up their legal struggles. A steadily growing number of weiquan lawyers are tending to become more radical in their approach as their experience advances. This article studies the process in which weiquan lawyers start and sustain weiquan lawyering in a harsh environment and the factors that contribute to the radicalizing process. Its principal purpose is to identify and explain a radicalization process in which a lawyer climbs up the ladder of weiquan lawyering, from a moderate lawyer providing legal aid in individual cases to a critical or radical lawyer.

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1 Ginsburg, Tom and Moustafa, Tamir, Rule by Law: The Politics of Courts in Authoritarian Regimes (New York: Cambridge Universeity Press, 2008).

2 For detailed discussion of this typology, see Hualing, Fu and Cullen, Richard, “Weiquan (rights protection) lawyering in an authoritarian state: building a culture of public-interest lawyering,” The China Journal, No. 59 (2008), p. 111.

3 Existing literature tends to focus on moderate weiquan lawyering. See for example, Hualing, Fu, “Access to justice and constitutionalism in China,” in Balme, Stéphanie and Dowdle, Michael W. (eds.), Building Constitutionalism in China (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2009); Gallagher, Mary E., “Mobilizing the law in China: ‘informed disenchantment’ and the development of legal consciousness,” Law & Society Review, Vol. 40, No. 4 (2006), p. 783; Liebman, Benjamin L., “Legal aid and public interest law in China,” Texas International Law Journal, No. 34 (1999), p. 211; Michelson, Ethan, “The practice of law as an obstacle to justice: Chinese lawyers at work,” Law & Society Review, Vol. 40, No. 1 (2006), p. 1.

4 Increasingly, weiquan lawyering is given a narrower interpretation to mean radical lawyering only.

5 Lawyer interview, December 2006, BJ04.

6 Lawyer interviews, December 2006, BJ01 and BJ02.

7 Lawyer interviews, December 2008 and September 2009, HK11; March 2008, BJ12.

8 Lawyer interview, September 2009, HK21; NGO interview, March 2009, HK01.

9 McCann, Michael W., “How does law matter for social movement?” in Garth, Bryant G. and Sarat, Austin (eds.), How Does Law Matter? (Evanston: Northeastern University Press, 1998), pp. 8889.

10 Weiping, Li, “A rights defender who is forced to step out of school – record of the interview with prominent weiquan lawyer Teng Biao,” Dongxiang (The Trend Magazine), April 2006, p. 66.

11 Law allows great passion, integrity save the world – interviewing lawyer Gao Zhisheng who represented many persons in numerous pro bono medical negligence cases,” Zhongguo yiyao zhinan (China Medicine Guide), No. 4 (2003), p. 52.

12 The three professors who petitioned the NPC, namely Teng Biao, Xu Zhiyong and Yu Jiang, as a team, were elected as one of the top ten rule of law figures in China in 2003. Counting the ‘rule of law figures’ in China in 2003,” Zhongguo xinwen she (China News Service), 4 November 2003.

13 My weiquan story, rationally defending rights leads to consensus,” Renmin ribao (People's Daily), 13 April 2005, p. TMP07; and The upgrading of the consumption structure leads to new changes in consumption and new topics in defending rights of consumers,” Renmin ribao, 21 March 2006, p. 06.

14 Tong Lihua and Xiao Weidong, Zhongguo nongmingong weiquan chengben diaocha baogao (An Investigative Report on the Cost of Rights Protection by Chinese Peasants), available in Zhongguo lushi wang (The Website of All China Lawyers Association), 29 September 2005,, accessed 17 February 2009.

15 For the details of this case, see Tragedy exposed loopholes in law enforcement by urban management personnel – reflection on the case involving the stabbing of an urban management officer to death by a Beijing hawker,” Xinxi ribao (Information Daily), 10 June 2007, p. 10.

16 HBVER xianquzhe: Zhou Yichao (wangshang jinianguan) (HBVER Pioneer: Zhou Yichao (Online Memorial Hall)),, accessed 18 February 2009.

17 For the details of Yang Jia's case, see “Full-text of the judgment of Yang Jia's first instance trial – no detailed explanation of his motive to commit crime,” available in Yitong lushi guwen wang (Yitong Lawyers and Consultants Net), 11 September 2008,, accessed 18 February 2009.

18 For the details of the incident in Shanwei, see Shanwei alleged villager who was defeated in an election incited people to riot,” Ming bao (Mingpao Daily), 19 December 2005, p. A30.

19 See for example, Zhang Jieping, Zhu Yixin and Huang Lijian, “The hidden acute conflicts behind the riot in Guizhou,” Yazhou zhoukan, Vol. 22, No 27 (2008), available in, accessed 18 February 2009.

