By Jerome A. Cohen
Fordham Law School’s prestigious Leitner Center for Human Rights gave Professor Carl Minzner’s book—End of an Era: How China's Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise—a splendid launch in an all-day program on Monday that focused on its implications for the future of “rights lawyers”. At lunch Carl gave an eloquent overview of the book, which is learned, analytical and stimulating while maintaining a highly readable style throughout. It is plainly directed at a broad and influential audience and likely to have a significant impact on the current reevaluation of the PRC’s power. Teng Biao and I made subsequent comments.
Teng emphasized the totalitarian aspects of the Xi Jinping era and maintained that the U.S. has a special duty to promote democracy in China and that the political costs of transition to democracy have been exaggerated. Among a number of other points he also urged Western nations to defend against PRC efforts to undermine their own democracies.
I focused on the implications for rights lawyers, urging them to recognize that the current era of extreme repression will pass, just as the Cultural Revolution did, and that they should in the interim try to avoid martyrdom by pursuing their craft within the unfair restrictions imposed by the regime in order to survive and recruit others to prepare for the better days to come. Too many brave and able lawyers have already been eliminated as functioning professionals as a result of torture and other punishments including “medication” designed to destroy their mind as well as their will, with corresponding harm to their families.
My final point branded Xi Jinping’s efforts to justify his repression by invoking China’s authoritarian “Confucian” past as ineffective and hollow, as demonstrated by today’s Taiwan and South Korea in addition to Japan and by the prominent roles that rights lawyers are playing in those societies. China’s present leader seeks “soft power” as well as military and economic power but does not seem to realize that his repression of rights lawyers is increasingly earning the world’s ridicule and scorn.
Teng Biao made the proper point that it is very difficult for even cautious rights lawyers to always know where the regime is drawing the line at any given time, and thus some have become unwilling martyrs to the rule of law.