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.
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.
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