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The Ecology of Activism: Professional Mobilization as a Spatial Process.

PROFESSIONAL MOBILIZATION HAS A spatial logic beyond causal mechanisms. The paradigm shift from professional monopoly (Larson 1977) to the system of professions (Abbott 1988) has generated an ecological turn for the sociology of professions (Abbott 2005; Fourcade and Khurana 2013; Liu and Wu 2016; Seabrooke and Tsingou 2015). Meanwhile, the rise of field-theoretic approaches in sociology (Bourdieu [1992] 1996; Liu and Emirbayer 2016; Martin 2003) has contributed to a spatial turn in theorizing mobilization (Evans and Kay 2008; Fligstein and McAdam 2012; Gould 1995; Zhao 1998). In this article, we propose an ecological theory of professional mobilization following the Chicago School of sociology (Abbott 1999; Becker 1970; Hughes 1971; Park and Burgess [1921] 1969). We argue that an ecology of activism can emerge initially from a state of isolation in which actors do not actively engage in collective action but passively occupy vacant positions and avoid interaction with other like-minded actors. As population density increases in the ecology and the social distances between actors are reduced, the meanings of mobilization are crystallized through boundary work between actors over positions, and this in turn leads to the emergence of a consolidated social space for activism.

To develop this ecological approach, we draw on the empirical case of lawyer mobilization in China. On 9 July 2015, the Chinese government initiated a large-scale crackdown on lawyer activism, during which more than two hundred lawyers and legal activists across the country were taken in for questioning, detained, or "disappeared" in less than a week (Fu 2018). While most lawyers were released after questioning, at least a dozen lawyers and activists remained detained or missing for months before some of them resurfaced on state television, making public confessions for their alleged crimes (Pils 2018). Despite the widespread condemnation in the international community, several lawyers were tortured or given criminal sentences for up to seven years.

What explains the professional mobilization of Chinese lawyers in the early twenty-first century? And what led to the so-called "709 Crackdown" in July 2015? Given the consecutive repressions of feminists, activist lawyers, labor NGOs, and house churches within a year, it is tempting to conclude that the crackdown signaled the rise of the "Chinese security state" (Wang and Minzner 2015) and a repressive turn in its policies toward the legal profession and civil society (Biddulph 2015; Pils 2015; Stern 2017). Nevertheless, we argue that, in addition to this notable shift in state policies, there is also a spatial and processual logic to Chinese lawyers' political activism, an alternative narrative that explains both their rising collective action and the government crackdown in 2015. Adopting an ecological approach to studying professional mobilization, we analyze the formation of different species of activist lawyers by locating them in an ecology of lawyer activism and examining how collective action emerges from their mutual interactions with the ecology's increasing density and consolidation. Once spatial consolidation occurs, we focus on the various types of boundary work among activist lawyers as well as between lawyers and the state, which produce the topology of this ecology of activism.


Rebelling against Parsonian functionalism (Parsons 1939), the sociology of professions moved toward neo-Weberian theories of market control in the 1970s (Larson 1977). While this paradigm remains influential (Saks 2010; Weeden 2002), it generated two other theoretical turns since the 1980s. The first was a political turn that emphasizes the significance of the state and political mobilization to the place of professions in society (Halliday 1987; Rueschemeyer 1986). This turn was most energetically developed in scholarship on the legal profession (Burrage 2006; Halliday and Karpik 1997; Sarat and Scheingold 1998). The second was an ecological turn triggered by Abbott's (1988) seminal book, The System of Professions, which followed the long-standing Chicago School tradition on work and occupations (Becker 1970; Bucher and Strauss 1961; Freidson 1970, 1986; Hughes 1971). Abbott argues that professions constitute an ecological system in which every profession evolves through its interactions with other professions. While this ecological approach has radically re-oriented the sociology of professions, it has not been extended to the study of professional mobilization. Most studies of lawyer mobilization, for instance, still emphasize the causes around which lawyers pursue collective action without theorizing the social space in which various types of "cause lawyers" reside and interact (Marshall and Hale 2014).

Integrating the political and ecological turns in the sociology of professions, this article changes the paradigm for studying professional mobilization from causes to a relational space (Emirbayer 1997; Liu and Emirbayer 2016), or what we call the ecology of activism. In this ecology, there are not always fixed structural links between activist professionals and the issues around which they mobilize. Both activists and issues are social entities emerging simultaneously as the ecology evolves. Activist professionals are driven by their values and beliefs (Halliday and Karpik 1997; Liu and Halliday 2016), yet they do not necessarily stick to specific causes over time; instead, they often begin their activism searching for a place in the ecology and a meaning for their actions. Sometimes this meaning does not become clear until their ecological positions are settled through interactions with other activists. Even after a temporal settlement, the meaning of action remains open and fluid.

