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Legal rivals seek to widen freedom in China [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2007-2-25 09:37:02 |Display all floors
By Joseph Kahn  (from the New York Times)

Published: February 24, 2007

Beijing --  Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang are Chinese trial lawyers who take on difficult political cases, tangle with the police and seek solace in the same religion, Christianity.

But like many who devote themselves to expanding freedoms and the rule of law in China, the two spend as much time clashing over tactics and principles as they do challenging the ruling Communist Party.

The two Lis are part of a momentous struggle over the rule of law in China. Young, well educated and idealistic, they and other members of the so-called weiquan, or rights defense, movement, aim to use the laws and courts that the Communist Party has put in place as part of its modernization drive to constrain its own power.

The informal network of rights defenders may be the visible force for political openness and change in China at a time when the surging economy and the country's rapidly rising global influence have strengthened party leaders. The authorities have refrained from suppressing it entirely, at least partly because it operates carefully within the law and uses China's judicial system, as well as the news media, to advance its aims.

Yet nearly 18 years after the June 1989 incident in Beijing, the government opposes any organized opposition. Rights defenders face the delicate task of coordinating their actions and expanding their collective influence when they remain autonomous, rudderless and, very often, rivalrous.

The two Lis have feuded about how to handle big court cases.  When they met the Bush administration's China specialists in the White House last November, they argued about whether top leaders like President Hu Jintao were basically benevolent. A joint interview on "Radio Free Asia" devolved into a shouting match over whether rights defenders could work with party leaders or should actively oppose them.

As their confrontation grew, Li Jianqiang, the more combative of the two, wrote a manifesto that called China a "super jail" and even went too far to call the leaders as "ruthless dictators." And,  Li Jianqiang listed Li Jinsong's name as the lead author and posted it on the Internet.

Li Jinsong, who takes a much softer line, said the essay, which circulated widely, so enraged China's top leaders that it derailed a major appeals court victory in his highest-profile case, involving China's "barefoot lawyer," Chen Guangcheng.  Li Jianqiang acknowledged a few weeks later that he wrote the essay himself. But he said it amounted to a "minor mistake" and dismissed claims that it had a direct impact on the court case.

They and the dozens of other advocates who consider themselves rights defenders have had notable victories, mostly by calling attention to problems at the local level that more senior officials move to fix. They have exposed corruption, illegal land seizures and labor and environmental abuses that have prompted policy changes or at least made many Chinese more aware of the concept of human rights.

As China's only consistent homegrown critics of government abuses, they have received attention from the international news media and human rights groups. President George W. Bush invited several rights defenders to the White House last spring.

Yet they are, as the nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen lamented about Chinese opposition groups in an earlier era, "grains of sand." They divide into camps on the fundamental question of whether to try to improve the current Communist Party-run system by supporting well-intentioned party leaders, or to seek an end to Communist rule. "Some of us are waiting for a good emperor, some kind of Gorbachev, to come and fix the system," Li Jianqiang said. "Many of the rest of us think that is a waste of time. We need to be building a civilization outside the Communist Party."

Change From Within

That debate is a delicate one for a group whose basic goals — helping people exercise the rights granted to them — at least nominally overlap with those of the party's leadership.

China's top leaders, committed to attracting foreign investment and making the country a respected world power, have promised to conform to human rights norms and to run the country "according to law."

The Communist Party often does not subject itself to the laws it enacts, prompting cynicism about its real intentions. But many rights defenders say that they can help bring about meaningful change because the party and government bureaucracy is not monolithic.

[ Last edited by chinadaily at 2007-2-25 03:25 PM ]

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Post time 2007-2-25 09:37:09 |Display all floors
Top party leaders, according to this way of thinking, hope to use the legal system and the news media to check abuses of power at the local level, which they view as threats to their own popularity.

The defining moment came in 2003. Prime Minister Wen Jia-bao seized on a case of a migrant worker beaten to death by the police that had been championed by rights defenders. He abolished vagrancy laws that gave the police the authority to round up migrants at will.

Rights defenders concluded that grass-roots organizing and the tactical use of local courts could allow them to circumvent local fiefs in China's bureaucracy and appeal directly to more enlightened leaders at the top.

"China is slowly transforming itself from rule of man to rule of law," Li Jinsong said. "I believe that this process has the support of the top leaders. They face resistance within the system, and they need outside help."

But this view, once widespread, has fallen out of favor among other rights defenders. Li Jianqiang calls it a "peasant mentality" because farmers since feudal times have looked to the emperor, presumed to be benevolent, to solve problems they say are caused by venal local officials.

He contends that President Hu, who once talked as though he wanted to expand constitutional rights and strengthen the legal system, has more recently done the reverse. In internal party speeches, Hu has called on officials to guard against "color revolutions" of the kind that swept Central Asia and Central Europe, which officials here attributed to a potent combination of civic and social organizations and foreign forces.

