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The project has generated three major findings. First, the legal profession is a progressive force in building the rule of law and limiting government power. While there are valid criticisms that Chinese legal profession is profit-driven and cares little about issues beyond its narrow professional interests, a sizable group of lawyers in China has demonstrated deep concerns for the rule of law, human rights and political reform. Facing inequality in society and misuse/abuse of power on the part of the government, these lawyers find themselves strongly motivated to act to protect public interest through law. Lawyers rely principally on litigation strategies to channel grievances and disputes to the legal system. However, they also actively reach out to NGOs and the media to create and shape public opinion. Energized public opinion can, in turn, decisions-making. In that sense lawyers are activists and constantly move between the court of law and the court of public opinion.

The second finding is that certain activist lawyers have a tendency become more radical – and eventually become politically active. Once engaged in public interest lawyering, lawyers enmesh themselves in the worthy project of socio-legal activism and the level of engagement with the government deepens. Initially lawyers deal with moderate social justice issues, such as consumer protection cases, which are not politically sensitive. Encouraged by the initial success, numbers of lawyers move on and start to take on cases which are more politically sensitive. Sooner or later they face the political system directly, a system that is beyond law. In the process of moving from the political periphery toward the core, such lawyers transform themselves, and as the time goes by, they become more critical of government politics and pose greater challenges to the political system.  


Prof Fu Hualing (right) and Prof Richard Cullen

This brings us to the third finding. The government evolves and adapts at a much slower pace than lawyers want. The sad truth is that as long as the system remains largely unchanged, radicalization continues. A few lawyers, with the support of a larger community, will rise to challenge the political system. Fundamentally, the litigation-based strategy is limited as a means to improve the rule of law in an authoritarian system. The regime tolerates or even promotes a degree of rule of law to promote economic efficiency, to solve certain agency problems, and to offer greater legitimacy for the regime. But, when the promotion of rule of law poses a challenge to the regime (as it is bound to happen) the regime will strike back.


Prof Fu Hualing
Department of Law
The University of Hong Kong