When Li Meng first told her father, a prosecutor and Communist party member in Guizhou province, that she wanted to study human rights law, he wasn’t pleased.
“He could not understand at the very beginning why I chose to do human rights – a thing that is very sensitive, and cannot earn money,” the 24-year-old explained.
But gradually, after she began her master’s degree, specialising in human rights, at Renmin University in Beijing, his opposition eased. She recently returned from a six-month internship at the European Court of Human Rights in France.
In many ways, her father was right to be concerned. From the thousands of students graduating from China’s law schools each year, only a few go on to practise human rights law.
Nine students are enrolled on Li’s course, which is one of more than 30 human rights programmes in the country. But economic and social pressures – the lack of jobs, attractive compensation and a stable career – ensure that even among those who have studied human rights, many will opt for careers in commercial or civil law instead.
This is not unusual for aspiring social justice workers around the world. But in China, there is another disincentive for anyone contemplating a career in human rights: the knock on the door, or “invitation to tea”, that could mean intimidation, detention or “residential surveillance” – a prolonged disappearance – at the hands of the authorities.
“It’s sensitive in China, but there’s nothing wrong,” said Li. “It’s human nature. It’s human rights.”
“If I stay in the academic area, for now, I think it’s safe – probably,” she continued. “But, to be honest, for the future, if I want to really be a human rights lawyer, I shall face some kinds of pressures, like arrests.”
‘The Communist party wants a chilling effect’
China is currently in the midst of what many describe as the most severe wave of detentions of human rights lawyers and activists since the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989.
From July 2015 to early February 2016, some 318 human rights lawyers and activists from across the country were targeted, according to Sharon Hom, the executive director of the NGO Human Rights in China. After the so-called Jasmine Revolution, a series of pro-democracy rallies in 2011, there were 54 detentions.
“The Communist party wants a chilling effect, and for many people it will have a chilling effect for a period of time,” said Teng Biao, a veteran human rights lawyer who is now a visiting scholar at Harvard University.
The case of Zhao Wei was particularly symbolic. The 24-year-old legal assistant to a high-profile rights lawyer disappeared in July and was charged with inviting subversion of state power in January – an offence carrying a possible life sentence.
A new generation of rights lawyers, imbued with the values of constitutionalism and the rule of law, poses a threat to the party’s power, said Terry Halliday, a research professor at the American Bar Foundation. “It is determined to strike deep fear into young activist lawyers to keep them away from this area of legal practice,” he added.
“Being a human rights lawyer is like a flying moth darting into the fire,” explained 22-year-old Fan Yujie, a law senior at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, using a Chinese saying about fighting a doomed cause.
“In my heart, I have the passion, but I don’t think I’ll do it in the future.”
Fan and three classmates recently won an international humanitarian law student competition organised by the Red Cross, and will be representing Mainland China at the Asia-Pacific round in Hong Kong in March. But instead of being a human rights lawyer in China, Fan hopes to work for humanitarian organisations abroad, or otherwise domestically as a journalist or filmmaker.
Punishing perceived dissidents
After President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, he set about spearheading campaigns to discredit and punish perceived dissidents. Among the targets have been China’s “rights defenders”, as human rights lawyers and activists are often known.
“The government has tried to frame human rights lawyers as subversive people who have gone beyond what is regarded as allowed activity by the authorities,” said Eva Pils, a specialist in Chinese law at King’s College London.
An internal party communique circulated in April 2013, known as “Document 9,” decried the promotion of “universal values” as “confusing and deceptive”.
In a country where “stability maintenance” is often cited as the goal of governance, the concept of human rights is labelled as an individualistic, Western import, incompatible with the Chinese emphasis on the collective good.
“The main way to measure whether human rights are protected or not is the reflection of the people’s living condition,” said Pan Ruozhe, a law senior at Zhejiang University. “Sometimes it’s worthwhile for us to sacrifice a little freedom in exchange for a better, stable life.”
Many law students in China see this suspicion of human rights law as a temporary adjustment, perhaps even the product of a misunderstanding between generations. Di Yanchao, a senior at Peking University who interned with a Hong Kong human rights lawyer, explained that, for older Chinese officials, “making society peaceful and stable by administrative methods comes faster and more directly – compared with solving it through litigation”.
“I think they are too panicked. Like a big father, they do many things for their kids’ good,” said Li. “But they don’t realise their kids don’t necessarily need that kind of love – it’s an old way.”
For those who came of age before Xi Jinping’s rule, however, such as 31-year-old Liu Jiajia, who worked at disability rights group Equity and Justice Initiative, rights workers fresh out of university are in for a shock.
“There is a huge difference between the reality and what they have learned,” Liu said. “Our education made sense in terms of the rule of law. But when we graduated, we saw what the government had been doing, and how the court system functions – how a person’s life could be destroyed.”
Additional reporting by Qi Xie.