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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Morning Star of China's Legal System

A -- can I say flashy? -- Beijing public interest lawyer, Gao Zhisheng, from a very humble background has been given a pretty steep penalty for his cases against the State on behalf of common people. Ostensibly, they're shutting down his law firm because he failed to file a change of address when he moved offices. Typical Chinese official boomerang shot. Let's see if they can make it stick. This guy has a pretty good advocate: himself.

This is a well crafted (as usual) Joseph Kahn story in the N.Y. Times and all the more impressive to be emerging from a nation struggling with the implementation of "rule of law."

It's cheap shot to say attorneys like this are a candle in the dark--from where I sit, he's more like a torch in the dawn. Here are some highlights, but read the whole thing, the man's work, words, life and especially this particular turn in his road are fascinating, ironic, unlikely and inspiring. Inspiration, these days, can be hard to come by.

Thanks to Marlene for bringing this to my attention.

Published: December 13, 2005
BEIJING, Dec. 12 - One November morning, the Beijing Judicial Bureau convened a hearing on its decree that one of China's best-known law firms must shut down for a year because it failed to file a change of address form when it moved offices.

Bold, brusque and often roused to fiery indignation, Mr. Gao, 41, is one of a handful of self-proclaimed legal "rights defenders."

He travels the country filing lawsuits over corruption, land seizures, police abuses and religious freedom. His opponent is usually the same: the ruling Communist Party.

Now, the party has told him to cease and desist. The order to suspend his firm's operating license was expanded last week to include his personal permit to practice law. The authorities threatened to confiscate it by force if Mr. Gao fails to hand it over voluntarily by Wednesday.

"People across this country are awakening to their rights and seizing on the promise of the law," Mr. Gao says. "But you cannot be a rights lawyer in this country without becoming a rights case yourself."

Ordinary citizens in fact have embraced the law as eagerly as they have welcomed another Western-inspired import, capitalism. The number of civil cases heard last year hit 4.3 million, up 30 percent in five years, and lawyers have encouraged the notion that the courts can hold anyone, even party bosses, responsible for their actions.

Chinese leaders do not discourage such ideas, entirely. They need the law to check corruption and to persuade the outside world that China is not governed by the whims of party leaders.

But the officials draw the line at any fundamental challenge to their monopoly on power.
And their noses get truly out of joint when they're publicly dissed. This is a society where face is everything, so tweaked noses do not go down well.
"Most officials in China are basically mafia bosses who use extreme barbaric methods to terrorize the people and keep them from using the law to protect their rights," Mr. Gao wrote on one essay that circulated widely on the Web this fall.

[...snip] Mr. Gao was born in a cave. His family lived in a mud-walled home dug out of a hillside in the loess plateau in Shaanxi Province, in northwestern China. His father died at age 40. For years the boy climbed into bed at dusk because his family could not afford oil for its lamp, he recalled.

Nor could they pay for elementary school for Mr. Gao and his six siblings. But he said he listened outside the classroom window.

[...snip] "The leaders of China see no other purpose for the law but to protect and disguise their own power," Mr. Gao said. "As a lawyer, my goal is to turn their charade into a reality."

[...snip] This fall, he said, security agents have followed him constantly. He said his apartment courtyard has become a "plainclothes policeman's club," with up to 20 officers stationed outside. He and his wife bring them hot water on cold nights.
Do yourself a huge favor today. Take the time to go read the whole thing.

// posted by Ellen @  19:16   //Permalink// 
Ellen says hey
Mainer, New Yawka, Beijinger, Californian, points between. News, views and ballyhoos that piqued my interest and caused me to sigh, cry, chuckle, groan or throw something.

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