The recent roundup of over 200 rights lawyers in China was greeted with shock in the U.S. But to us, it is not surprising. For all its exhortations for citizens to “use the law as your weapon,” our research indicates that the Communist Party never meant to foster a bona fide rights movement.
For years many China watchers saw signs that China was moving in the direction of political liberalization, if slowly. While political reforms have been less dramatic than the better-known story of economic reform, these changes raised hopes that China would pursue a path of gradual political reform that would soften its autocracy and perhaps lead to real democracy.
Journalists began reporting on social problems once verboten. Legislators started to think of themselves as serving and representing constituents, not just the Party. Village heads are now (mostly) chosen by (more-or-less) fair elections. And lawyers became emboldened to help citizens defend their rights against the party-state.
But now detentions are silencing a group of legal activists known for challenging the police, courts, and other government authorities in defense of the rights of Chinese citizens. This trend is disheartening, but our research indicates that it is not a fundamental change of course for the Communist Party. We believe the government has been permitting rights claims in order to improve policy and collect information about local level corruption and misbehavior, not to empower citizens. But there are limits to how much criticism the Communist Party is willing to tolerate.
The missing lawyers have been involved in China’s highest-profile cases: helping families with infants poisoned by tainted milk, representing members of the banned “evil cult” known as Falun Gong, and defending controversial artist-activist Ai Weiwei. They have also brought international attention to more mundane events, such as the police shooting of a would-be petitioner in Northern China.
These efforts are part of a larger “rights-consciousness” movement in China. But this rights-consciousness bears only a loose resemblance to Western notions of human rights. Except in the minds of a few brave reformers and activists, it simply means an awareness of rights granted by the Communist Party. People across China appeal to these rights to make claims against their local governments or employers, believing with good cause that their cases will be viewed sympathetically by the highest levels of the party-state.
Why would the Chinese government encourage citizens to challenge local officials? It is important to understand that the Communist Party in China is no totalitarian monolith and never has been. It is simply too hard for the bureaucrats in Beijing to keep track of everything that goes on around the country. By allowing citizens to call out misbehavior by local authorities, the Party has been able to improve governance without endangering its control.
The problem with this strategy is that it can foster deeper challenges to the Party’s authority. As “rights defenders” traded notes about how to take on local autocrats, they formed networks and developed tactics that could someday pose a real threat. Seeing them stray too far into activist territory, the government has now decided to rein in these “rabble rousers.” Though it brings bad international press, the crackdown has sent a strong reminder that the Party alone decides what rights China’s people do or do not have.
But having once let rights activists and lawyers loose, bringing them back in line will not be easy. The same lack of monolithic control that led the party to tolerate legal activism in the first place will also limit the crackdown’s force. Conversations one of us has had with police up and down the hierarchy reveal that frontline cops must deal with insufficient resources and competing influences that leave them struggling to handle even ordinary law enforcement work. The Chinese state simply does not have the capacity to repress every person making a rights-based claim, even if it wanted to.
This current crackdown may well stifle the most prominent rights defenders, but without changes in state capacity, there are real limits to how far it will reach. In the meantime, rights claims are likely to continue, even without rights lawyers. For most ordinary Chinese, the country will remain freer than ever before, as long as people remember where their “rights” come from.
Peter Lorentzen is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. His research addresses popular protests, censorship strategies, and political reforms in China. Suzanne Scoggins, is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research examines China’s evolving policing practices.