Lawyers without Borders

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Heroes / lawyers without borders

Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang has lost his license to practice law. This op-ed in the NYT tells why.

Pu dared to criticize government policy and was convicted under a law which criminalized “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” But the article makes clear that while this was the explicit crime charged, the government’s long standing hostility to Pu was generated by his representation of clients alleging human rights abuses.

Doctors have an advantage over lawyers in that their skills are more immediately relevant to medical problems in foreign countries. An American ophthalmologist can work miracles in poor countries performing surgeries that are routine here. But lawyers are more tied to their home base because we are trained mostly in local law and entirely in local procedures.Therefore, we cannot be “lawyers without borders”in the way doctors can be “doctors without borders.”

Still, Pu’s dilemma is one that American lawyers can easily identify with. The statute he was convicted under clearly violates all the principles of freedom of speech we espouse; the punishment of suspending his law license strikes at the heart of the legal profession’s independence from government control.

It has become increasingly clear that China wants very much to be part of the international commercial system, but wants no part of the international system of democratic political rights. Unfortunately, up to now our government and business leaders have tacitly accepted their position. And law firms and law schools have joined in this preference for quiet persuasion over public opposition. Contacts with China have expanded exponentially but the human rights situation in China has remained static.

Pu’s case is a clear reminder that quiet diplomacy on issues of human rights works no more now in China than it did in South Africa a generation ago. It’s time for the American legal profession to make clear that when it comes to the right of lawyers to represent their clients without government interference we are a profession without borders.

We are used to hearing about threats to our national security. The source seems to migrate from one small country to another. This year it’s Syria. But I would like to suggest that the real threat to our way of life is the Chinese Communist Party’s experiment in creating a giant post-industrial state framed by laws administered by legal technicians, but without lawyers to represent individuals against state power.

A dangerous combination of innocence and arrogance has led us to assume that American democracy is the world’s future. That’s not the only possible scenario.


  1. Dede Donovan says

    Yes, but what can a U.S. lawyer do about the plight of a foreign lawyer like Pu? We cannot fly to China to represent him at his trial. Under Chinese law, foreign lawyers cannot appear in Chinese courts. Hmmmm, but maybe a group of lawyers could demand the right to do that in special cases such as Pu’s?


    • Thanks, Dede. You point out a very big problem. China has not been responsive to criticism of their human rights abuses. Like South Africa, this is a problem that won’t be solved until powerful American institutions decide to go beyond endorsing abstract principles to take concrete action. Each year large numbers of Chinese students are sent by their government to study at American law schools. Maybe those schools could condition their training of these students on China’s respect for international human rights in cases in Pu’s.


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