What does this ecology of activism look like? It is not a physical space that constrains or facilitates mobilization (Gould 1995; Tilly 2000; Zhao 1998), but a social space consisting of multiple species of actors located in various ecological positions and related to one another through social interactions (Liu and Wu 2016). In contrast to the deeply structural Bourdieusian field (Bourdieu [1992] 1996), which emphasizes power struggle, strategic action, and symbolic violence, the ecology of activism in our terms is characterized by processes of interaction among actors over positions, including competition, conflict, boundary work, exchange, and so on (Abbott 2016; Liu and Emirbayer 2016; Park and Burgess [1921] 1969). Unlike the strategic action field "in which actors are attuned to and interact with one another on the basis of shared understandings about the purposes of the field" (Fligstein and McAdam 2012:9), the ecology of activism does not presuppose any "purpose" of the social space or any "strategic action" of social actors. Such purposes, strategies, or "shared understandings" only emerge in the processes of interaction because both actors and positions are "things of boundaries" (Abbott 1995) in the ecology.

While field theory implies a view of social action that is agonistic, strategic, and conflict prone, we argue that actors in a social space sometimes shy away from social interactions for the preservation of individuality and group unity. In his classic essay, "The Metropolis and Mental Life," Simmel (1971:324-39) depicts a mentality of urban residents that is evidently less agonistic and more self-preserving than the strategic agents in field theory. Instead of actively seeking social interactions, individuals in the metropolis develop a "blase attitude" as they learn to filter out excessive stimuli around them. They do not always pursue dominant positions or engage in power struggles. Instead, an ecology sometimes starts from a state of isolation--in Park and Burgess's ([1921] 1969) words, "[t]he solidarity of the group, like the integrity of the individual, implies a measure at least of isolation from other groups and persons as a necessary condition of its existence" (p. 229). Consequently, an emergent ecology is rarely saturated but often has vacant areas over which no actor claims jurisdiction (Abbott 1988).

How does collective action emerge in such a space of vacancy and isolation? It may involve a process of spatial consolidation in which an actor is enclosed by other actors and interactions occur among them with rising population density. Collective action is not only purposive mobilization but also a spatial process (Zhang and Zhao 2018), in which the meanings of action gradually emerge as the ecology of activism consolidates. To make an analogy, this ecological approach to collective action resembles the East Asian board game, Go. Unlike the European chess game in which all the pieces have predetermined meanings and positions (king, queen, knights, etc., as in a Bourdieusian field), in the more complex Go game all the stones look the same (except for color), and, when a stone is placed on the board, its meaning remains indeterminate until it is gradually encircled by other stones. Similarly, what we are developing here is a processual approach to space formation and collective action rooted in the interactionist tradition of the Chicago School (Becker 1970; Bucher and Strauss 1961; Park and Burgess [1921] 1969; Strauss 1993).

Once spatial consolidation occurs, the topology of the ecology of activism is shaped by at least four types of boundary work between actors. Boundary making is the process of spatial differentiation that demarcates social boundaries between actors (Gieryn 1983). Boundary blurring is the process of spatial integration that makes social boundaries between actors ambiguous or porous (Liu 2015; Wimmer 2008). Boundary repositioning is the process of spatial reconfiguration by which "an actor seeks to change her own position within an existing hierarchical boundary system" (Wimmer 2008:988). Its focus is not on the turf battle between actors, but on the spatial mobility of actors. Boundary maintenance refers to the intervention of an external actor to maintain "an elastic balance of boundary work between conflicting actors" (Liu 2015:4) or to close down a social boundary by excluding actors from entering a certain area in the social space (Larson 1977; Weeden 2002). Taken together, the four types of boundary work locate actors in their positions and produce the ecology's topology.

How is the ecology of activism related to other professional and political ecologies (Abbott 2005; Adams 2018)? Arguably, the ecology of lawyer activism in China is nested within the larger ecology of the Chinese legal professions, in which a kaleidoscopic variety of law practitioners interact through social processes, such as boundary work and exchange (Liu 2015). Although only a small proportion of Chinese lawyers engage in political activism, these activist professionals sometimes can mobilize practitioners in other sectors of the Chinese bar to support or join them, as the empirical analysis below demonstrates. Accordingly, the boundaries between the ecology of activism and the larger professional ecology are highly porous, and individual lawyers move in and out of the ecology of activism as it evolves.

