Always on the losing side

By Liu Sha Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-23 5:03:02

Zhang Sizhi sits back in his desk chair at his home office in Beijing. Photo: CFP

Zhang Sizhi sits back in his desk chair at his home office in Beijing. Photo: CFP

 A grey-haired lawyer in retirement, Zhang Sizhi is long past his most notorious days of serving some of China's most high-profile figures from the country's period of turbulent revolution, including Chairman Mao's last wife, Jiang Qing. Yet he refuses to give up on what he does best, defending the defenseless.

Some call him a lawyer who has never won any cases. In his pursuit of justice from the late 1970s, he primarily handled cases involving those who were accused of leaking State secrets or attempting to overthrow the government and major government-sanctioned cases in which the defendants were almost already considered "State enemies."

But he believes that he fulfilled his responsibility, as he helped those helpless people preserve their legal rights, which were so precious at the time, especially when the country was developing its legal system.

Historic trials

At the age of 86, some six years after officially retiring, Zhang now keeps his mind sharp by offering free consultations to practicing lawyers as well as family and friends in need of legal advice. He is still listed as the senior consultant on the website of well-known private law firm Wu Luan Zhao Yan.

At his home office in Beijing, piles of legal documents are stacked high.

Looking back on his time as the lead lawyer in charge of defending 10 people labeled as the counter-revolutionary clique, including the infamous "Gang of Four," the radical political alliance Jiang is said to have formed during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), it was evident that Zhang still felt the need to carefully compose his thoughts before verbalizing them aloud.

"Back then …" he pauses. "It was more of a political mission rather than a real legal case."

"Before I took their cases, which I didn't have a choice in - I warned myself to get rid of all the emotions and to obey the country's law and principles," he told the Global Times.

"I was nervous, because although I knew that I was first a lawyer, I was also a Party member - and I knew it would be tough to defend my clients as a real lawyer without crossing the line," he said.

Zhang was not directly in charge of defending Jiang as she, failing to find trust in Zhang and his team members, eventually rejected the aid of a lawyer to defend her case. Zhang admits now that he could have pushed harder to offer more help to Jiang at the time.

"She thought that I was someone sent by Deng Xiaoping (then reformist leader of the Communist Party of China), but she told me that she was innocent and even asked me to learn more about Chairman Mao's thoughts," he said.

"I should have been nicer to Jiang and managed to defend her even though she was hated by so many people at the time," he said. "Because, in the end, there was no one defending her."

In retrospect

Zhang was 53 during the trial of the top counter-revolutionaries, his first case after the Cultural Revolution. It was just after he had returned to the legal scene, following a 15-year stint at a labor camp and seven years as a  high school teacher.

Back then, the Ministry of Justice had given directives, saying that all of the facts were clear and that the nature of the cases could not be changed, said Zhang.

Yet somehow, he managed to knock off two charges of attempted assassination on Chairman Mao for one of the accused, Li Zuopeng.

But Zhang said that he failed to properly defend Li on the other counts, which led the former top military official to a 17-year jail sentence.

"It was a political mission that needed to be completed, and as lawyers, we also had to protect ourselves," he said.

"If I had a second chance, I would not have taken any orders from the authorities," he said. "Instead, I should have undertaken an innocent plea for my client, even if he was reprimanded by the government and others for making trouble during the revolution - to a certain extent, he was just a victim of that time."

For Zhang, the experience during the Cultural Revolution, which let him see what a mess a nation could fall into without the rule of law, only made him more devoted to the fight for judicial justice in China.

"I know more than any of the other younger lawyers what a country becomes when it does not have a sound judicial system," he said.

Moving forward  

In the years following the cases of the counter-revolutionaries, Zhang continued to apply himself, drawing from his earlier appearances in court to better defend politically marked suspects despite the ensuing obstacles.

In fact, he spent the remainder of his career taking on sensitive cases that other lawyers refused to touch. About 90 percent of the cases he tried from 1980 to retirement in 2007 were ones that represented defendants accused of anti-government crimes.

In 2003, when Zhang was 76, he defended Zheng Enchong, a former lawyer who reported the corrupt scandals of Shanghai officials, who was later accused of passing on State secrets to overseas organizations.

Zheng's wife told Zhang that her husband had no one to turn to for help since famous lawyers in Shanghai purposely stayed away from such "sensitive" cases.

Jiang Ping, a leading professor of law at China University of Political Science and Law, said in an article that in the 1990s, Chinese lawyers were conservative and afraid of these types of cases unless ordered to take them on by the authorities.

"What Zhang did encouraged other lawyers who were afraid, and he started a chapter of lawyers who defended 'heresy,'" Jiang wrote.

Although Zhang was "always on the losing side," he earned the respect of many people in the legal arena as "a lawyer for human rights," who praised him for encouraging fellow lawyers not to fear taking on "politically sensitive" defendants.

But that doesn't mean everyone has been on his side. Beijing-based political commentator Yi Chen told the Global Times that Zhang grew too comfortable relying on his past glory days, which has led him to an overly pessimistic view on the influence of politics within China's judicial system.

But Zhang says that despite what others think, he only wants the country to be the legally best that it can.

"I'm not saying that rule of law is not making progress in China," he said. "But our lawyers, and especially our young ones, need to push forward even more and take every case seriously by following the law regardless of the politics involved."

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