Zhang Siji, a lawyer who defended Chinese dissidents, has died at 94

Zhang Siji, a Chinese lawyer who defended politically controversial clients including Mao Zedong’s underlings, Tiananmen-era dissidents, purged officials and victims of police manipulation, inspiring generations of human rights lawyers with his advocacy, died June 24 in Beijing. He was 94.

He died in hospital announced by Wu Luan Zhao Yan Attorneys in Beijing, where he works as a senior consultant. Fu Kexin, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Zhang said for many years that the cause was cancer.

mr. Zhang survived the war and then persecution under Mao Zedong to become one of China’s most famous lawyers. Outright victories have been rare in the country’s Communist Party-controlled courtrooms. But Mr Zhang refused to accept that it was there simply as an ornament. He uses painstaking preparation and rigorous arguments to discredit the prosecution’s sloppy accusations, challenge the charges and sometimes win victories.

“There are people in our country who today look at Chinese lawyers as decorative vases,” said Mr. Jan said in an interview published in 2008. “But even if you are placed in a vase, you still have the right to decide whether you will be a dewy thorn rose or a weed stick.”

mr. Zhang began his legal career as a court clerk in Beijing, proud to serve the communist revolution. After the armed suppression of protests in 1989, he staunchly defended people accused of inciting “counter-revolutionary unrest”.

His efforts set an example for other Chinese lawyers who are increasingly taking on abuses of state power. In the last decade of Mr. Zhang’s life China’s leader Xi Jinping works to stifle the so-called rights movement, strip lawyers, detain or imprison hundreds of lawyers and legal activists.

“He was very tenacious, fighting after every loss. He was unbreakable,” said Ms. Fu, who has worked with Mr. Zhang since the early 1990s. “Throughout his life, he firmly believed that the rule of law was a path that China should take, and lawyers definitely play an important role in this path.”

mr. Jan was born on Nov. 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 household. Growing up during the Japanese invasion of China, Mr. Zhang first planned to study diplomacy to help his homeland, he wrote in his memoirs published in Hong Kong in 2014.

When Japanese forces entered, the family moved to southwestern China. Days after turning 16, Zhang joined the Nationalist government army and was sent to fight in the border region of India and Burma. After Japan’s defeat, he enrolled at Chaoyang University in Beijing, where he studied law. He also became increasingly active in the underground politics of the Communist Party.

When Mao’s forces came to power in 1949, Mr. Zhang, one of the few party activists with a legal education, was appointed to work as a judge in a court in Beijing, although he was only 21. Filled with revolutionary fervor, he used sharp language when criticizing older court officials, although he -late came to regret being so rude.

Even Mao tightened his grip, Mr. Zhang also became a target of official suspicion and criticism, in part because of his tenure with the defeated Nationalist forces. After being declared a “rightist” in 1957, he was stripped of his membership in the Communist Party and sent to work in the countryside. His legal books were sent as scrap. He later taught school in Beijing, his legal career apparently behind him.

After Mao died in 1976, Mr. Zhang’s talent was needed again when China’s new leaders began to rebuild the legal system. He was asked in 1980 to act as a defense attorney for the Gang of Four and other former officials on trial for their role in the extremes of the Cultural Revolution. The more experienced lawyers had declined the busy work; mr. Zhang agreed, even though he hated the Cultural Revolution.

The defendants—including Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow—were accused of usurping power and persecuting officials. Miss. Jiang rejected mr. Jan’s offer to represent her and him later he said he was sorry that he could not vigorously defend her in the highly rehearsed trial.

When another former employee, Li Zuopeng, was brought to trial, Mr. Zhang and his colleagues convinced the judges dismissed two of the most serious charges. Miss. Jiang received a suspended death sentence commuted to life imprisonment; mr. Li was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

mr. Zhang returned to criminal defense work after 1989, when he defended activists and a former high-ranking official, Bao Tong, accused by the Communist Party of supporting the Tiananmen Square protests demanding political liberalization.

mr. Zhang “put his heart and soul into protecting the rights of citizens and the dignity of the law,” Mr. Bao said in a written statement. mr. Bao was sentenced to seven years in prison, although he and Mr. Zhang methodically contested the charges on trial since 1992. “The law is always a losing battle,” Mr. Bao wrote “because it is a creature of politics.”

By 1990, Mr. Zhang had perfected his strategy: Sifting through the hundreds of pages of evidence, a grueling feat before photocopiers became commonplace; locating the weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case; and develop a strong case that could possibly persuade or shame judges into reducing the charges or handing down a relatively light sentence. Even if courts typically ignore his arguments to find someone innocent, former clients said Mr. Jan worked every English.

“Zhan Siji has always conducted a defense within the framework of Chinese law,” said Gao Yu, a Beijing-based journalist whom Mr. Zhang defended in 1994, said in an interview. She credited him with coming up with the court to accept lower fees after she was accused of revealing state secrets.

“This law has many flaws,” Ms. Gao said, “but he always found places within that framework that helped his client.”

mr. Zhang went on to defend or advise clients in dozens of long-term cases, striving to remain calm in the face of obstacles posed by prosecutors and court officials.

Those he represents include Tenzin Deleg Rimpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk convicted of bomba charge his supporters denounced as a hoax; Wu Yina struggling businesswoman, and eventually cancelled, a death sentence on a frivolous charge of financial fraud; and Nie Shubin, a factory worker executed in 1995 on false charges of rape and murder. In 2016, China’s highest court acquitted mr. No.

“Even in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, he was extremely astute in identifying legal connections and important facts,” said Pu Zhikang, a Beijing lawyer who has worked on cases with Mr. Zhang said in an interview.

mr. Pooh was arrested in 2014 after attending a meeting in Beijing to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown and Mr. Zhang was preparing to defend him when he suffered a stroke, forcing him to cut back on his court work. mr. Zhang continued to advise and encourage Chinese lawyers, sometimes scolding those he believed were putting publicity ahead of their clients’ interests.

“Where are the likes of him now?” asked Mr. Pooh, who is banned from working at court. “There will truly never be another like him.”

mr. Zhang is survived by his wife, Qu Yuan; a son, Zhang Ji; daughter Zhang Jian; granddaughter; great grandson; three brothers; and four sisters.

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

Their real concern, he said, is Mr. Jan’s legacy.

“I don’t want to be pressured, so I have to constantly resist,” Mr. Jan said in a conversation in Hong Kong in 2014. But in modern China, he added, “it is impossible to achieve the goals of guaranteeing rights and protecting justice, and I shed tears for this.”

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