Two Lawyers Named Li

Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang became lawyers in 1994. Both are Christians. The similarities do not run much deeper.

Li Jianqiang, 42, lives in the east coast city of Qingdao. He eagerly discusses politics and the law. As an employee of the Qingdao city government, he joined public protests in 1989. He returned to school to study law but never shed his reputation as a trouble-maker. He took on cases involving accusations of police or government malfeasance, but he said he was often harassed. Increasingly, he found it difficult to represent clients in his home province, Shandong.

So he became itinerant. He defended a journalist accused of leaking state secrets in Hunan Province.  He became a Christian in 2005, he said, when some of them introduced him the religion. He worships in an unofficial "family" church in Qingdao.

"I decided we have a spiritual vacuum in our society that only God can replace," he said.

Li Jinsong, 41, practices law in Beijing. He often wears dark business suits over dark shirts. That, along with courteous and deferential manner, gives him the air of a priest. But he frowns and speaks in clipped phrases when asked to discuss his personal background, including his religion. He said he began attending a government-authorized Protestant church in 1988.

"It's not something I deny, but not something I like to talk about publicly," he said softly.

Though he practices commercial law, he has also defended "vulnerable people," as he calls them. He helped migrant workers force a transportation company to stop raising ticket prices before a major holiday, when migrants scramble to return to their hometowns in the countryside. A Beijing court compelled China's Finance Ministry to revise an administrative ruling against one of his clients in 2001, a milestone case that some saw as confirming a right to sue government entities.

[ Last edited by chinadaily at 2007-2-25 11:26 AM ]

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Post time 2007-2-25 09:37:32 |Display all floors
But it was a case in Li Jianqiang's home province, Shandong, that made Li Jinsong well known in legal circles. He became the lead lawyer for Chen Guangcheng, a self-trained legal expert who, despite being blind since a childhood illness, championed peasants in legal actions against local authorities.

In 2005, Chen sought to organize a class-action lawsuit on behalf of hundreds of peasants forced to have abortions or undergo sterilization procedures after local officials in Linyi City, Shandong, failed to meet their official population-control quotas. The police put him under house arrest, and prosecutors later indicted him on charges of destroying property and disrupting traffic.

Li Jinsong and other rights defenders used a publicity campaign to increase the pressure on local officials to treat Chen fairly, while alerting top leaders in Beijing to what they and many others said was an embarrassing abuse of authority at the local level.

Li Jianqiang, though not personally involved, criticized the strategy at the time. He wrote in an open letter that Li Jinsong had made "stupid mistakes" that backed the local authorities into a corner and did little to help Chen.

Both men, it appeared, had reasons to think they were right. Chen's prosecution and trial, in a county court, made a mockery of China's judicial procedures. Local thugs prevented Li Jinsong from entering Chen's village to interview witnesses. They flipped over his car when he visited. The day before the trial, the local police detained a fellow lawyer on a pretense. The verdict: guilty, and a prison sentence of four years and three months for Chen.

Li Jinsong's luck changed sharply on appeal. Last October, a higher court in the city of Linyi overturned the verdict and ordered a new trial. Li and other rights defenders hailed it as a major victory. They saw the hand of more senior officials at work.

"There are some leaders who I believe are conscious of what was happening and wanted to see a fair result," he said. "We saw their intervention in this case."

A Visit to America

China's rights defenders have developed a reputation for being a force for legal, evolutionary change. In the United States, foundations and religious groups that support grass-roots activities here have backed them.

One pioneer in that effort is the China Aid Association, a religious group based in Midland, Texas, that has ties to the Bush administration. The association monitors conditions for Christians and supports rights defenders, many of whom are Christian.

Last November, the China Aid Association invited the two Lis and two other rights defenders to visit Midland and Washington. The two did not know each other well. Li Jianqiang's criticism of the handling of the Chen case did not endear them to each other. But Li Jinsong said he looked forward to the trip.

"I thought we might come to understand each other better if we met outside China," he said.

Instead, their debate intensified. After prayer sessions in Midland, in the offices of members of Congress and at foundations where they meet potential donors, the two Lis offered conflicting versions of what should be done to advance the rule of law in China. They disagreed on whether the United States should encourage political change or support top leaders who wanted to carry out such changes.

Li Jinsong, still elated about the appeals court victory in Chen's case the month before, often cited the case to support his view that the top leaders had good intentions.

Though the two lawyers smiled and stood side by side for photographs in front of the White House and State Department, they said they argued with each other when they met the Bush administration's China experts inside. When they appeared together for a broadcast on "Radio Free Asia", their differences burst into the open.

Li Jinsong said during the broadcast that he had urged donors and Bush administration officials to steer aid to Communist Party officials "who do good" as well as to rights defenders hoping to improve things from the outside.

