A lawyer poses for the cameras in Beijing, China, on Sept. 17, 2016. (TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Yang Bin, long known in Chinese legal circles as a “human rights activist” and often a foe of the Chinese government, has switched careers. Now Yang is championing human rights as a lawyer in China. Yang, who started his new job in July, spoke with ChinaFile about being both an advocate for the oppressed and a law professor.
“My dream is to see the only human rights defender in China become the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court,” Yang said, referring to Shang Qingchun, a human rights lawyer who Yang has represented previously. Yang intends to keep this momentum going. “Because my role is to legalize people’s rights, one can defend the rule of law and their rights.”
Yang is among dozens of law professors who were jailed for their work in China, according to a 2015 report by Human Rights Watch. “It is just amazing to see how blind justice has always governed China,” he said. That report observed, “Access to justice for those in China who dare to challenge authorities is extremely difficult.”
In this video, Yang shares his personal journey, growing up as a lawyer on Beijing’s outskirts, rising through the legal system, and becoming one of the most renowned human rights lawyers in China today.
Yang was first arrested at age 22 after protesting for democracy in 2001. Since then, he has been repeatedly arrested, attacked, and harassed.
During this time, he has practiced law not only with Shang Qingchun, but also with Ren Zhiqiang, Wang Yu, Li Heping, and others, who have gone on to become some of China’s top legal minds. It wasn’t until 2005 that he started his own law firm.
He came into prominence in 2013 when he launched an online petition calling for the political trials of four anti-government activists. “This show trial is to intimidate people and make them become a silent judge,” Yang said of the July 2013 conviction of anti-government protestors Gao Yu, Cao Shunli, Xu Zhiyong, and Liu Xiaobo, all who had been charged with disrupting traffic.
And he continued to speak out about the cases after Xu Zhiyong was detained in 2013. In December 2014, Yang was among those who stood before a court to denounce the conviction.
Yang was often called a “human rights activist” during his trials and his new career is still very much a work in progress.
He said there are “lots of human rights activists … but they don’t know their rights.”
As for his own case, “I haven’t forgotten yet the courtroom, where so many people have betrayed me,” he said.
Yang is now the vice dean of constitutional and administrative law at the Peking University School of Law, a branch of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one of the country’s premier educational institutions.
He said he does not expect many students to follow his footsteps. But, he added, “They’re not inexperienced … some of them already had experience in a foreign country and are interested in how to fight human rights” in China.
At a recent law-related demonstration, Yang did not give up after he was forced to stop speaking: “No words can save them, but he hopes that a person with strong heart will defend the human rights of his fellow human being,” a tweet from Zeng Jinyan, the wife of former Chinese dissident and author Gao Zhiyong, said.