Our work is frustrating and sometimes hazardous, but we have had considerable success in protecting the rights of individuals and in highlighting cases that have raised awareness of the law among people all across China. This happened last year when we defended families of victims of the toxic baby formula produced by Sanlu Milk Co. It happened again this year when we defended Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed an official as he was attempting to rape her, and again when we opposed the Chinese government’s attempt to require “Green Dam” Internet censorship software on every computer sold in China. We have also defended Liu Xiaobo, the writer who faces prison for signing Charter 08, a manifesto that calls for democracy and human rights.
We can do these things not because China’s rulers are becoming more tolerant (they are not) but because, for several reasons, they find that they need a legal system in order to rule. A few decades ago problems such as property disputes, domestic violence and even murders were handled by Communist Party functionaries inside communes or “work units.” But now, because communes and most work units are things of the past, the role of lawyers and courts has to expand. Modern business also needs law. And, perhaps most important for us who do “rights law,” the government needs, for reasons of prestige at home and abroad, to pretend that it strictly observes the law. Officials still violate the law, especially in political cases, and get away with it. But they always have to pretend that what they do is “according to law,” because their claim to legitimacy depends on it.