Weiquan movement is a non-centralized group of lawyers, legal experts and intellectuals in the People's Republic of China who seek to protect and defend the civil rights of the citizenry through litigation and legal activism. The movement, which began in the early 2000s, has organized demonstrations, sought reform via the legal system and media, defended victims of human rights abuses, and written appeal letters, despite opposition from Communist Party authorities. Among the issues adopted by Weiquan lawyers are property and housing rights, protection for AIDS victims, environmental damage, religious freedom, freedom of speech and the press, and defending the rights of other lawyers facing disbarment or imprisonment.
Individuals involved in the Weiquan movement have met with occasionally harsh reprisals from Chinese officials, including disbarment, detention, harassment, and in extreme instances, torture. Authorities have also responded to the movement with the launch of an education campaign on the "socialist concept of rule of law," which reasserts the role of the Communist Party and the primacy of political considerations in the legal profession, and with the Three Supremes, which entrenches the supremacy of the Communist Party in the judicial process.
Gao Zhisheng, a Christian and arguably one of the most well known Weiquan lawyers, has been imprisoned and allegedly tortured for his advocacy on behalf of religious minorities
Since the 1980s, as China’s leadership became cognizant of the importance of the legal system and legal profession to advance economic development, training for lawyers dramatically increased. From 1986 to 1992, the number of lawyers in the country more than doubled from 21,500 to 45,000, and by 2008 had reached 143,000.
The proportion of Weiquan lawyers is very small, relative the number of legal professionals in China. The number of lawyers actively focusing on civil rights issues has been estimated by legal scholar Teng Biao to number "only a few dozen." The lawyers face considerable personal and professional obstacles, and Weiquan lawyering demands substantial commitment to their cause. According to Fu and Cullen, “Weiquan lawyers act principally out of commitment, not because of any financial concerns. They accept weiquan cases to pursue their cause, and typically charge no legal fees.”
Weiquan activists include law professors with university teaching positions—including He Weifang, Xu Zhiyong, and Teng Biao—professional lawyers, and “barefoot lawyers,” who are self-taught and often lack any formal legal education. Several of China’s more high-profile Weiquan lawyers fall into the latter category, including Guo Feixiong and Chen Guangcheng. Many barefoot lawyers are peasants who teach themselves enough law to file civil complaints, engage in litigation, and educate fellow citizens about their rights.
Because corporate law firms are generally not hospitable to Weiquan lawyers and legal aid workers operate within the government system, Weiquan lawyers in large cities tend to work as solo practitioners in partnership firms with other like-minded lawyers. The Beijing Global Law Firm and Yitong Law Firm are examples of such organizations.
Rana Siu Inboden and William Inboden note that a disproportionate number of influential Weiquan lawyers identify with the Christian faith, including Gao Zhisheng, Chen Guangcheng, Zheng Enchong, and Li Heping, among others.
There are at least two distinctive (and sometimes competing) approaches to Weiquan activism. Among Weiquan lawyers, the pragmatists (or consequentialists) are more deferential to the existing legal systems and institutions, and only pursue courses of actions that are likely to produce incremental improvements and reforms. These activists may reject approaches that are liable to be met with official reprisals. By contrast, the "radical" Weiquan activists (those adopting a deontological approach) view rights defending as a moral obligation that is to be pursued regardless of potential consequences. Radical lawyers such as Gao Zhisheng are more inclined to take on the most "sensitive" cases—such as those of Falun Gong adherents—simply because it is the "right thing to do," even though the prospects of success are minimal. A pragmatist may become radicalized once them encounter the limits of possible reform.