We in the United States are plagued by the antics of our nation's lawyers, as they and their clients try to game the system for monetary advantage, but it is important to remember the importance of lawyers in protecting the rule of law.
One thing that makes modernity great is the rule of law. Without it, an economy cannot function well, and people are easily oppressed in a multitude of ways. Without rule of law, a society descends into the rule of force. With it, humans can plan on living in a fairly stable society that accommodates rapid change in technology, economic growth, and beneficial social change. Of course, bad government policies and bad laws suppress these good things and create terrible problems, but without rule of law, a society cannot function at all healthily.
Hence it is fascinating to see China's government trying to suppress a growing group of lawyers in that nation who are trying to force the government to enforce the laws fairly and make government agents serve the law instead of other agendas, as recounted in a story in today's New York Times. In China today, one can watch the classic struggle of a society trying to establish the rule of law, with the sitting government as the necessary target of change, as the Times story notes:
Ordinary citizens in fact have embraced the law as eagerly as they have welcomed another Western-inspired import, capitalism. The number of civil cases heard last year hit 4.3 million, up 30 percent in five years, and lawyers have encouraged the notion that the courts can hold anyone, even party bosses, responsible for their actions.
Chinese leaders do not discourage such ideas, entirely. They need the law to check corruption and to persuade the outside world that China is not governed by the whims of party leaders.
But the officials draw the line at any fundamental challenge to their monopoly on power.
Judges take orders from party-controlled trial committees. Lawyers operate more autonomously but often face criminal prosecution if they stir up public disorder or disclose details about legal matters that the party deems secret.
As a result, the government fights back, so that the individuals currently in charge can hold on to their power. The government's main weapon? The law itself:
One November morning, the Beijing Judicial Bureau convened a hearing on its decree that one of China's best-known law firms must shut down for a year because it failed to file a change of address form when it moved offices.
The same morning, Gao Zhisheng, the firm's founder and star litigator, was 1,800 miles away in Xinjiang, in the remote west. He skipped what he called the "absurd and corrupt" hearing so he could rally members of an underground Christian church to sue China's secret police.
The government sees Christians as a particular threat, as the current case indicates. What Gao and his fellow attorneys are counseling, however, is that the failure to fight this oppression will be worse than any likely consequences of fighting it. Their clients are listening, and the people are responding courageously:
"I can't guarantee that you will win the lawsuit - in fact you will almost certainly lose," Mr. Gao told one church member who had been detained in a raid. "But I warn you that if you are too timid to confront their barbaric behavior, you will be completely defeated."
Lawyers such as Gao remind one of the heroic attorneys of past American fiction (and fact), most notably Perry Mason (in particular the feisty Mason of the books as opposed to the domesticated one of the TV series):
Bold, brusque and often roused to fiery indignation, Mr. Gao, 41, is one of a handful of self-proclaimed legal "rights defenders."
He travels the country filing lawsuits over corruption, land seizures, police abuses and religious freedom. His opponent is usually the same: the ruling Communist Party.
The rule of law is at the heart of the fight:
He has become the most prominent in a string of outspoken lawyers facing persecution. One was jailed this summer while helping clients appeal the confiscation of their oil wells. A second was driven into exile last spring after he zealously defended a third lawyer, who was convicted of leaking state secrets.
Together, they have effectively put the rule of law itself on trial, with lawyers often acting as both plaintiffs and defendants."
People across this country are awakening to their rights and seizing on the promise of the law," Mr. Gao says. "But you cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself."
In watching this struggle, we can learn much about the pressing need to protect the rule of law in our own society:
"Most officials in China are basically mafia bosses who use extreme barbaric methods to terrorize the people and keep them from using the law to protect their rights," Mr. Gao wrote on one essay that circulated widely on the Web this fall.
Of course, we should stop short of characterizing our own federal, state, and local government officials as mafia bosses, given that the use of "extreme barbaric methods to terrorize the people" is absent in American except in the worst fantasies of radicals of both the left and right. Nonetheless, our officials can do much better than they have in respecting the rule of law, and it is up to us to remember that and keep up the fight against the miscreants among them, through the political and legal processes.