Professor Liu provides insight on China's legal system

September 26, 2017 by Kathy Tang

The New York Times Magazine recently published a piece on the treatment of human rights lawyers in China. The article highlights the stories of a group of lawyers in China and the risks and obstacles they face in practicing human rights law in China. U of T's Sociology Professor Sida Liu was featured in the piece, giving input on the workings of China's legal system and the history behind government intervention in legal proceedings in China.

Professor Liu has conducted extensive research on China's legal system and has published work on practicing law in China.  He recently received funding for a research project studying the effects of globalization on lawyers practicing in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.

We have posted an excerpt of the article below.

‘Flee at Once’: China’s Besieged Human Rights Lawyers

As the global spotlight on the nation’s domestic policies has dimmed, lawyers for dissidents increasingly face a terrible choice: acquiescence or imprisonment.

By Alex W. Palmer


Life has never been easy for China’s criminal defense lawyers. Until 1979, the People’s Republic operated with virtually no criminal-justice system whatsoever: The Communist Party organized Soviet-style police and people’s courts to address petty crimes and local disputes, but their primary responsibility was to enforce absolute loyalty to the party. Even the Constitution, the ostensible basis of the law, was rudimentary at best, and served mainly to outline the means of ‘‘socialist industrialization and socialist transformation’’ in order to abolish ‘‘systems of exploitation.’’ The near-constant churn of intraparty purges, revolutionary campaigns and political mobilizations rendered law an afterthought at best and a tool of the bourgeois antirevolutionaries at worst.

The economic reforms of the late 1970s brought legal reform along with them. The legal profession and the criminal-justice system were built from scratch — Mao had purged and destroyed the nascent community of lawyers in one of his ideological campaigns — but there was trouble from the start. These new courts were envisioned not as independent arbiters but as the ‘‘knife handle of the proletarian dictatorship,’’ according to Sida Liu, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies law and society in China. Defense lawyers were often treated like criminals themselves, harassed and imprisoned for fulfilling the basic duties of their profession. Between 1997 and 2001, at least 143 lawyers were arrested, detained or beaten in China for working on criminal cases, according to the Chinese bar association. The threat of punishment — or the allure of a comfortable job at a government-friendly firm — persuaded many lawyers to avoid criminal cases altogether, or to simply accommodate the whims of the authorities.

By the early 2000s, the Chinese leadership under Jiang Zemin was taking a relatively soft approach to ideological conformity — in part because the country was petitioning for membership in the World Trade Organization, which required American approval at a time when United States officials were pressing China on its domestic policies. A new generation of Chinese lawyers was also entering the profession, students who ‘‘would read about constitutionalism, would read about liberal values,’’ says Eva Pils, a reader in transnational law at King’s College, London. ‘‘Students in those days were really studying the American Constitution as much as the Chinese one, and trying to think about ways of giving effect to the Constitution — to revitalize and breathe life into it.’’ A debate within the profession bubbled to the surface: Should lawyers operating in an illegal society follow the law? Faced with the slow strangulation of their rights and protections, some lawyers concluded that in an unjust system, extralegal methods — open letters, micro­blogs, protests and public advocacy — were the only way to uphold the true principles of the law....

Read the full article.