Our colleague in North Carolina recently wrote a blog post about a terrorist attack on lawyers in Pakistan that killed 60 lawyers. It was an attack on the rule of law. A less bloody, but no less brutal, campaign against the rule of law is taking place in China under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Jinping has targeted so-called “rights lawyers,” or lawyers who, like United States’ plaintiffs’ lawyers, represent individuals against major institutions such as corporations and the government. In rhetoric echoing attacks on U.S. trial lawyers, Chinese rights lawyers have been described as “abusing courts to create personal gain and ‘social chaos’.”
Chinese rights lawyers make up a small part of the 270,000 lawyers in China, but in China, there also so-called “barefoot lawyers” who aren’t lawyers at all but are usually self-taught workers and peasants who have learned the law. Barefoot lawyers often advocate for employees in industrial work injury and wage-dispute cases. These barefoot lawyers have frequently been victims of these abuses as well. China’s industrial workforce is similar to the U.S. workforce in the respect that many workers are vulnerable to exploitation because of their legal status. In the United States, undocumented immigrants are vulnerable on the job. In China, residents of rural provinces who move to industrial urban provinces have a lesser legal status in those provinces because of the hukou system. Barefoot lawyers often come from the same rural background as their clients. Like the better educated and credentialed “rights lawyers,” barefoot lawyers are also subject to harassment and repression from the state.
Though U.S. lawyers are generally free from official harassment, some corporate litigants have resorted to totalitarian tactics against plaintiffs’ attorneys. U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff smacked down Uber for hiring a former CIA agent to investigate an attorney prosecuting a class action suit against the ride-hailing company. Investigation tactics included using fake reporters to try to probe the plaintiff’s attorney for personal information.
So while the rule of law is much more secure in the United States than it is in many other countries, it is still threatened by overheated rhetoric and underhanded tactics.