The ecology of activism is also closely related to the ecology of the state. Boundary work in the ecology of activism is "a form of contention that goes on partly within the state and it hinges on the participation of state actors" (O'Brien 2003:53). This is particularly the case for authoritarian contexts like China, where activist lawyers are constantly monitored and harassed by state authorities (Fu and Cullen 2008, 2011; Pils 2015). Unlike the active and highly strategic image of cause lawyers in the United States (Marshall and Hale 2014; Sarat and Scheingold 1998), many Chinese activist lawyers adopt a pragmatic strategy of passive activism: they are often passive in efforts to forge social relations with other activists and exercise great caution in pursuing their activism. In this sense, the vacant or sparsely populated areas in the ecology of activism are partially generated and maintained by the authoritarian state.

Yet the state is not a single actor, but a complex ecology of actors and institutions that regulate professions (Adams 2018). In the Chinese context, the justice bureau, the police, and the state security are the three state agencies that monitor and sometimes harass or persecute activist lawyers (Liu and Halliday 2016:91-94; Pils 2015). Lawyers have no choice but to navigate the interstitial spaces in the ecology of the state in order to survive. When spatial consolidation begins in the ecology of activism, it poses a challenge to state control. If the capacity of state agencies to maintain the boundaries in the ecology of activism is threatened, they will seek to force activist lawyers to retreat to their isolated positions or remove them from the professional ecology by disqualification or detention. Meanwhile, activist lawyers may also resist the state's boundary maintenance by making, blurring, or repositioning their boundaries vis-a-vis other lawyers in order to survive. This echoes what O'Brien (2003) calls "boundary-spanning contention," which is "neither clearly transgressive nor clearly contained" (p. 53). Spatial boundaries in the ecology of activism are produced in this sophisticated cat-and-mouse game between activists and the state.


This article is an extension of a large research project on Chinese criminal defense lawyers that we undertook during 2005 to 2015, in which 329 interviews were conducted by the authors and our research assistants in 15 provinces of China (Liu and Halliday 2016). Although our initial focus was on a wide range of lawyers across the country, since 2010 we have gradually focused on a smaller number of activist lawyers in Beijing who work on cases most relevant to basic legal rights across China. Many of these lawyers were interviewed repeatedly from 2010 to 2015, which enabled us to trace the temporal changes in their activism, until the 709 Crackdown. These interviews constitute a major data source for this article.

Data were also drawn from four additional sources. First, we used interview data on public interest lawyers that the first author collected in 2006 to 2007. Second, from 2009 to 2017, the first author had continuously observed and documented the online discourses of Chinese activist lawyers on blogs, Weibo, and WeChat as a participant observer. This eight-year online ethnography enables us to trace the emergence of Chinese lawyers' professional mobilization as a natural history. Third, the first author conducted 10 interviews with Chinese dissident lawyers and other activists in the New York metropolitan area during 2016 to 2017, including one human rights activist, one environmental activist, two public interest activists, four feminist activists, and two NGO program officers specializing in law and rights in China. Fourth, we systematically collected media reports, online posts, and scholarly writings on the history of lawyer mobilization in both English and Chinese from 2002 to 2017, including the autobiographies of a few notable activists such as Gao Zhisheng, Chen Guangcheng, and Xu Zhiyong.

The combination of these four data sources and our interviews during 2005 to 2015 provide the most comprehensive empirical data to date on the ecology of lawyer activism in China, beyond existing studies on specific types of lawyering (Fu and Cullen 2008, 2011; Michelson 2006; Pils 2015; Stern 2013). The interview data were analyzed qualitatively, complemented by the content analysis of archival sources, to construct the profiles of activist lawyers and the narratives of key events of collective action. We labeled all the interviews in the format of "B1501," in which "B" refers to the location of the interview (i.e., Beijing), "15" refers to the year of the interview (i.e., 2015), and "01" refers to the interview number in the given year and given location. All the media reports and Internet posts were analyzed as primary data and coded in the format of "GD_20160524," where "GD" refers to the media outlet (i.e., The Guardian) and "20160524" refers to the year, month, and date of the publication.


Chinese lawyers' professional mobilization started around the turn of the twenty-first century. Although the legal profession was revived in 1980, most lawyers worked in state-owned law firms until the 1990s, when the government privatized professional services (Michelson 2007). As state employees, lawyers had no space for activism. Once they were privatized from the state, however, the ecology of activism soon began to take shape.

The pioneers of Chinese lawyer activism were mostly "progressive elites" (Liu and Halliday 2011:835-36) in major cities. In May 2003, for example, Xu Zhiyong, Teng Biao, and Yu Jiang, three legal scholars in Beijing, filed a petition to the National People's Congress (NPC) on the Sun Zhigang case, in which a college graduate who had just migrated to Guangzhou was beaten to death by the local police. The petition led to the abolition of China's "custody and repatriation" (shourong qiansong) system for migrant workers (Hand 2006). Two of the three scholars, Xu and Teng, went on to become leading legal activists for constitutional reforms and suffered harsh state repression later--Xu was imprisoned for four years and Teng was forced to leave China (GD_20160524; Xu 2017). Another early example of lawyer activism is the Shanghai lawyer, Zheng Enchong, who assisted unlawfully evicted urban residents to challenge the local government and was sentenced to three years in 2003 (Biddulph 2015:201; Fu and Cullen 2008:114).

