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Author: Ethan Michelson

Figuring prominently in prevailing portraits of activism and political contention in contemporary China are weiquan [rights defense] lawyers. Outside of China, the word weiquan emerged in the early 2000s and had achieved near-hegemonic status by the late 2000s as a descriptive label for a corps of activist lawyers—who numbered between several dozen and several hundred—committed to the cause and mobilizing in pursuit of human rights protections vis-à-vis China’s authoritarian party-state. This article challenges the dominant nomenclature of Chinese activism, in which weiquan in general and weiquan lawyers in particular loom large. A semantic history of the word weiquan, traced through an analysis of four decades of officially sanctioned rights discourse, reveals its politically legitimate origins in the official lexicon of the party-state. Unique survey data collected in 2009 and 2015 demonstrate that Chinese lawyers generally understood the word in terms of the party-state’s official language of rights, disseminated through its ongoing public legal education campaign. Because the officially-sanctioned meaning of weiquan, namely “to protect citizens’ lawful rights and interests,” is consistent with the essential professional responsibility of lawyers, fully half of a sample of almost 1,000 practicing lawyers from across China self-identified as weiquan lawyers. Such a massive population of self-identified weiquan lawyers—approximately 80,000 in 2009 assuming that the sample is at least reasonably representative—makes sense only if local meanings of the term profoundly diverge from its dominant English-language representations. Concluding speculations consider and call for further research on why this word was appropriated and redefined by activist Chinese lawyers in the first place.

In: China Law and Society Review