CHAIRMAN MAO ZEDONG first implemented a Soviet-style legal system in China in 1954. But disruptive campaigns—the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution—kept it from taking hold. After Mao’s death in 1976, the central government began reforming its legal system, crafting extensive laws and judicial procedure to prevent a return to the chaos of the Cultural Revolution and to attract foreign investment. The government opened law schools to train legal professionals and allowed students to take the college entrance exam beginning in 1977.
The 1982 Chinese Constitution seemed to give citizens greater rights: It upheld the freedom of speech, religion, press, and assembly. Citizens had the right to vote and run for office, as well as the right to a public trial except in cases dealing with national security, sex offenses, or minors.
While much of it looked good on paper, many of the laws were never enforced. Courts lacked judicial independence and bent to the will of Communist Party officials. Corruption plagued lower-level courts, as bribes or party connections could keep criminals out of prison.
Teng Biao entered Peking University Law School in 1991. Five years later, lawyers became independent professionals rather than civil servants. At the time, Peking University was considered one of the most open schools in China, and some of Teng’s teachers taught Western legal theories that influenced him greatly. He also read Western books on democracy, and when he became a professor himself, he often discussed these sensitive topics with his students.
The weiquan movement took off in 2003 with the case of Sun Zhigang, a 27-year-old graphic designer from Wuhan. On March 17, 2003, Guangzhou police picked up Sun during a random identity card check. Because he had just started his job in the city, he had not yet applied for a temporary residence permit and had forgotten his ID at home. Police threw him into a “custody and repatriation center,” a detention center for migrants from other cities.
Three days later, Sun was dead. Doctors claimed he had died of stroke and a heart attack, but an official autopsy revealed he had been beaten to death while in detention.
Investigative journalists at China’s Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper reported on the case, and the news quickly spread on the internet, angering Chinese citizens. Three legal scholars—Teng, Xu Zhiyong, and Yu Jiang—sent an open letter to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee stating that “custody and repatriation centers” were unconstitutional because they violated citizens’ rights.
In response, Premier Wen Jiabao abolished the custody and repatriation system. Officials sentenced to death the two people responsible for Sun’s murder and sent their accomplices to prison. Sun’s family received a $53,000 settlement, and the government even named lawyer Teng “Ten People in Rule of Law in 2003.” Encouraged by the case’s success, more weiquan lawyers emerged, representing the victims of land grabs, forced abortions, and tainted-milk scandals, as well as house church leaders, Falun Gong practitioners, and political prisoners.
Teng co-founded the Open Constitution Initiative, providing a platform for lawyers, journalists, scholars, and bloggers to work together and ensure the government followed its own laws. He represented wrongly convicted death row inmates, helped draft Charter 08 calling for democracy and rule of law, and investigated the mistreatment of Tibetans.
Yet the Sun case was more of an outlier than the norm: In 2004, police arrested Southern Metropolis Daily’s editor-in-chief, Cheng Yizhong, and detained him for five months as punishment for the paper’s reporting. Authorities disbarred Teng in 2008 and shut down the Open Constitution Initiative a year later. They took Teng’s passport, monitored his movements, and detained and tortured him. He finally left for the United States in 2014 and has been unable to return home.
Before moving to the United States, Teng also represented Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer who in 2005 sued the government of Shandong for forcibly aborting the babies of rural women under the government’s one-child policy. In retaliation, officials sentenced Chen to four years in prison.
After Chen’s release, authorities kept him under house arrest with his wife and young daughter. In 2012 he made a brazen escape, scrambling over walls and through his neighbors’ yards to a friend’s waiting car and then to the U.S. Embassy. He and his family eventually moved to the United States, where he is now a fellow at the Witherspoon Institute.
Chen said that although China has some “nice-sounding laws,” the government never intended to implement them. Thanks to the so-called Great Firewall of China, censors now constantly monitor and block blacklisted keywords, making it difficult for news of controversial cases to spread.
The government also revises bothersome laws, making them more vague, Chen said. To deal with human rights lawyers and activists, officials toss the law entirely aside and use mafia-style kidnappings, torture, and persecution of family members.
“I think today, China’s law is no longer law,” Chen said. “It doesn’t matter how well they write the law, if they want to follow it, they will. If they don’t want to, they won’t.”
TODAY THERE ARE 300,000 LAWYERS in China, but the legal system has taken large steps backward under President Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao. New laws ban the discussion of independent judiciary and civil society from law school classrooms. As Xi has tightened control of all aspects of society—religion, education, internet, and civil society—human rights lawyers have been a particular target.
The 2015 crackdown, known as the 709 Crackdown, began with the disappearance of Wang Yu (no relation to Wang Quanzhang) of Fengrui Law Firm in Beijing. As a human rights lawyer, Wang was known for representing jailed Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, a group of elementary school students sexually abused by their principal, and the “Feminist Five” who protested sexual harassment. At 4 a.m. on July 9, 2015, Beijing Security Bureau officers broke into her house and carried her off to an undisclosed location. Her husband and son, who were on their way to the airport, were also taken into custody.
Wang recalls in the book Trial by Media how prison guards pressured her to give a televised confession, even placing a hood on her head and driving her to the CCTV building for the state-run media to film her. She at first refused to record anything, but relented after police revealed that her 16-year-old son had been caught trying to leave China. They claimed that if Wang would record a video for their superiors, they would treat her son well. She agreed on the assurance that no one else would see the video, but authorities still broadcast it on television.
Wang and her husband remained in detention for a year and were only released on the condition that she film another televised confession. Following a police-provided script, Wang accused fellow lawyers of pursuing wealth and fame and said she would no longer be used by foreign activists. After the taping, she was reunited with her husband and son, although they remained under house arrest for more than a year. Today Wang is disbarred and Fengrui Law Firm is closed.
During the 709 Crackdown, authorities also arrested other well-known figures. They included lawyer Xie Yang, who said he was tortured in prison before his December 2017 release; activist Wu Gan, sentenced to eight years in prison; and Christian lawyer Li Heping, who appeared emaciated at his release in May 2017.
Many in the human rights community were upset with Wang for agreeing to the confession. Human rights lawyer Jeremiah Tang (name changed for security purposes), who was also taken during the 709 Crackdown, said the government uses this tactic to stir up disunity within the weiquan community. He believes the Communist Party’s goal is to deter younger people from joining the movement.
Yet Chen believes more and more ordinary people in China are realizing something is wrong in society. While some of the most well-known human rights lawyers are heavily monitored or in prison, many more lawyers and activists are carrying on their human rights work.
For instance, lawyer Zhang Peihong has taken up the case of Pastor Wang Yi, whom authorities charged with subversion after police raided his unregistered church, Early Rain Covenant Church of Chengdu, in December. After Zhang met with Wang’s mother and son Jan. 8, plainclothes officers brought the lawyer to a police station for six hours of interrogation. They refused to let him meet with his client. Wang was a human rights lawyer himself before going into full-time ministry.
Teng agrees that even though some young people may see the persecution and stick to safer professions, others are hearing about the weiquan movement for the first time and finding their consciences stirred.
“Even though the risk is greater, there are more people joining them,” he said.