In 2001, the Beijing Lawyers Association (BLA) set up a Committee on Constitutional Law and Human Rights (CCLHR), which soon became a platform for liberal lawyers to exchange ideas and develop professional networks (B1134; B1501; N1601). In the mid-2000s, the CCLHR organized a series of symposiums on human rights, public interest law, death penalty review, and other constitutional topics. It was also actively involved in rights-defense cases, such as the Dongyang case, in which nine local peasants were arrested after clashing with the local police (Fabao_20100924). Seven members of the CCLHR went to Dongyang to represent the defendants (N1601), and it was one of the earliest cases of collective action by Chinese activist lawyers (B1501).

Unlike Xu and Teng, who had a clear constitutionalist agenda, members of the CCLHR came from diverse social backgrounds and pursued different strategies. The more radical members were willing to take on sensitive cases involving petitioners, Christians, Tibetans, or Falun Gong practitioners (B1101; B1104; B1120; B1125). Other members stayed away from those cases for self-protection (B1134; B1501). There was no consensus on the CCLHR's ultimate objective: was it to improve human rights within China's current legal framework? Or was it to pursue fundamental political reforms? Although all members were politically liberal lawyers (Liu and Halliday 2011; Liu, Hsu, and Halliday 2019), most of them were still exploring the specific meanings of their actions in this early period.

Despite the lack of a uniform agenda, the CCLHR's activism soon led to a state response. In August 2007, the state-controlled BLA split the CCLHR into two separate committees on constitutional law and public interest law, but the term "human rights" disappeared (B1005) and a few radical members were excluded (B1120; B1125). It was the Chinese state's boundary maintenance in the ecology of activism, as it quietly closed the door for activists to pursue bar association leadership. Meanwhile, Gao Zhisheng, a prominent human rights lawyer who was described by the New York Times as a "legal gadfly" (NYT_20051213), was convicted of subverting state power in 2006 (Gao 2007). Indeed, activist lawyers remained isolated "gadflies" in the mid-2000s, and it was relatively easy for the state to repress them.

A parallel movement of lawyer activism emerged around public interest law. For instance, Hao Jinsong, a law student in Beijing, initiated a series of consumer rights lawsuits against several high-level state agencies from 2004 (Fu and Cullen 2008:115). The issues involved were fairly minor (e.g., railway price hikes), but they touched upon the lives of millions and generated media attention. As a result, Hao gained national recognition as a public interest advocate. Yet other activists were not as fortunate. Chen Guangcheng, a blind barefoot lawyer in Shandong Province, started his legal career as a disability rights advocate. In 2005, with the assistance of rights activists in Beijing, including Teng Biao, Chen organized a collective lawsuit against the local Family Planning Commission on behalf of the women who were forced to undergo sterilization or abortion. However, shortly after speaking to foreign reporters, Chen was put under house arrest and then sentenced in December 2006 (Chen 2015).

The rare combination of Chen's blindness, his identity as a rural barefoot lawyer, and China's controversial family planning policy made his case a cause celebre in the international media (TM_20060430; NYT_20070112). However, it also suggested the risk of boundary repositioning in the ecology of activism. As soon as Chen's cause shifted from disability rights to the more sensitive area of China's one-child policy, he crossed the 'Vague and fluid" "high voltage line between permissible and 'prohibited' lawyering" (Fu and Cullen 2011:51-52). The state's boundary maintenance not only pushed Chen out of the ecology but also deterred other public interest lawyers from moving toward human rights issues. A public interest lawyer expressed his pessimism in December 2006: "Resistance is too big and too dangerous. [I] don't want to do it anymore. Whoever wants to bear the responsibility can do it. I have borne it already" (B0653). Another public interest activist acknowledged that lawyer activism was "hard to organize, hard to make alliances ... the government would respect you more if you do it alone" (B0654). The threat of state repression aggravated the isolation of activist lawyers and made collective action risky and undesirable.

In other areas, such as women's rights, labor rights, or environmental protection, isolated activists had long existed yet collective action was scarce. In 1996, Guo Jianmei founded Peking University's Women's Legal Research and Service Centre, which soon became the most renowned legal aid center specializing in women's rights (N1701). However, there were only a few such centers across China (N1603; N1701) and no professional mobilization was observed (N1602; N1704). Similarly, few labor activist lawyers existed except in Guangdong Province, where the support of foreign donors concentrated (G0734; Halegua 2016). Despite China's serious environmental problems, the few lawyers who were actively involved in environmental lawsuits were those supported by foreign donors, such as the Pollution Victims Legal Help Centre in Beijing (N0606; Stern 2013).

