BEIJING: Four years ago a Hong Kong magazine displayed the photos of 14 Chinese human rights defenders on its cover. ''They fully deserve to be Asia Week's 'People of the Year' because in 2005 they have brought dazzling light to institutional reform,'' the article read inside.

It all now reads like a tombstone inscription for China's 30-year struggle towards the rule of law.

One of the 14 photos was of Gao Zhisheng, who disappeared after releasing a harrowing account of the torture he endured during a previous detention. His wife, Geng Ge, fears he may no longer be alive. Another got run down while riding his bicycle.

In fact, most of the human rights stars of 2005 have since been detained, beaten, debarred or sacked.

''Now it is only me, Pu Zicheng and Fan Yafeng,'' said Mo Shaoping, who many regard as the doyen of China's human rights lawyers. ''The others are either in jail or have had their licences removed.''

That was last week. This week Fan Yafeng was sacked from China's most important government thinktank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He isn't taking it personally. There are bigger things at stake.

''I lost my job. That's not my failure; it's a crisis for the Communist Party of China,'' says Professor Fan, a legal scholar, human rights defender and leader of China's informal church networks.

''It means the CCP cannot endure the mainstream views of Chinese society and the international community.''

Until last year there was a sense that China was moving towards greater political transparency and accountability. There was an assumption that Chinese governance would have to evolve as society grew ever more complex and demanding.

But the weight of evidence suggests the Party is tightening its control everywhere. This trend is most apparent in the institution many believe to be most important to China's future.

''Development of the legal system is reversing, it is definitely not progressing,'' says Mo. ''The paramount national interest is that China is run by the rule of law. You can't enforce rules of the game by arresting people.''

Mo's motto is to be meticulously professional and keep his head down. While he represents Falun Gong and other dissidents he has always worked within the system, but the system is making that harder all the time.

''In the past I, like many others, have been contacted on the implementation of judicial independence and transparency and asked about the path forward,'' he says. ''But this has stopped in the past two years.''

The tide of China's legal development turned in 2006 when the Politics and Law Committee decreed that ''professionalism'' was no longer a worthy ambition within the judicial system.

In 2007 President Hu Jintao replaced ''professionalism'' with the ''three supremes'', which dictates that all judicial work should uphold the interests of the Party, then society and lastly the law.

Last year a security apparatchik from the Politics and Law Committee, Wang Shengjun, was promoted to president of China's Supreme Court even though he had never studied law.

This year most of the Beijing lawyers who regularly take on politically challenging ''rights protection'' cases failed to get their practising certificates renewed. And the security apparatus has been detaining, kidnapping and beating up people closer to the legal profession's mainstream.

''It didn't use to be the case that people would 'disappear'. They would be arrested,'' said Nicholas Bequelin, an expert on China's legal system at Human Rights Watch. ''That reflects the growing import of the security apparatus and the fact they can brush off demands from other agencies.''

Legal professionals who pride themselves on working with the system are being treated as dissidents. It's a process that can be self-fulfilling.

Professor Fan believes China is closer to its ''crisis point'' than many believe. ''The Government has given up all political reforms. Their only aim is to protect their own interests.''

But the harder the Communist Party drives democracy away, the faster it will come, he says.

''If the Government always wants to put down China's civil society movement, then maybe China's democracy will come very quickly. Only if they withdraw can they gain more political support from the people and international society.''

Xu Zhiyong, a rising star who also featured on the Asia Week cover and heads a public advocacy centre called Gongmeng, was beaten and arrested on tax charges in July before being released on a form of bail.

''I am an optimist in the long run,'' he says. ''More and more lawyers are prepared to defend dissidents and stand up for independence of the courts and help people fight for their rights.''

But what if the Government increases its repression even faster? ''If China reaches crisis point it won't be because of the economy,'' says Xu. ''It will be because of the accumulated rage from social injustices.''