What do the activities of twenty-first-century Chinese lawyers tell us about the origins and prospects of legal activism under authoritarianism? This essay fits China’s Human Rights Lawyers (2014) into an emerging literature on authoritarian legality. The book offers an insider view of a circle of lawyers interested in using China’s newly accessible courts as a platform for social activism. It highlights the difficulty of rights lawyers’ day-to-day work against the backdrop of the Chinese state’s long-term experiment in how to harness the power of law without ceding political control.

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