In sum, the early years of the twenty-first century witnessed the birth of the ecology of lawyer activism in China, though the various species of activists were not only small in numbers, but also isolated in different positions of the incipient ecology. Even the most organized group of human rights activists did not generate any large-scale mobilization. Many areas of lawyer activism remained sparsely populated (e.g., women's rights, labor, environment) or vacant (e.g., LGBT rights). For most lawyers, engaging in activism was risky and lonely, with little support from colleagues and facing the constant threat of state repression. The Chinese state was able to maintain the boundaries in the ecology of activism by a "divide-and-conquer" strategy.


Social scientists have long recognized the importance of historical turning points in shaping the temporality of social change (Abbott 2001; Sewell 2005). For the ecology of lawyer activism in China, two events in the late 2000s were especially significant: (1) the BLA's direct election campaign during 2008 to 2009 and (2) the Li Zhuang case during 2009 to 2011. Both were characterized by a rapid, intensive process of boundary blurring among lawyers. These two consecutive events triggered the ecology's spatial consolidation.

Unlike the autonomous bar associations in Anglo-American countries (Adams 2018; Halliday 1987), all bar association leaders in China were picked by the justice bureaus through largely symbolic elections. Chinese lawyers complained vigorously that bar associations charged excessive annual membership fees but provided little support for their practice. The problem became particularly acute in the mid-2000s when a large wave of lawyers migrated from the provinces to Beijing, which substantially increased the population density of the Beijing bar (Liu, Liang, and Michelson 2014). Many migrant lawyers had difficulty making ends meet, while the BLA collected tens of million yuan in membership fees every year. Some lawyers even turned activists out of business starvation (B1133; B1138).

In 2008, activist lawyers in Beijing saw an opportunity for change. A revised PRC Lawyers Law came into effect and the BLA was about to hold an election in September. In late August, an open letter signed by 35 lawyers was widely circulated online and offline (B1005; B1138; HRIC_20081031; Cohen 2009). The letter criticized the BLA for its failure in representing the interests of all Beijing lawyers and called for the direct election of the BLA president and lawyer representatives, more transparency in the election procedure, and a reduction of membership fees. While most of the 35 lawyers were human rights activists, the letter quickly generated wide attention and support among Beijing lawyers (B1005).

On September 5, the BLA issued a "Stern Statement" in response to the open letter, accusing the letter drafters of "attempting in vain to ... utterly reject our country's current management system for the legal profession, judicial system, and even political system" (HRIC_20081031)--a tone that one-letter drafter referred to as "the language of the Cultural Revolution" (B1005). Two days later, the letter drafters responded openly that it was "plainly lawful to call upon all lawyers to exercise their rights to take part in BLA elections" (Cohen 2009) and set up a direct election Website to publish comments on a new BLA charter. The number of lawyers publicly endorsing the open letter gradually increased to 105 (B1138).

As the scope of lawyer mobilization widened, the BLA postponed its election and adopted a new charter on February 5, 2009, which permitted the direct election of lawyer representatives but not BLA leaders (Cohen 2009). Meanwhile, activist lawyers initiated a campaign to run for lawyer representatives (B1125). When the election was finally held in late February, five activists ran in Chaoyang District, which had the highest concentration of law firms in Beijing. One of them visited 39 law firms in one day to invite votes only to find his name removed from the ballot on the election day (B1138).

Despite the activists' frustration toward this rigged election, in which none of them was elected, the BLA reduced its annual membership fee soon afterward. More importantly, as an activist lawyer reflected in 2010, "it increased the rights consciousness of lawyers all over China ... we sounded the trumpet for self-governance" (B1005). However, many letter signers were targeted by the Beijing Bureau of Justice after the election. Yitong, the law firm that employed a few key participants, was forcibly shut down (B1125). Some letter signers were asked to leave their law firms or even disbarred (B1005; B1120; B1138).

Driven by the rapid increase of lawyer population density in Beijing in the mid-2000s, the BLA election campaign was the first step in the ecology's spatial consolidation. Although it was organized by a small group of human rights lawyers, the reforms that they called for were echoed strongly in the entire Beijing bar. With a universalistic agenda, the campaign organizers successfully blurred the boundaries between activists and routine practitioners, as well as between local and migrant lawyers. In the subsequent Li Zhuang case, this process of spatial consolidation spread from Beijing to the rest of China.

In November 2009, Li Zhuang, a partner of an elite Beijing law firm, went to Chongqing to represent a businessman who was charged with organized crime activities. Soon after Li's meetings with his client and potential witnesses, the Chongqing authorities arrested him for violating Article 306 of the PRC Criminal Law, which makes a crime of lawyer's activities in fabricating evidence or inducing witnesses to give false testimonies. The arrest quickly made national headlines and was widely regarded as a warning to all criminal defense lawyers who dared to vigorously defend for the accused during Chongqing's anticrime campaign.

