Lawyers have emerged as the champions of democratic and political reform in mainland China. They are taking on cases for the underprivileged and disadvantaged, more often than not for no fee, in the name of the public interest.
People who have been unfairly detained, peasants who have had land taken from them, the victims of food and environmental poisoning: all now have the chance to have a voice where previously the justice system ignored them. The movement is one of the biggest challenges to the Communist Party's authority - yet it is one that officials must nurture and allow to strengthen.
Leaders are keenly aware of the challenge and are wrongly responding with force. Lawyers are being detained and their families harassed. Organisations set up to fight causes have been shut down. The inspiration seems to be straight from the pages of English literature; one villain says to the other in Shakespeare's Henry VI: 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.'
Those with a tight grip on power would outwardly have good reason for such a reaction. World history is peppered with the names of lawyers: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. They and countless others were at the forefront of change. But the party does not tolerate opposition. Those seen as trying to erode its authority are given harsh penalties. But iron-fisted, one-party rule is not conducive to the social harmony that leaders are so eager to take root. This can only be engendered by upholding the constitution and the freedoms it is supposed to bring and building a sturdy rule of law.
In many respects, these public-interest lawyers are working to bring change from within. They face obstacles but are seen by authorities as less of a threat than political dissidents and other activists. Their use of the law and media to make arguments are less disruptive than protests. This gives them the opportunity to chip away at China's authoritarian foundations.
So far their influence is limited, but they have scored some notable successes. Public-interest lawyer Xu Zhiyong and his colleagues in 2003 were able to have the police detention system overturned by the National People's Congress. In June, Beijing lawyers Xia Lin and Xia Nan won freedom from a possible death penalty for pedicurist Deng Yujiao. She had been charged with stabbing to death a Hubei provincial official; she walked free on the argument that she had acted in self-defence. Such cases give hope to citizens who have few means to air grievances due to the tightness of state controls.
There has been a marked rise in the number of violent protests. Authorities should not be surprised; people have few other avenues to be heard. The high incidence of official corruption, lack of free speech and inability of the courts to deliver justice has created an explosive situation. Crime crackdowns and extolling the virtues of social harmony are not enough to cool heads.
Lawyers are well positioned to usher in much-needed change. By taking on cases that challenge the system, they can argue for the implementation and improvement of laws and regulations. Their blogs and websites expand the freedom of speech denied by the heavily censored state media. Getting cases to court ensures that grievances are aired; winning them builds confidence.
The mainland has spent a huge amount on the hardware of a legal system. Impressive courts have been built. The government is clearly aware of the importance of rule of law. But this can only come about if the software - lawyers - are able to do their jobs unhindered.