20 Lawyer interview, March 2008, BJ11.

21 Lawyer interviews, June 2007, HK06 and September 2009, HK21.

22 Lawyer interviews, December 2006, BJ01 and BJ02.

23 Lawyer interview, April 2007, SZ01.

24 This is of course not to deny that some radical lawyers incite clients to demonstrate against the government; insist on a not-guilty plea against the will of the clients; and insist on sacrificing the “small interest” of their clients for a “greater interest.” Lawyer interview, June 2007, BJ05.

25 Lawyer interview, April 2008, WH01.

26 For example, Yang Zaixin was dismissed by his law firm in 2006 because of his provision of legal representation to falun gong followers; and the law firm with which Tang Jingling and Guo Yan worked terminated its contracts with the two lawyers one month before the contracts expired because of their provision of legal assistance to villagers in the Taishi incident. Two weiquan lawyers work hand in hand to appeal for the people,” Ming bao, 25 February 2006, p. A16.

27 Hualing, Fu, “When lawyers are prosecuted … the struggle of a profession in transition,” Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2007) p. 95.

28 For examples of pressure from lawyers' law firms, see the cases mentioned in n. 26. Lawyer interviews, April 2008, WH02 and WH03.

29 Fu Hualing, “When lawyers are prosecuted”; lawyer interviews, June 2007, BJ06 and December 2006, BJ01.

30 Lawyer interview, June 2007, HK06.

31 Lawyer interviews, April 2008, HK01 and HK02.

32 Lawyer interviews, December 2006 and September 2009, HK04; NGO interviews, April and June 2009, HK02.

33 Courts have to act according to the legal procedure when refusing to accept claims against Sanlu,” Nanfang dushi bao (South Metropolitan Daily), 1 November 2008, p. A02.

34 Yang Jia was sentenced to death for killing six police officers, Shanghai court announced the judgement in camera, the defendant did not say a word,” Ming bao, 2 September 2008, p. A21.

35 Lawyer interview, September 2009, HK21.

36 Lawyer interviews, December 2006, BJ01; December 2008 and September 2009, HK04.

37 Lawyer interviews, April 2008, HK02 and HK03; September 2009, HK22 and HK23.

38 Lawyer interviews, April 2008, WH04; September 2009, HK13.

39 Lawyer interview, September 2009, HK21.

40 Jane Kaufman Winn and Tang-chi Yeh, “Advocating democracy: the role of lawyers in Taiwan's political transformation”; Ellmann, Stephen, “Law and legitimacy in South Africa”; and other articles in Law and Social Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1995).

41 Lawyer interview, June 2007, BJ08.

42 Lawyer interview, December 2008, HK11; NGO interview, April 2009, HK02.

43 Lawyer interviews, September 2009, HK22 and HK23.

44 Pils, Eva, “Asking the tiger for his skin: activism in China,” Fordham International Law Journal, No. 30 (2007), p. 1209.

45 Lawyer interviews, March 2008, BJ11 and BJ12.

46 Lawyer interviews, April 2008, HK01 and HK02; December 2008, HK04.

47 Tibet is to try suspected rioters, weiquan lawyers propose to offer legal assistance,” Ming bao, 6 April 2008, p. A03.

48 An interview with prominent weiquan lawyer Li Jianqiang,” Minzhu Zhongguo, 22 November 2007,, accessed 18 February 2009.

49 Xing, Ying, “‘Welcoming the law to the countryside’ or ‘approaching justice’: a case study of Chinese rural ‘barefoot lawyers’,” Zhengfa luntan (Tribune of Political Science and Law), No. 1 (2007), p. 79.

50 Email communication with a weiquan lawyer in March 2008.

51 Ming, Yang, “Guo Feixiong who assisted Guangdong villagers was released after months of detention,” Voice of America (Chinese), 27 December 2005,, accessed 19 February 2009.

52 Lu, Liu, Weiquan lushi: yige weixian de zhiye (Weiquan Lawyers: A Dangerous Profession) (Hong Kong: Chengzhong Bookstore, 2006), pp. 107–09.

53 Ibid.

54 Ibid. p. 108.

55 Ibid.

56 Lawyer interview, April 2008, HK01.

57 Lawyer interview, April 2007, SZ01.

58 NGO interview, April 2009, HK02.

59 Lu, Liu, “Lawyer Guo Guoting, about you, I feel regret,” Liu Lu wenji (Collection of Liu Lu's Articles), 6 June 2005,, accessed 19 February 2009.

60 See articles in Law and Social Inquiry, Vol. 20, No. 2 (1995).

61 Lawyer interview, June 2007, BJ05.

62 NGO interview, September 2008, HK01.

63 Lawyer interview, June 2007, BJ05.

64 Lawyer interview, December 2006, BJ04.

65 NGO interviews, August 2009, HK03; June 2007, BJ05.

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