If the BLA election generated a "system disturbance" (Abbott 1988) in the ecology of activism, then the Li Zhuang case was an earthquake. Li's unfair treatment by the Chongqing authorities and the media, which portrayed him as a mercenary and disruptive defender for "enemies of the people" (Liu, Liang, and Halliday 2014:87) outraged thousands of lawyers. In less than a week after Li's arrest, essays calling for the fair treatment of lawyers proliferated in online forums and blogs. Enthusiastically followed by legal professionals and ordinary people alike, Li's court hearing on December 30 lasted for 16 hours and ended at 1:30 am on New Year's Eve. Li appeared defiant and vigorously argued that he was merely doing his professional duty. On January 8, 2010, Li was sentenced to two and half years in prison. Li appealed the court's decision and the second trial was held in February. Surprisingly, Li admitted to all charges. The unusual open trial and Li's curious public confession led to many speculations about a secret plea bargain between Li and the Chongqing authorities, which was later confirmed by Li (Liu, Liang, and Halliday 2014:90). On February 18, the court upheld the charges but reduced Li's sentence to 18 months.

This dramatic turn changed the sentiments of Chinese lawyers who had zealously followed the case. Before Li's second trial, he received nearly uniform support among lawyers. After his public confession, however, some lawyers began to question Li's moral and ethical standards. For the ecology of activism, it was a highly turbulent two-month period in which the symbolic boundaries (Wimmer 2008) between various segments of the Chinese legal profession (e.g., Beijing lawyers vs. provincial lawyers, criminal defense lawyers vs. corporate lawyers) were drawn, blurred, and redrawn in cyberspace.

In March 2011, while Li was still serving his prison term, the Chongqing authorities initiated a new prosecution against him for an old case that he did in Shanghai. This new prosecution sent a chilling shock wave through the Chinese legal community as it was a politicized revenge on Li's defiant court behavior and its damages to the Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai's political career (B1201). Several leading criminal defense lawyers, including two former CCLHR members, mobilized to form a large defense team for Li. With the assistance of Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter and a wildly popular social media platform at the time, information about the new prosecution flew instantly across the nation. Heated online discussions occurred on a daily basis among lawyers, legal scholars, journalists, and the general public. Hundreds of legal professionals and other activists gathered in front of the courthouse on the first day of Li's trial, including out-of-town lawyers who flew to Chongqing at their own expense. The defense counsel's arguments and video evidence, which showed that Li instructed the witness to give "objective and true" statements (S1101; B1201), were instantly spread on Weibo. Facing solid counterevidence and mounting public pressure, the procurators withdrew the case and Li was released from prison on June 11, 2011.

The extraordinary public attention on the Li Zhuang case was a wake-up call for many Chinese lawyers who felt the urgency of collective action. With the rise of social media, the scope of lawyer mobilization went beyond Beijing or Chongqing and reached lawyers across China, knitting them into a dense interactional fabric. Taken together, the BLA election and the Li Zhuang case were two consecutive events that greatly reduced the social distances among politically liberal lawyers in the ecology of activism. Hundreds of isolated activist lawyers across the country were connected online and offline, mobilizing to fight for their bar association rights and to support a detained lawyer. The two events constituted a historical turning point for the ecology's spatial consolidation. Soon after the Li Zhuang case, a die-hard lawyering movement emerged and further transformed the landscape of the ecology of activism.


"Die-hard lawyers" (sike lushi) is a label that Chinese activist lawyers use to demarcate the boundary between themselves and those lawyers who rely on political embeddedness in state institutions to gain advantages in their work (Michelson 2007). Die-hard lawyers "exhaust all legal procedures to protect legal rights" (B1402) and check improper judicial behavior (B1416). Outside the courtroom, they actively use social media and street theater to get public attention. Some had accumulated thousands or even millions of followers on Weibo (B1402; B1501; B1506). Unlike the BLA election campaign, which mostly relied on a close-knit group of human rights activists in Beijing, participants of the die-hard lawyering movement came from all over China, and they formed a loosely connected network through social media. In a series of cases from 2011 to 2015, die-hard lawyers gathered in one location, interacted intensively for a while and then dispersed. It was a unique form of professional mobilization that spanned across both the ecology of activism and the geographic spaces in which it was embedded.

