On the Lack of a Fair Judiciary in China: Reflections of a Criminal Defense Lawyer (One)

Li Jinxing, September 8, 2023

Li Jinxing (李金星), arguably one of the most prominent defense lawyers in today’s China, has dedicated much of his career to overturning wrongful convictions, a Sisyphean task in the People’s Republic. Over the past decade or so, he proved instrumental in reversing a series of wrongful convictions, including judgment on Nie Shubin (聂树斌), a twenty-year old migrant worker wrongfully executed for murder in 1995; he represented high-profile clients such as Wu Xiaohui (吴小晖) and also defended prominent dissidents such as Guo Feixiong. In 2019, he was disbarred by the Shandong Provincial Justice Department on spurious grounds. He has since been continuing his work as a legal consultant. Recently he has been posting a series of tweets on X, reflecting on his experience and struggle as a defense lawyer, China’s little-known group of “wronged people” (“冤民”), the state of judiciary, and the rule of law (or the absence of it). China Change will bring these reflections to you in serialized posts. Follow him on Twitter/X @lijinxinglvshi.  — The Editors 


We should not allow ourselves to be discouraged, because that’s what makes the bad guys happy. It’s like climbing over a wall. No matter how high it is, if every person removes one brick, it’ll become passable. We envy people in other countries, but in fact, others have also paid a price for what they have. Sometimes I think we have still not paid a high enough price. Throughout human history, it’s never been such earth-shattering change ahead of us that will benefit so many people. We will have the fortune to be at this historic turning point and witness it — about this I have little doubt. 


Although we have limited influence as ordinary individuals, we should not give up on doing the right thing. I have witnessed a large number of wrongful cases in the country, and at one point this made me extremely down and depressed. The tragic fate that countless people suffer saddens me terribly. Even if I could only tell them a few words of comfort, help them write a letter, or assist them in presenting their case, it would make me feel a little better. Who is to say that what we have done is completely useless? 


While I do recognize and constantly feel the limits of what my individual efforts can achieve in the face of the establishment, I believe that it’s better to remain optimistic rather than succumbing to pessimism. We must continue to live joyfully, regardless of the hardships we may encounter. Of course, I am aware that many people are in great suffering. These hardships persist every day, and we share in their sorrow. Nevertheless, all of this serves to motivate us, to keep us aware, and to ignite a stronger resolve within us, rather than pushing us deeper into despair and helplessness. 


Every person has the right to pursue a better life. The rights of every individual should be respected. However, in recent years, how many people’s dreams for a better life, beautiful aspirations, and ideals have been ground into dust? How many moments of tranquility have been shattered, homes broken, families torn apart? How many human tragedies lie hidden in the forests of towering skyscrapers? I have often questioned what the purpose of all our development is. Is it merely about tall buildings and grand structures? Is it something we must absolutely pursue no matter the means?


Those who engage in miscarriage of justice have my deepest loathing. They use torture to extract confessions, fabricate facts, distort the truth, turn black into white, frame the innocent, and take credit for others’ work. Sometimes, I even find myself entertaining thoughts of offing them myself. What’s infuriating is that this isn’t the work of a few individuals, but a large group, a whole gang. Eventually, I came to understand that this is not fundamentally due to the faults of certain individuals. A good tree bears good fruit, and a bad tree bears bad fruit. When the tree is corrupted, the fruit will undoubtedly be spoiled.

(The first 10 seconds of this documentary is a scene of lawyer Li Jinxing in a courtroom. It was gleaned from a video published by the state media smearing Li around the time of his disbarment.)


At present, the economy is struggling, and it’s hard for the people to make ends meet. After three years of COVID, there’s much to be rebuilt. However, I have witnessed a series of wrongful cases in these past three years. So many entrepreneurs failed not due to any business mistakes of their own, but were ruined by the lack of justice in the legal system. It seems that in every similar case, there’s always a seemingly noble reason for handling it, but in reality, it’s driven by those in the justice system who aim to make money. Inadvertently, even if there are genuine efforts by the higher-ups to revitalize the economy, their results are annulled. 


