In 1977, Victor H. Li published a stimulating book titled Law Without Lawyers. China's communists, he suggested, because of their country's distinctive tradition and culture, might blaze a new trail towards modernisation, one that, unlike their former Soviet model, had little need for lawyers. Yet Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues soon demonstrated that they thought otherwise.
After Mao's Zedong's death ended the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, China's new leaders altered the Soviet model for economic development, but resurrected its political-legal system, including its reliance on "socialist lawyers".
Indeed, durig the past three decades, the post-Mao leadership has increasingly expanded the roles of lawyers to help settle disputes, promote the evolving "socialist market economy," foster international business co-operation and legitimate the punishment of serious offenders.
In principle, contemporary Chinese lawyers are no longer Soviet-style "state legal workers" but independent professionals tasked with protecting citizens, including those at odds with the state. But, while their numbers, education and responsibilities have burgeoned, Chinese lawyers, like their Soviet predecessors, suffer many restraints.
The Law on Lawyers amended in 2007 seemed to promise greater autonomy to human rights lawyers. Yet their plight has actually worsened in the 20 months since the 17th Communist Party Congress. The reconfirmed leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao placed veteran party officials, without legal education or experience but with a strong police background, in charge of the Ministry of Justice and the courts, as well as the Central Party Political-Legal Committee that instructs all legal institutions. These new appointees seem determined to eviscerate the country's "rights lawyers," who constitute a tiny fraction--perhaps 1 per cent--of mainland China's almost 150,000 licensed lawyers.
Local officials under the Ministry of Justice, and the local lawyers associations they control, quietly press activist lawyers not to participate in a broad range of "sensitive" matters or at least to follow their "guidance."