Two cases in 2011 to 2012 signified the rise of the die-hard lawyer movement. The first case occurred in Beihai, Guangxi, in June 2011, in which four lawyers were detained by the local police. Yang Jinzhu, a Hunan lawyer who flew to Chongqing for Li Zhuang's trial in April 2011, made a series of online posts to call for the formation of a "lawyer group" to go to Beihai. On 26 June, six lawyers flew to Beihai from Beijing, Shandong, and Yunnan to assist the four lawyers. Facing the pressure from the lawyer group, the Beihai police released three lawyers but arrested the fourth lawyer. As the case became a cause celebre on social media, participants of the Beihai lawyer group exceeded 20 lawyers by mid-July. All were active Weibo users, and their activities on the ground were instantly reported online. For example, four group members were attacked by a crowd of locals on July 18 and photos of their injuries were circulated online that same night. Chi Susheng, a lawyer representative in the NPC, saw the photos on Weibo and flew to Beihai immediately to communicate with local leaders. During the six-week trial from September 20 to November 4, members of the lawyer group repeatedly clashed with the judges, and, in some occasions, they left the trial and staged protests outside the courthouse. Several lawyers made Weibo posts from the courtroom to expose the procedural problems they faced. As the trial proceeded with repeated adjournments, the lawyer group started an online fundraising campaign to cover their expenses and received approximately 750,000 yuan (approximately $110,000 U.S. dollars) from the public. The final verdict of the Beihai case was not rendered until February 6, 2013, when the accused lawyer was acquitted.

The Beihai case made activist lawyers realize the power of social media in assisting their fight against the abuse of state power. The rise of Weibo (and, later, WeChat) vastly reduced the social distances not only among lawyers, but also between lawyers and the public. This is particularly important for authoritarian regimes like China, where the print media are censored by the state. But it was not until the Xiaohe case in 2012 that the term "die-hard lawyers" was coined. This was a case of organized crime in Guizhou Province, and a massive lawyer group of over a hundred lawyers was mobilized to assist its 57 defendants. The lawyers involved included many participants of the Li Zhuang and Beihai cases, as well as newcomers who were inspired by the online mobilization (B1506). Plenty of courtroom drama happened during the first day of the trial on January 9, 2012. At least 20 lawyers were warned by the court and four lawyers, who had heated arguments with the judges, were expelled from the courtroom, including Chi Susheng, the NPC representative. Chi fainted on the way out of the court, and the incident quickly generated an online uproar. It was precisely because of such confrontations between lawyers and the court that the term "die-hard lawyers" emerged during the trial (B1501).

As the die-hard lawyering group grew from one case to another, boundary work soon started to occur among its members. Some lawyers used radical means such as street theater and performance art to mobilize (Pils 2018), whereas others preferred the moderate strategy of working with liberal-minded judges and state officials (H0701; S1104). Many die-hard lawyers consciously stayed away from the most sensitive cases. As one lawyer explained, "I don't do cases concerning Falun Gong, religion, Xinjiang, or Tibet, but any other human rights case you can come to me" (B1501). This lawyer's boundary making indicates the different mobilizing strategies between the moderate and radical members of the die-hard lawyering movement. As a journalist commented, "They were like a group of hedgehogs.... They stuck together to get warm but, when they get too close, they began to hurt one another" (RW_201402). One human rights activist described the moderate die-hard lawyers as "dying hard in some cases, but not in every case" (B1405). Another even argued that "a lawyer who does not dare to touch Falun Gong cases is not a real criminal defence lawyer or human rights lawyer" (B1005). However, a human rights activist also acknowledged that they had less room to mobilize than those lawyers who "focus on procedural issues of a universal nature" (B1401).

Some human rights activists preferred to maintain a blurred boundary with their moderate colleagues because "every lawyer is a rights-defence lawyer" (B1415) and die-hard lawyers are "those who believe in the law and defend basic human rights without fear of political power" (B1418). Too sharp a boundary between the two categories would only further marginalize the positions of activist lawyers in the larger ecology of the Chinese legal profession. Until the 709 Crackdown in 2015, this boundary-blurring strategy worked brilliantly. In September 2013, a "Chinese human rights lawyer group" was set up on WeChat. By 2015, the group included more than 300 lawyers across China and became an online hub for mobilization (B1402). As a silent group member recollected shortly after the 709 Crackdown, "I watched them discussing cases. It was often said that they must charge forward. If some were arrested, then others would charge again. Now all of them have been annihilated" (B1512).

Although many lawyers were cautious in their support of human rights activists, they nevertheless shared their commitment to China's legal and political reforms (Liu, Hsu, and Halliday 2019). Additional sources of solidarity came from religious faith and gender identity, such as a Christian lawyer WeChat group with about 110 members (B1410; B1513; B1534) and a "China Female Lawyers and Advocates Network" with over 200 members (N1602). Through social media, activist lawyers across China formed a loosely connected collegial community despite their differences in social origins, status, areas of practice, and mobilizing strategies. Some radical activist lawyers also mobilized petitioners, Christian house churches, and other civil society groups to join them in protests in order to increase the visibility of their collective action (B1402; B1534).

