Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
The “709 Crackdown” of July 9, 2015 was the start of the Chinese Communist Party’s severe measures restricting the activities of Chinese human rights defense lawyers and activists, which sent shock waves through the Chinese and global legal communities. As lawyers were jailed, disbarred, placed under surveillance, or mobilized to one anothers’ defense, Chinese lawyers specializing in other areas of the law were faced with an identity crisis. Deep conflicts within the profession were exposed; they questioned their roles in mediating between state and citizen interests while advocating for social change. Drawing on two years of fieldwork in Shanghai from 2015-17 with a boutique law firm specializing in employment and labor issues, this paper examines the ambiguous political potential of these lawyers’ actions. On the one hand, lawyers embraced teaching “best practices” to bring corporate clients into compliance above legal minimums and advocated for the role of the law. On the other hand, they limited the topics and scope of their activities and denied kinship with others in their profession. This paper seeks to balance the tricky business of taking interlocutors at their words while also placing them in context by teasing out how backstage ambivalences are laminated into front stage performances. As relatively influential and cosmopolitan players within China’s legal sphere, these lawyers’ actions, especially in their poetic and aesthetic aspects, become consequential in professionalizing practices and creating precedence. They thus challenge us to reimagine what political participation looks like in everyday contexts under an increasingly strict political regime.