New ABA book shows struggles for basic legal rights in China

A newly released book by two American Bar Foundation scholars reveals the work and politics of criminal defense lawyers in their fight for basic legal freedoms in the People’s Republic of China.

“Criminal Defense in China: The Politics of Lawyers at Work” is the first comprehensive social science study of the everyday work and political mobilization of criminal defense lawyers in China’s criminal justice system. It is co-authored by Terence C. Halliday, research professor at the ABF, and Sida Liu, faculty fellow at the ABF and assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. Liu and Halliday’s interdisciplinary research documents the emergence of politically mobilized lawyers and human rights activism under China’s authoritarian state.

Their research draws from 329 interviews with criminal defense lawyers and rights activists conducted between 2005 and 2015, as well as analysis of news media and social media exchanges, to reveal the intersection of legal practice and politics in China.

The authors identify clusters of criminal defense lawyers, including progressive elites and grassroots practitioners, who mobilize to protect basic legal freedoms. By tracking the rise of political liberalism and human rights activism among these politically embedded or marginalized lawyers, they serve to place it within the wider framework of similar lawyer movements in Taiwan, Korea, Europe and the Americas, and provide a cultural and historical context for the rise of lawyer activism in China.

“Professor Liu and Halliday’s new book on Chinese criminal defense lawyers is precisely the type of deeply empirical and rigorously interdisciplinary research that sets the American Bar Foundation apart,” said ABF Director Ajay K. Mehrotra.

“It will surely be required reading for anyone interested in understanding how the legal profession can mobilize and sustain political and human rights.”

The book is a product of more than a decade of ongoing research. Liu is a sociologist of law who has written extensively on Chinese law and socio-legal theory, especially the legal profession in China.

Halliday is a world-renowned sociologist with a focus on global law-making, professions, and international law reforms.

Halliday has been a vocal advocate for increasing protections for Chinese criminal defense lawyers and human rights activists following a government crackdown on the legal community under Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Criminal defense lawyers and legal staff have been targeted by the Chinese police and state security apparatus and many lawyers have been interrogated and forcibly detained.

In a January 2016 open letter to President Xi, coauthored by Halliday and published in The Guardian, renowned jurists from around the world denounced the Chinese government’s crackdown on members of the Chinese legal community and demanded adherence to universal legal standards.