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By Joseph Kahn (from the New York Times)|
Published: February 24, 2007
Beijing -- Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang are Chinese trial lawyers who take on difficult political cases, tangle with the police and seek solace in the same religion, Christianity.
But like many who devote themselves to expanding freedoms and the rule of law in China, the two spend as much time clashing over tactics and principles as they do challenging the ruling Communist Party.
The two Lis are part of a momentous struggle over the rule of law in China. Young, well educated and idealistic, they and other members of the so-called weiquan, or rights defense, movement, aim to use the laws and courts that the Communist Party has put in place as part of its modernization drive to constrain its own power.
The informal network of rights defenders may be the visible force for political openness and change in China at a time when the surging economy and the country's rapidly rising global influence have strengthened party leaders. The authorities have refrained from suppressing it entirely, at least partly because it operates carefully within the law and uses China's judicial system, as well as the news media, to advance its aims.
Yet nearly 18 years after the June 1989 incident in Beijing, the government opposes any organized opposition. Rights defenders face the delicate task of coordinating their actions and expanding their collective influence when they remain autonomous, rudderless and, very often, rivalrous.
The two Lis have feuded about how to handle big court cases. When they met the Bush administration's China specialists in the White House last November, they argued about whether top leaders like President Hu Jintao were basically benevolent. A joint interview on "Radio Free Asia" devolved into a shouting match over whether rights defenders could work with party leaders or should actively oppose them.
As their confrontation grew, Li Jianqiang, the more combative of the two, wrote a manifesto that called China a "super jail" and even went too far to call the leaders as "ruthless dictators." And, Li Jianqiang listed Li Jinsong's name as the lead author and posted it on the Internet.
Li Jinsong, who takes a much softer line, said the essay, which circulated widely, so enraged China's top leaders that it derailed a major appeals court victory in his highest-profile case, involving China's "barefoot lawyer," Chen Guangcheng. Li Jianqiang acknowledged a few weeks later that he wrote the essay himself. But he said it amounted to a "minor mistake" and dismissed claims that it had a direct impact on the court case.
They and the dozens of other advocates who consider themselves rights defenders have had notable victories, mostly by calling attention to problems at the local level that more senior officials move to fix. They have exposed corruption, illegal land seizures and labor and environmental abuses that have prompted policy changes or at least made many Chinese more aware of the concept of human rights.
As China's only consistent homegrown critics of government abuses, they have received attention from the international news media and human rights groups. President George W. Bush invited several rights defenders to the White House last spring.
Yet they are, as the nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen lamented about Chinese opposition groups in an earlier era, "grains of sand." They divide into camps on the fundamental question of whether to try to improve the current Communist Party-run system by supporting well-intentioned party leaders, or to seek an end to Communist rule. "Some of us are waiting for a good emperor, some kind of Gorbachev, to come and fix the system," Li Jianqiang said. "Many of the rest of us think that is a waste of time. We need to be building a civilization outside the Communist Party."
Change From Within
That debate is a delicate one for a group whose basic goals — helping people exercise the rights granted to them — at least nominally overlap with those of the party's leadership.
China's top leaders, committed to attracting foreign investment and making the country a respected world power, have promised to conform to human rights norms and to run the country "according to law."
The Communist Party often does not subject itself to the laws it enacts, prompting cynicism about its real intentions. But many rights defenders say that they can help bring about meaningful change because the party and government bureaucracy is not monolithic.
[ Last edited by chinadaily at 2007-2-25 03:25 PM ]