The Precarious Lives of Criminal Defense Lawyers in China

Poorly paid and subject to government pressure, China's small but stubborn group of weiquan nonetheless continue to fight for the country's accused.
A drug dealer is sentenced to death by a judge during a public trial at a university gymnasium. (Aly Song/Reuters)

In November of 2012, Li Jinxing saved a man's life. He didn't lift a car or hurl himself in front of a bullet. But, considering the history of capital cases in China, he did something just as extraordinary: he delivered a "not guilty" verdict for his client, Lei Lijun.

Mr. Li is a criminal defense lawyer and a veteran of Beijing's slowly-developing weiquan (rights) scene. To call him a "lawyer," however, may give Western readers the wrong idea. In America, this profession carries with it a certain prestige, not least because of the princely sums many lawyers earn. In China, by contrast, most lawyers earn a living and not much more. Only a few, retained by big, multi-national corporations, ever get really rich.

Mr. Liang tells me the police "invite" him for coffee every couple of weeks to inquire about his movements. "What are you doing these days?" they ask.

In America, moreover, lawyers face relatively little personal risk: one performs legal duties, then goes on with one's life. This is fairly axiomatic in the world of patent law, or mergers and acquisitions, or private equity. But even those representing terrorists, pedophiles, and other "low-lifes" are generally accepted as an important part of America's adversarial legal system. Sure, American attorneys who invest heavily in a case, à la A Civil Action, open themselves up to heartbreak. Still, they can show up to work secure in the knowledge that certain extreme forms of retribution -- having loved ones abducted, for example -- are off the table. Beijing's weiquan lawyers, on the other hand, have learned from experience that everything is in play.

* * *

I traveled to Beijing last Christmas to meet Liang Xiaojun, a 12-year veteran of criminal defense law. We had been introduced several months earlier by a British NGO that works to strengthen rule of law and increase access to justice in China. Mr. Liang is known for defending members of the Falun Gong, a religion that earned itself "illegal" status in China when members spoke out against the Party. As one of the charity's most active "men on the ground," he was simultaneously involved in a handful of projects, including one (rather long-term) to abolish the death penalty in China.

As an intern at the aforementioned NGO, I was assigned to research and write up theoretical and practical arguments against capital punishment. When that report was finished, I interviewed program officers and other personnel at organizations sympathetic to our cause -- Human Rights Watch, Reprieve, Amnesty International -- to better understand the inner workings of their campaigns. Did they think similar campaigns could succeed in China? They did not. What did they think of China's prospects for abolition? Answers ranged from "Forget it, as long as the [Chinese Communist] Party is in power" to "Give it 100 years; then we'll talk." Their less-than-rosy prognosticating aside, Mr. Liang devoured my reports without waiting for the translation.

For several months, on Skype, I helped him unpack and understand the capital punishment literature and experiences of other abolitionist organizations in Asia. On a few occasions he has interrupted our sessions, apologetically, to answer the door. While the video call continues, the camera aimed at the white-washed wall of his apartment, I can make out his painfully polite conversation with the policeman off-screen: "No, I won't stay in Beijing throughout the Party Congress. Don't worry. I will leave tomorrow for my hometown. I'm sorry, I can't talk now. I have an English lesson. My teacher is waiting. I'm sorry."

Mr. Liang tells me the police "invite" him for coffee every couple of weeks to inquire about his movements. "What are you doing these days?" they ask. "What are your plans for the next few weeks? Are you in touch with any foreigners?" Like the other lawyers I speaks to, Mr. Liang doesn't disguise what he does. He says he answers the authorities' questions truthfully. He considers himself fortunate that he has not been worked over more thoroughly, and attributes his "luck" to the straightforward, a-political manner in which he represents his clients.

* * *

The sleeper train from Shanghai approaches Beijing Train Station at quarter-past-eight in the morning -- right on schedule. I dress, as best I can, in the tiny confines of my top bunk and clamber down to join the locals slurping their noodles and tea. Based on past visits, I am astonished to look out the window and see blue sky. The great, gray grid of the Chinese capital wears a shabby trim of snow, which fell a few days earlier. The cold is intense. I call Liang Xiaojun from the train station, who directs me to the law offices of Li Jinxing.

Emerging from the subway, I recognize Mr. Liang from our video chats: a kind-faced Hebei-native with thinning hair and even thinner glasses. He greets me with a wide, slightly asymmetrical smile -- which gathers one side of his mouth into a dimple -- and a torrent of "Very nice to meet you"'s, his fluency leaving him in the excitement of the moment. Together, we ascend 17 floors to Mr. Li's office; the crowded elevator stops several times along the way, and each time grim-faced locals force their way on, repeatedly setting off the "overweight" alarm.

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