Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang are Chinese trial lawyers who take on difficult political cases, tangle with the police and seek solace in the same religion, Christianity.

Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang are Chinese trial lawyers who take on difficult political cases, tangle with the police and seek solace in the same religion, Christianity. 2

Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang are Chinese trial lawyers who take on difficult political cases, tangle with the police and seek solace in the same religion, Christianity.

But like many who devote themselves to expanding freedoms and the rule of law in China, the two spend as much time clashing over tactics and principles as they do challenging the ruling Communist Party.

The two Mr. Lis are part of a momentous struggle over the rule of law in China. Young, well educated and idealistic, they and other members of the so-called weiquan, or rights defense, movement, aim to use the laws and courts that the Communist Party has put in place as part of its modernization drive to constrain the party’s power.

The informal network of rights defenders may be the only visible force for political openness and change in China at a time when the surging economy and the country’s rapidly expanding global influence have otherwise strengthened party leaders. The authorities have refrained from suppressing it entirely, at least partly because it operates carefully within the law and uses China’s judicial system, as well as the news media, to advance its aims.

Yet nearly 18 years after the June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, China quickly crushes any organized opposition. Rights defenders face the delicate task of coordinating their actions and expanding their collective influence when they remain autonomous, rudderless and, very often, rivalrous.