[ Last edited by chinadaily at 2007-2-25 11:34 AM ]

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Post time 2007-2-25 09:38:11 |Display all floors
"I want to express my appreciation for General Secretary Hu, Prime Minister Wen and Vice President  Zeng ," he said. "These three leaders do not want to see abuses and would not tolerate them if they knew about them."

Li Jianqiang said he and Li Jinsong had a "basic disagreement." Top leaders, he said, have more responsibility, not less, for human rights abuses.

"There are a larger than unusual number of unjust arrests," Li Jinsong acknowledged. "But I am sure that if the top leaders knew about them, the people would be set free."

"A Prayer for China"

After their meetings in Washington, Li Jinsong got the news that Chen Guangcheng's second trial, as ordered by the appeals court, would convene in a few days. He had to cut his trip short and catch the first flight home.

Just after he departed, Li Jianqiang, who stayed on in the United States, wrote an essay he titled "A Prayer for China, " which he listed Li Jinsong as the lead author. The essay  said, in part, "In this free, God-blessed land, where we received a friendly reception by the American government, we must not forget our pitiable homeland."

Li Jianqiang in his essay said China would not have a better future without "systemic change" in politics and culture. "Our government clasps chains on the people and enslaves them. In our one-party dictatorship, the law is little more than an ornament, and the rights in the Constitution are laughable lies."

On November 27, the same day Chen's second trial took place in Shandong, Li Jianqiang posted the letter on a popular overseas Web site. The names of the four rights defenders on the trip were listed at the bottom. Li Jinsong's name came first.

Under pressure a month later, Li Jianqiang wrote a second letter, which he also posted online, saying "he made a mistake" listing Li Jinsong's name.

Li Jinsong said the damage was done.  Three days later, the court issued the same verdict it had in the first trial, sentencing Chen to four years and three months in prison.

Li Jinsong and several other supporters of Chen say Li Jianqiang's essay may have hurt Chen's chances of a favorable verdict. Officials in Shandong used the essay to claim that Chen's supporters had been infiltrated by foreign forces seeking to undermine the Communist Party, they said.

A senior law professor and government adviser in Beijing, who is not connected to the Chen case, said he attended a meeting shortly after Chen's second trial in which top judicial officials, including Luo Gan, a member of the Politburo Bureau Standing Committee who oversees the judicial system, discussed the case. It was cited as an example of how "hostile forces" had used the courts to provoke social unrest, said the law professor, who asked not to be identified for this article.

"We had hoped the second trial would be a fair trial," Li Jinsong said. "But the essay undercut those who wanted such a result."

Li Jianqiang acknowledges that the essay was his attempt to signal a "common stance" among rights defenders where none existed. But he said it could not have had the impact Li Jinsong claimed.

[ Last edited by chinadaily at 2007-2-25 11:47 AM ]

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Post time 2007-2-25 10:20:58 |Display all floors
"Let justice roll down like waters
and righteousness like an ever flowing stream"

I have heard of Li Jinsong previously.Brave man who has a law firm in Beijing

Looks like China now has just entered its own "Civil Rights" era.

Good Luck to her.

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Post time 2007-2-25 11:55:59 |Display all floors

Pathetic the man is!

The essay  said, in part, "In this free, God-blessed land, where we received a friendly reception by the American government, we must not forget our pitiable homeland."

This clearly tells the motive of the author of the essay "A Prayer for China".  He is pathetic, and really pitiable.

An economically booming and politically stable & strong China, with its 1.3 billion people now confident of regaining the NO. 1 economic power a few years in the future,  will just ingore a few flies including this Li. He is a bai-lei (败类).

[ Last edited by chinadaily at 2007-2-25 01:57 PM ]

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Post time 2007-2-25 15:05:38 |Display all floors
Originally posted by voice_cd at 2007-2-25 11:38
Beijing --  Li Jinsong and Li Jianqiang are Chinese trial lawyers who take on difficult political cases, tangle with the police and seek solace in the same religion, Christianity.....

Thankyou, Voice_CD, for posting this article.
It is interesting and shows two quite different views regarding development of human rights in China, and those who assist ordinary people defend their personal rights and freedoms.
Posting this article is a good step in allowing discussion and dialogue of the different approaches of these two lawyers.

Hopefully this can encourage sensible debate, rather than knee jerk reactions like we may expect from some expected and not so expected quarters.....
Originally posted by chinadaily at 2007-2-25 13:55
An economically booming and politically stable & strong China, with its 1.3 billion people now confident of regaining the NO. 1 economic power a few years in the future,  will just ingore a few flies including this Li. He is a bai-lei (败类)....

Of course national economic success and political stability are not guarantees of freedom, equality, rule of law, or high standards of living. You ignore those critics at your own peril.
"他不是救星, 他是一个非常淘气男孩" - Monty Python

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