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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Le combat de l’avocat Zhang pour la justice

by Dominique Bari

Counsel Zhang’s Lifelong Struggle For Justice...

Translated Friday 18 October 2013, by Isabelle Métral

Les Confessions de Maître Zhang: l’avocat de la bande des quatre et des dissidents chinois (The Confessions of Master Zhang, Defense Counsel for the “gang of four “and the Chinese dissidents.), Judith Bout, François Bourin pub.

“I’ve lost all my cases, but I’m not a loser for all that. “ A frail, youthful-looking 86-year-old man with a sense of humor, Counsel Zhang Sizhi pleads his own case with his tongue in his cheek, and well he may, for his defeats have been so many stages in the very long march that has been his self-imposed vocation: to contribute to the establishment of an independent judiciary in China.

To this outstanding barrister whose life makes one with the history of law in his country, sinologist Judith Bout has devoted a biography, nourished by the many interviews he gave her. The result is a narrative in the first person that reads like a lively and parallel history of China in the last six decades.

In 1956, Zhang Sizhi was one of the very first barristers in the People’s Republic. A stormy period: the crackdown on rightist revisionists sent him to a re-education camp by manual labor the following year. There he stayed for fifteen years. On his release in 1972, the lawyer’s profession was forbidden, being considered by Mao a bourgeois legacy. It was not until 1979 that Zhang could make his way to the courts, and not for a petty case, far from it, for he was appointed counsel for the gang of four and more precisely for Jiang Qing, the Great Helmsman’s widow.

He remembers in what a double-bind he found himself at the trial, as officially appointed lawyer with strict official injunctions (“the defense counsel shall be forbidden to plead non-guilty”) and a wild client that spat invectives during the sessions. “I do not think we accomplished a heroic mission in accepting to defend them,” Zhang Sizhi says in retrospect. “But I’m sure we succeeded in wresting a place for barristers.”

He was to fill this place himself in many trials. In 1991 he defended sociologist Wang Juntao, who was charged with being one of the instigators of the 1989 movement, then Bao Tong, Zhao Ziyang’s right-hand man (Zhao was evicted from his post as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 1989). Zhang does not mince his words: “Bao Tong was arrested for divulging state secrets, but in fact he was a victim to the hatred of Li Peng who was then China’s prime minister and in favor of sending the army to Beijing.” A few months later, as he had just refused the title of exemplary member of his CCP cell (he is still/remained a member of the party), he accepted to defend dissident Wei Jingsheng in 1995. Zhang unfolds the political processes at work in those trials, all of which ended in inexorable defeat, but were nevertheless small victories.

During a stop in Paris the day after the verdict fell on Bo Xilai, Zhang praised “the judges’ conduct as being truly outstanding” for they gave Bo Xilai and his defense counsels the opportunity to speak. Even if the trial remained “under strict control”, its impact on Chinese public opinion “raised its level of understanding of the law and stimulated an unprecedented demand for justice.” More generally,” Zhang concludes, “the judiciary is now more professional. The next stage will consist in forcing politics out of the courts, which will guarantee the independence of justice. This victory will be long in coming, but there will come a day when barristers more brilliant and more competent than I am will eventually win.”

They will no doubt remember Counsel Zhang’s ironical barb at a judge: “Since in your eyes a barrister poses in court just for show, allow me at least to hand out a few roses: roses crown prickly bushes, and that is why they make beautiful bouquets.”

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