The present article examines human rights practice by China's weiquan ('rights-defence') lawyers in the years 2003-2014. Notwithstanding the Chinese authorities' hostility and overt repression towards rights defenders, the number of weiquan lawyers has increased over the past decade. Most of them are able to bring cases to court, publish in foreign media and cooperate with foreign donors. This article is an attempt to examine why and how this has been possible. It does so by relying on the theoretical framework of the political opportunity structure applied to non-democratic contexts.