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Law as a Sword, Law as a Shield

Politically Liberal Lawyers and the Rule of Law in China
Sida Liu, Ching-Fang Hsu and Terence C. Halliday
p. 65-73


What does the rule of law mean in the Chinese context? Based on empirical research in Beijing and Hong Kong, this article examines the various ways politically liberal lawyers in China make sense of the rule of law in their discourses and collective action. Although the rule of law is frequently invoked by lawyers as a legitimating discourse against the authoritarian state, its use in practice is primarily for instrumental purposes, as both a sword and a shield. For activist lawyers in Beijing, the pursuit of judicial independence is nothing but a distant dream involving a restructuring of the state, and they therefore focus their mobilisation for rule of law around basic legal freedoms and the growth of civil society. By contrast, Hong Kong lawyers hold the autonomy of their judiciary as a paramount value mainly because it is a powerful defensive weapon against Beijing’s political influence. The rule of law as a shield is only effective where its institutional and normative foundations are solid (as in Hong Kong), and it becomes little more than a blunt sword for lawyers where such foundations are weak or missing (as in mainland China).

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Bibliographical reference

Sida Liu, Ching-Fang Hsu and Terence C. Halliday, « Law as a Sword, Law as a Shield  », China Perspectives, 2019-1 | 2019, 65-73.

Electronic reference

Sida Liu, Ching-Fang Hsu and Terence C. Halliday, « Law as a Sword, Law as a Shield  », China Perspectives [Online], 2019-1 | 2019, Online since 19 March 2020, connection on 13 August 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the authors

Sida Liu

Sida Liu is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Law at the University of Toronto and Faculty Fellow at the American Bar Foundation

Ching-Fang Hsu

Ching-Fang Hsu is Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Terence C. Halliday

Terence C. Halliday is Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation, Adjunct Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University, and Honorary Professor in the School of Regulation and Global Governance at Australia National UniversityPlease direct correspondence to Sida Liu, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, 725 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, ON M5S 2J4, Canada (

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