What’s alarming is that, based on my observations, the current trend of self-censorship has permeated every sector. Both proactive self-censorship on the part of individuals and high-pressure, all-out suppression on the part of the state have become the true norms in our society. Everyone, deep down, is scrutinizing themselves: how would Big Brother perceive my every word and action? Legal standards have been significantly weakened, and one cannot use the law to guide one’s action and predict the outcome. It can be said that this is an era where self-censorship reigns supreme. 


What to make the self-censorship that bleeds into every individual today? I haven’t figured it out yet. The essence of self-censorship is fear, and that’s something we can’t ignore. However, what surprises me is that even some individuals who as far as I can tell do not face any real danger nevertheless find themselves in a state of significant unease. It’s not an inexplicable anxiety, but a genuine sense of fear. This is truly concerning, because for a country to make advances, being able to ensure that the citizenry is psychologically stable, rather than the other way around, is a major issue. 


It seems that everyone around is feeling repressed. Even those who are into showing enjoyment of life [on social media] are completely different in private. Here, everyone is putting on a front. One must stay within the permissible boundaries of Chinese politics, but it has evolved into not standing out, not speaking frankly what one really thinks or feels, and outright lying has become a habit. The society, in such an adverse state, has already sunken. Those few pitiable voices of truth have had their posts deleted and accounts banned, akin to being buried alive.


Generally speaking, except for a few individuals with social influence, the vast majority of wronged parties are like products on an assembly line — silent and unnoticed, leaving them to bear their grievances alone. There is little attention from the outside world. Wronged citizens lack a platform to voice their concerns, belonging to a generation that has been abandoned. However, in the transitional history of this country, they are the generation, or even multiple generations, that have paid the heaviest price. They have no personal protection orders, no avenues for relief. Victims of wrongful conviction are the untouchables.


Speaking of those victims, I could go on for days. As the saying goes, when the nest falls, how can any of the eggs survive? However, what saddens me even more is the children of these wronged citizens. Their parents are suddenly thrown into prison, easily for ten or twenty years! I often shed tears in the courtroom, but it doesn’t move the court. I don’t know how to face these children. How do we teach them to love their country? Having lost the love of their fathers from a young age, won’t they come to resent society? An unjust judiciary is really even worse than a man-eating tiger  [echoing the statement made by Confucius].


The voices of the wronged citizens have been severely overlooked by the world around them. It’s a huge group of people, dispersed across all quarters. They are the wretched of our era, with so many heart-wrenching and tragic stories. But in an age so fatigued by ugliness, no one is willing to pay attention to them. I believe that if someone were to delve into their stories and document them, it could be as chilling and hair-raising as the horrors of Jiabiangou (夹边沟).  

Translator’s note: Jiabiangou (夹边沟) was a labor camp in the desert of Gansu where thousands of “rightists,” including prominent scientists and intellectuals, were sent in the late 1950s, and only a small number of them survived.


If you were to ask me what the biggest social issue of our time is, I would immediately say it’s the lack of a fair judiciary. Many might disagree. But based on my professional experience, I believe that China’s development has reached a critical point. Without genuine judicial fairness, all our wealth is meaningless, and the achievements of the past forty years simply cannot be sustained. I fully understand the phenomenon of talents and capital leaving China. Without judicial fairness, economic revitalization is just empty talk, and no matter how many policies are put in place, they will be good for nothing. 


I reflect on the issue of human nature because I have witnessed so many events that go against it. Often, I find myself bewildered: how can a brutal executioner who employs torture to extract confessions transform into a good father, husband, and son in society and at home? How can one person play the roles of both demon and angel? Can a person switch between roles just like that? Such questions have troubled me for a long time. Eventually, I came to understand that human nature alone cannot resist the evil of an unjust system. 

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