Chinese lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who is known for his work in defending migrant workers, has been detained by Chinese authorities, shaking up the country’s “nascent legal rights movement,” according to The New York Times. Lawyers who push for change in China have long put themselves at risk, but nevertheless the legal movement, despite its pitfalls, seemed like the most promising way to secure rights for Chinese citizens and to bring their country closer to democracy -- or at least this was the argument that American lawyers made.

Last spring, I traveled with a group of journalists on a trip sponsored by the National Commission on U.S.-China Relations and met with several Chinese lawyers in a conference room with a view of downtown Beijing. It was a May afternoon, and the sky was uncharacteristically clear and blue, and we talked about the ways that they were using legal means to prod the government into cleaning up the air and the water. True, they also talked about the way that other lawyers had been harassed, arrested and imprisoned, but the ones who were persecuted had worked mainly in civil rights, and the Chinese authorities had been more accepting of those men and women trying to improve the environment through legal channels, such as the lawyers we were meeting on that day. The pollution had gotten so bad in Beijing that officials realized they had to improve the situation, or businesses would suffer. So basically they left the environmental lawyers alone.

Besides that, the people who worked at the organization had been generously supported by American legal groups. One of the staff members had studied at a university in New York, and another was headed off to New Haven in the fall. The staffers were in their late twenties and early thirties, and they were dressed on that day as though they were actually in New York and were headed to a gallery opening in Chelsea. It was hard to imagine that they were at risk.

With the latest arrest, though, the security of lawyers, regardless of their field, is eroding, and it raises questions about how effective it is to advocate for change in China through the legal system. Government officials put up with it for a while, then start cracking down on individual lawyers. Clearly, it takes more than a few lawyers, even a group of courageous ones, to change society, and relying too heavily on these individuals seems short-sighted and unfair.

--Tara McKelvey