Exclusive Interview with Zhang Sizhi: What it Means to be a Lawyer (story in Chinese)

October 29, 2004

In “What it Means to be a Lawyer,” Guo Yukuan of “Southern Window” news magazine recently interviewed Zhang Sizhi, one of China’s most famous lawyers. Zhang’s career spans China's developing legal system, from his stint as a lawyer for the “Gang of Four,” to his recent representation of the Shanghai activist lawyer Zheng Enchong.

When Deng Xiaoping’s policy of reform and opening was first put in place in the late 1970’s, many wondered whether or not it would be possible to rebuild the legal system, which had been thoroughly dismantled during the Cultural Revolution. At the time, China’s few lawyers were government employees who took orders from an administrative hierarchy as part of the state apparatus of social control. The notion of a legal profession that would be in any way autonomous had no place in Deng’s “socialist legality.”

However, the decision to move from the planned to a market economy, the passage of a series of new laws allowing citizens to assert their rights in court, and the reform of the criminal procedure law to promote an adversarial system ultimately led to a nascent legal profession.

In this article, Zhang responded to a question about administrative interference this way: “Under our current system of democratic centralism, it is very hard to resist the drum beat of one’s bureaucratic superior....I don’t think that judges in the past were all of low quality, it is just that they did not have the strength to resist interference from the administration.”

Later, the interviewer asked about the problem of “false public adjudications,” meaning purportedly public trials of people with “connections,” in which there is an arranged audience, all of whom have to obey disciplinary rules and refrain from leaking information to the press. Zhang remarked that, while not the rule, this phenomenon is very common.

“The logic behind this is the practice of controlling the information that gets out to the masses... [This] practice leads to the unprincipled obstruction of the people’s right to know. These are dirty tricks done out of a guilty conscience. Deciding cases according to law in the public hall, with law on your side, what is there to fear? Why fear the publicity?”

Zhang also expressed frustration with the futility of working to present compelling arguments in court but having no impact on the final judgments, decided in advance by the authorities. In such cases, he said, “the lawyers perform a defense in name only. It is like a play, in which they simply accompany their clients across the stage. This constitutes a fraudulent deprivation of the right to legal defense.”

The interviewer ends the piece with this quote from Zhang: “Lawyers and reporters are natural allies, especially when considered from the point of view of social supervision... I believe that together we can make those who are enemies of social supervision tremble a bit. For this, we must always remain friends."

See also stories No.2731 and 2729.