Eva Pils, Associate Professor at the The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Speaks at USALI

On April 7, Professor Jerome Cohen sat down with Eva Pils, a former student of Professor Cohen’s and current Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law of The Chinese University of Hong Kong (full bio below), to discuss her background and current role as a scholar working on and with human rights advocates.

As a high school student, Professor Pils’ teachers thought that she would study literature or languages.  But she had another plan in mind: to study law. “I had grown up in a divided Germany,” Professor Pils told Professor Cohen. “History was as interesting as it was painful.” Beginning with her first degree in law at Heidelberg University to her Ph.D in Law from University College London, Professor Pils has examined law as a tool for advocacy, as well as the relationship between law and politics.

For the past decade, Professor Pils has documented the efforts of over two hundred human rights lawyers in China. Her book on the subject, China’s human rights lawyers: advocacy and resistance, will be published later this year. Professor Pils’ interest in China was first piqued during the June 4th period. But it was only in 2003, while participating in an EU-China program in Beijing, that she became seriously interested in China’s nascent human rights movement. In 2003, Sun Zhigang, a native of Wuhan, died after a severe beating in a Guangzhou detention center where he was being detained for not having a residency permit in that city. The incident called Professor Pils’ attention to the “suffering inflicted on ordinary people under this system” and the simultaneous possibility for reform during the period.

Ten years later, Professor Pils  believes that the mood in China has changed. Following the Sun Zhigang Incident, many lawyers thought that China’s detention centers, such as re-education through labor (RETL) camps, would be abolished. RETL was finally abolished in 2013, but Professor Pils has noticed that Chinese human rights lawyers have largely stopped placing hope in the top-down, government-led legal reform process. At the same, time, she argues that there is a more and more vibrant and diverse bottom-up, civil-society-led movement challenging the Party-State’s human rights violations, amongst them the many systems of detention without judicial process, even as repression of rights advocacy, including detention of human rights lawyers themselves, is becoming more and more frequent. Professor Pils provided the audience with a detailed account of the recent detention of four human rights lawyers in Jiansanjiang in Heilongjiang Province in March 2003 when they attempted to visit their clients held in what is thought to be a “legal education center,” or an unofficial (black) jail, where Chinese citizens are unlawfully detained.

As a final note, Professor Pils encouraged students to “be part of a larger circle who are connected around the globe.” It is difficult to avoid becoming emotionally engaged, she admitted, but she plans on continuing the documentation of lawyers who now see themselves as “trying to overcome a pretty repressive, authoritative, and violent system.”

Eva Pils is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, currently on leave from her Faculty, and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Law Department . She studied law, philosophy and sinology in Heidelberg, London and Beijing. Her scholarship focuses on human rights and China, with publications addressing the role and situation of Chinese human rights defenders, property law and land rights in China, the status of migrant workers, the Chinese petitioning system and conceptions of justice in China. She has written on these topics in both academic publications and the popular press. Her book, China’s human rights lawyers: advocacy and resistance  is due to be published later this year. Eva was the founding (co-) director and is a member of CUHK’s Centre for Rights and Justice, and a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.