After being expelled from court while trying to defend a client who said he had been tortured, Chinese lawyer Li Jinxing wrote: “Is this what being a lawyer is like…? We have worked hard on behalf of the rank and file; and yet this is the misery we end up with!”
Li is best known for defending individuals facing execution or lengthy sentences for crimes in which they maintain their innocence. Many of his clients said they confessed after being tortured. In some of these cases, Li successfully got courts to overturn the verdicts and saved people’s lives. He and other “die hard” lawyers, as they are now known, advocate for their clients’ rights, publicize those cases, criticize the authorities for their handling of cases, and push for legal reform. Inspired by the United States-based Innocence Project, which works to free wrongfully convicted people from prison, in 2013 Li and others established “Aid the Innocents,” which is dedicated to defending cases in which detainees have suffered the gravest injustices. As the Chinese government feels the pressure of public frustrations with the politicized legal system, it has proved willing to overturn some high-profile wrongful convictions. Li’s project should be viewed as a promising endeavor.
In January 2015, President Xi Jinping vowed to shape the legal system into a “knife held firmly in the [hands of] the Party.” And in a legal system designed to serve Communist Party imperatives rather than the rule of law, Li is not an ally, but an enemy: On September 26, 2016, he revealed that judicial authorities in eastern Shandong province said they planned to revoke his license to practice law, after a Guangdong court complained to them about Li’s “disruptions to the order of the court.” Li apparently irked court officials by complaining about procedural violations when he represented Guo Feixiong, a well-known activist.
Over the past year Chinese authorities have increasingly sought to silence human rights lawyers. Courts have handed down harsh sentences against rights lawyers Xia Lin, Zhou Shifeng, and Tang Jingling, while continuing to detain five lawyers who were apprehended in a nationwide sweep in July 2015. The government recently issued a new set of administrative measures that aim to exert greater control over lawyers and law firms.
Any hope that the campaign against Chinese lawyers would soon ease will be dashed should authorities cut short the legal career of Li Jinxing.