Asking the Tiger For His Skin: Rights Activism in China

Eva M. Pils, Cornell University Law School


This article examines the conflicting attitudes of different Chinese civil rights lawyers to their work. The practice of caution and self-restraint, arising from awareness of the potentially dangerous consequences of rights activism, may appear to be the only sensible attitude in the current Chinese context. It is justified in part by the need to make “constructive” contributions to the rule of law. But the lawyer discussed here was unable, for what is suggested are fully justified reasons, to practice such caution, as he acted to help those most in need of defense of their rights. The attitude of lawyers and activists like him accentuates the deep contradictions in China’s current legal and political system. Their experience indicates the limits of possible reform.