Rule of Law on Trial in China
In the Chongqing First Intermediate Court a criminal defense attorney learned the hard way one of the basic unwritten rules of China’s legal system: don’t get involved in a political case. His sudden fall helps illustrate the progress of China toward adopting the rule of law.
Chongqing, a large city in southwestern China, is one of four provincial-level municipalities in China (meaning that the city itself has the status of a province). It is ruled by Party Secretary Bo Xilai, who in June 2009 launched a campaign called “hitting the black.” The state-run media describes the campaign as targeting organized crime and corruption, but it in fact is a political campaign, one that Bo Xilai launched to try to boost his career.
Beijing-based defense lawyer Li Zhuang was brought to Chongqing by the family of an alleged gangster named Gong Gangmo to defend him. On Dec. 13, however, Li himself was arrested on charges of having falsified evidence and obstructed justice in his attempt to defend Gong. In particular, Li was charged with having advised Gong to claim falsely that he had been tortured into confessing.
At his trial, Li asserted his innocence and even said he was willing to give up his freedom if in doing so he would help further the rule of law in China.
On appeal, though, Li shocked his supporters by pleading guilty to the charges. On Feb. 9, the judge affirmed the first court’s ruling, but reduced Li’s sentence from two and one-half years to one and one-half years.
Li responded with outrage to the verdict. According to the Legal Evening News, Li grabbed the microphone and shouted that the Chongqing authorities had broken their promise to him.
Li’s lawyer told Radio Free Asia that Li shouted, “I was tricked. I was promised that if I admitted the charge, I would be given probation. Now, I am not given probation. During this trial, I falsely admitted the crime. Before the trial, the prosecutor met me and asked me to withdraw my appeal and change lawyers. I refused.” Then Li is said to have pleaded that the 160 thousand lawyers in China should continue to defend their own rights and asserted that he would appeal his case.
Make a Deal
The prosecutor denied making any plea bargain with Li Zhuang, and he was probably telling the truth. In China, the public prosecutor belongs to the procuratorate. In China, there is a saying “Big police, small court, and the procuratorate doesn’t matter.” The procuratorate would not have the authority to make a deal with the defendant.
In fact, every Chinese knows that Li Zhuang’s sentencing was not decided by the court, but at a higher level. Even though the Public Security is given almost boundless power, it can’t directly make a deal with the defendant. Only the Communist Party can make a deal, break the deal, and then make the police, court, and prosecutor obey. Inside the Party, there is an organization called the Political and Legal Committee. This committee oversees the public security, the procuratorate, and the court, to make sure they do everything according to the Party line. When Li shouted that the Chongqing authorities tricked him, he was most likely referring to Party officials who are superior to the court.
The Lawyers Association
Li’s loud protest over his sentence may have cost him. On Feb. 21, the Beijing Justice Bureau canceled Li’s license to practice law and the Beijing Lawyers Association (BLA) canceled his membership.
Li Zhuang is not alone in being disciplined by the BLA because of involvement in a “political” case in Chongqing. On May 13, 2009, two Beijing lawyers, Li Chunfu and Zhang Kai, went to Chongqing to meet their clients, the daughter and son of an elderly Falun Gong practitioner who had allegedly been beaten to death in a forced labor camp for not giving up his belief in Falun Gong. The two lawyers were detained and beaten by the police. The BLA sent someone to Chongqing, not to help the lawyers, but to take the lawyers back to Beijing to avoid their “making trouble for the Chongqing authorities.” Later on, the BLA suspended these two lawyers’ licenses.
Most people would think that the lawyers association is an organization of lawyers. Not in China. There is a lawyers association in every province and city in China. They all belong to the All China Lawyers Association (ACLA). On the website of Ministry of Justice, the ACLA is affiliated to the Ministry of Justice, which is also in charge of all prisons and forced labor camps in China. But the Ministry of Justice can’t work on its own. Just like the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme Procuratorate, and the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Justice is also under the power of the Political and Legal Committee of the CCP Central Committee.
Obey the Party
The discipline imposed by the lawyers associations is not enough, apparently, to ensure that lawyers in China play the role the regime intends for them to play.
Xinhua News Agency reported on Feb. 16 that, according to information from the Ministry of Justice, a two-years-old goal to incorporate all law firms into the organization of the Party had been reached. There are about 15 thousand law firms in China. Of these, 4 thousand have established branches of the Party inside the firm; 8 thousand have established joint Party branches (meaning that a Party branch will include members from more than one firm); and the other 3 thousand firms now have on their staff instructors from higher Party Committees. The result of this initiative is that now every part of the legal system is under the direct supervision of the Party.
According to Xinhua News Agency, in a talk last August the Minister of Justice Wu Aiying said that lawyers should stress politics, consider the overall situation, observe discipline, and obey the Party.
While the Party is stressing to lawyers the need to observe discipline, it also wants to encourage the perception that China is moving to adopt the rule of law. The trial and sentencing of Li Zhuang had proven to be an embarrassment. Not only had lawyers and netizens throughout China taken up his case, but foreign media had reported on it as well. The reduction of Li’s sentence in the second trial was an attempt by the regime to appear lenient without admitting it had overreached.
But at the same time, the case of Li Zhuang sends a clear message to lawyers throughout China that they had best understand their proper role.
If the case is political, all the legal procedures – the investigation, collecting of evidence, arresting the suspect, trial, sentencing, and even the actions of the defense lawyer — are on one side, supervised by the Party. The accused stands on the other side, alone, with absolutely no hope. If the case is not political, then corruption will take over. This is not only Li Zhuang’s tragedy.