December 4, 2023

Zhang Sijie, the Chinese lawyer who has defended his politically controversial clients including followers of Mao Zedong, Tiananmen-era opponents, purged officials and police victims, and inspired generations of human rights lawyers with his advocacy, died on June 24 in Beijing. He was 94 years old.

He died in hospital It was announced by Wu Luan’s lawyer Zhao Yan In Beijing, where he worked as a senior advisor. The cause was cancer, said Fu Qixin, a lawyer who has worked with Mr. Zhang for many years.

Mr. Zhang survived war and then persecution under Mao Zedong to become one of China’s most famous lawyers. Complete victories were rare in the Communist Party-controlled courtrooms. But Mr. Zhang refused to accept that there was just a decoration. He used painstaking preparations and stern argument to discredit the prosecution’s dirty allegations, challenge the indictment’s accusations and, at times, win victories.

“There are people in our country who nowadays view Chinese lawyers as decorative vases,” Mr. Zhang said in An newspaper. Interview published in 2008. “But even if you put it in a vase, you still have the right to decide whether you will become a dew-covered rose with thorns or a stick of weeds.”

Mr. Zhang began his career as a court official in Beijing, proud of serving the communist revolution. After the armed suppression of protests in 1989, he vigorously defended the people accused of fomenting “counter-revolutionary unrest”.

His efforts set an example for other Chinese lawyers, who were increasingly taking on abuses of state power. In the last decade of Mr. Zhang’s life, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, stifled the so-called defense of rights movement, expunged, detained or imprisoned Hundreds of lawyers and legal activists.

“He was more stubborn, fighting after every defeat. He was unbreakable,” said Ms. Fu, who had worked with Mr. Zhang since the early 1990s. “Throughout his life, he firmly believed that the rule of law was a path that China had to take, Lawyers certainly had an important role in this process.”

Mr. Zhang was born on November 12, 1927 in Zhengzhou, central China, the eldest of 10 children. His father, Zhang Jingtang, was a doctor, and his mother, Meng Yanrong, ran the house. Growing up during the Japanese invasion of China, Mr. Zhang first planned to study diplomacy to help his homeland, as he wrote in his diary Published in Hong Kong in 2014.

With Japanese forces advancing on the ground, the family moved to southwest China. Days after reaching the age of sixteen, Mr. Chang joined the army of the Nationalist Government and was sent to fight in the border region between India and Burma. After the defeat of Japan, he entered Chaoyang University in Beijing where he studied law. He also became increasingly involved in the politics of the underground Communist Party.

When Mao’s forces came to power in 1949, Mr. Zhang, one of the few party activists with legal training, was commissioned to serve as a Beijing court judge, even though he was only 21 years old. His tongue when criticizing older court officials, though he later regretted being too harsh.

As Mao tightened his grip, Mr. Chang also became the target of official suspicion and criticism, due in part to his time in defeated Nationalist forces. Classified as a “right-winger” in 1957, he was stripped of Communist Party membership and sent to work in the countryside. His legal books were sent as scrap paper. He later studied at a school in Beijing, and his legal career appears to be behind him.

After Mao’s death in 1976, Mr. Zhang’s talents were needed again as China’s new leaders began to rebuild the legal system. He received a request in 1980 to work as a defense attorney for the Gang of Four and other former officials facing trial for their role in the Cultural Revolution. More experienced lawyers refused a high-pressure job; Mr. Chang agreed, even though he hated the Cultural Revolution.

The defendants – including Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow – were accused of usurping power and persecuting officials. Ms. Jiang refused Mr. Zhang’s offer to represent her, and later He said regret He couldn’t vigorously defend it in the heavily rehearsed trial.

When another former official, Li Zuopeng, appeared for trial, he convinced Mr. Zhang and his fellow judges to do so He dismissed two of the most serious accusations. Mrs. Jiang was given a suspended death sentence, commuted to life imprisonment; Mr. Lee was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Mr. Zhang returned to the criminal defense business after 1989, when he defended activists and a former senior official, Bao Tong, who was accused by the Communist Party of supporting the Tiananmen Square protests to demand political liberalization.

In a written message, Mr. Bao said, Mr. Zhang “has given his heart and soul to defend the rights of citizens and the dignity of the law”. Mr. Bao was sentenced to seven years in prison, although he and Mr. Zhang systematically challenged the charges At the trial in 1992. “The law is always a losing battle, because it is the making of politics,” Mr. Bao wrote.

By the 1990s, Mr. Chang had refined his strategy: trawling through hundreds of pages of manuals, a grueling feat before cameras were common; identify weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case; and developing a strong argument that may persuade, or shame, judges to lower the charges or issue relatively light sentences. Even if the courts usually ignored his arguments for finding someone not guilty, former clients said, Mr. Zhang worked around every corner.

“Zhang Sijie has always conducted a defense within the framework of Chinese law,” Zhao Yu, the Beijing journalist who Mr. Zhang defended in 1994, said in an interview. I credited him with cajoling the court To accept lower fees After she was charged with leaking state secrets.

“This law has many faults, but he will always find places in this framework that will help his client,” said Ms. Zhao.

Mr. Zhang has continued to advocate for or advise clients in dozens of long-standing cases, seeking to remain calm in the face of obstacles placed by prosecutors and court officials.

Among those represented by Tenzin Deod Rimpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk convicted of the bombing charge that his supporters denounced as a forgery; Wu Ying, a businesswoman who fought, and eventually overturned, a death sentence on a flimsy charge of financial fraud; Winnie Shubin, a factory worker executed in 1995 on false charges of rape and murder. In 2016, China’s highest court acquitted Mr. Ni.

“Even in his 60s, 70s and 80s, he was extraordinarily sharp in identifying important legal links and facts,” Bo Zhiqiang, a Beijing lawyer who has worked on cases with Mr. Zhang, said in an interview.

Mr. Bo He was arrested in 2014 After participating in a meeting in Beijing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square campaign, Mr. Zhang was preparing to defend him when he suffered a stroke, forcing him to curtail his court work. Mr. Zhang continued to advise and encourage Chinese lawyers, at times reprimanding those who thought they put propaganda before the interests of their clients.

“Where are fellows like him now?” asked Mr. Poe, who was barred from serving in court. “There really will never be another person like him.”

Mr. Zhang is survived by his wife Chu Yuan; son, Zhang Jie; daughter, Zhang Jian; Granddaughter of a great-grandson. three brothers; and four sisters.

After his death, many Chinese lawyers paid tribute. Mr Poe said authorities kept his funeral short and attendance limited to 20 people, citing Covid Limits.

He said that their real concern was Mr. Zhang’s legacy.

“I am not willing to be forced, so I have to constantly fight back,” Mister Zhang He said in an interview in Hong Kong In 2014. But in contemporary China, he added, “It is impossible to achieve the goals of securing rights and defending justice, and tears have been shed over this.”

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