Such boundary-blurring processes between lawyers and civil society alarmed the Chinese state. The 709 Crackdown was a direct state response to the increasingly subversive collective action of the die-hard lawyering movement. It was a swift and harsh action of boundary maintenance that removed the most radical lawyers from the ecology of activism by criminal prosecution and intimidated hundreds of others. Most of the severely punished lawyers were participants in a small number of sensitive cases, such as the Qing'an police shooting case (B1522; N1604). Like a nuclear attack on the ecology of activism, the state's boundary maintenance nearly vacated its core area of human rights and left an indefinite deterrence effect for veteran activists to return or for new activists to settle in.

But some lawyers did return. For human rights activists who survived the crackdown, going back to ordinary law practice was not an option as many of them had been disbarred or put on the state security's "blacklist" (Pils 2015; Fu 2018). Yet the harsher conditions forced them to reposition the boundary of their practice from core human rights issues to less sensitive areas. For example, several veteran activist lawyers launched a lawsuit against three of China's most polluted cities in 2016 (CDT_20170105; GD_20170213). Guo Jianmei's legal aid center for women's rights was shut down in early 2016, but Guo persisted in providing services through her law firm. An activist lawyer we interviewed in 2014 specialized in public health and land-taking cases (B1403), but later this lawyer became active in cases on LGBT rights. After the WeChat human rights lawyer group was censored, a WeChat LGBT legal rights group continued to function and it had more than 200 members in 2017, including many activists who used to focus on other issues (N1603; N1702). The cat-and-mouse game between activist lawyers and the state continues in shifted battlegrounds.


Professional mobilization is a social process that transforms over space and time. The rise of lawyer activism in China offers a valuable empirical instance to provoke a return to this longstanding issue in the sociology of professions with new theoretical tools. The ecology of activism for Chinese lawyers is an emergent social space in which various species of lawyers settle in, move around, and search for their political causes through mutual interactions. In the incipient stage of this ecology (2000-2007), the threat of state repression left many vacant areas of activism, and the small number of activist lawyers existed in passive and often isolated conditions. However, the increasing density of the lawyer population, the BLA election and the Li Zhuang case during 2008 to 2011 precipitated the ecology's spatial consolidation. These two consecutive events, coupled with the rise of social media, greatly reduced the social distances among lawyers while widening the ecology's geographic breadth. The die-hard lawyering movement in the following years (2011-2015) used an innovative combination of social media, courtroom drama, and street theater to mobilize lawyers across China. It generated intensive boundary work in the ecology, including boundary making and blurring between moderate and radical lawyers, the state's boundary maintenance, most notably in the 709 Crackdown, and lawyers' boundary repositioning as a response to the crackdown.

Our primary theoretical task in this article is to develop an ecological theory of mobilization. In contrast to Fligstein and McAdam's (2012) strategic action field, the ecology of activism is a less conflictual yet more fluid space of collective action. As activists move around issues and respond to external threats, boundary work in the ecology takes a variety of forms and there is no fixed match between activists and causes of mobilization. Some activists stick to their causes, whereas others shift their positions over time. The ecology of activism has a topology and a temporality, which drive and constrain the movements of both actors and positions. In Abbott's (2016) words, "There are no social movements. There is nothing but social movement" (p. 2). It is in the mobility and interactions of actors over positions that structures of collective action emerge and transform in society. Such a processual approach makes the concept of ecology a compelling theoretical alternative to the deeply structural and highly strategic concept of field in conceptualizing social space (Liu and Emirbayer 2016).

For the sociology of professions, this study focuses on the topology and temporality of professional mobilization rather than any particular categories of professionals or causes. Prominent individuals are often hailed in the political history of the professions, yet it is the social relations and interactions between these individuals, as well as between notable and grassroots activists, that produce the outcomes of mobilization. The spatial and processual logic of the system of professions is at work not only in interprofessional competition (Abbott 1988) but also in collective action. In this sense, our theory is a revival of some fundamental insights of the Chicago School of work and occupations (Becker 1970; Bucher and Strauss 1961; Hughes 1971) overshadowed by Abbott's seminal work. Professional mobilization, as we have demonstrated with the case of Chinese lawyers, emerges from the boundary work of activist professionals searching for their causes in the ecology of activism, triggered by historically contingent events such as population increase, technological innovation, a nascent civil society, and state repression.


University of Toronto


American Bar Foundation

Sida Liu, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, 725 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, ON, Canada, M5S 2J4. E-mail:


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Author:Liu, Sida; Halliday, Terence C.
Publication:Canadian Review of Sociology
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Nov 1, 2019
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