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

Li Jinxing, September 28, 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 two posts. Follow him on Twitter/X @lijinxinglvshi.  — The Editors 

In September, 2016, Li Jinxing and (fourth from left) and a team of lawyers outside The Supreme People’s Court where they lodged legal petition for Chen Guoqing, a man wrongfully convicted of murder and has been imprisoned since November, 1994.

(Continued from Part One.)


In my twenty years of legal practice, the most painful aspect has been witnessing innocent individuals being sent to prison. As a lawyer, I’ve had the will to fight for justice but often felt powerless to change the outcome. The anguished and pleading looks in the eyes of those wrongfully accused fills me with profound shame, and the heart-wrenching cries of their families leave me feeling utterly ashamed of myself. Each wrongful conviction does significant harm, even psychological trauma, to lawyers. To this day, I cannot let go of these haunting memories.


From what I can tell, what’s commonly referred to as the elite class has increasingly failed to shoulder the responsibilities that come with their social station. One significant manifestation of this is their reluctance to advocate for marginalized groups. With the exception of a few conscientious public intellectuals, the majority of the elite class appears apathetic and verges on cynicism. Among them, the intellectuals have probably been the most disappointing. They have grown accustomed to sidestepping real issues in favor of topics preferred by — or at least not offensive to — the Communist leaders. The educated class’s traditional sense of duty to one’s country and society has long gone.


Why does the intellectual class, as I see it, generally seem indifferent to the plight of the wrongfully accused? This has left me profoundly puzzled. Later, I finally came to understand that, in their view, it’s considered a “vulgar” matter, not aligned with elite sensibilities, something lacking in sophistication and potentially entailing risks without obvious benefits. It was truly surprising to me when a young and successful professor at the China University of Political Science and Law openly expressed disgust towards the wrongfully accused. If even renowned scholars who specialized in the study of law can exhibit disdain for the wrongfully accused, one can only imagine the sentiments of other members of the knowledge class. Overall, this generation of intellectuals is quite disappointing.


In the 1980s and 1990s, despite the many problems the country faced, there was an overall atmosphere of progress in society. Impoverished individuals were working hard to improve their lot in life. This was crucial, and in reality, if they truly put in effort, there was a good chance they could change their fortunes. In such an atmosphere, a nationwide transformation of wealth took place, simultaneously creating immense prosperity for the country and society, almost akin to a miracle on Earth. Contrast this with today: who still possesses the same confidence they had back then? People all around me are feeling dispirited.


Injustice has become a grave issue throughout our society, with the unfairness of the judiciary being the most severe. When the judicial system itself is crooked, it is impossible to rationally address any of the various societal problems and conflicts. The law of the jungle prevails, with the tigers roaming outside the cage. For instance, incidents of forced demolition continue unabated. Market economies fundamentally operate under the rule of law — markets, wealth, freedom, and the rule of law are not exclusive to the West but are precious assets for all of humanity. If we prioritize wealth without upholding the rule of law, we will lose it all in the end.


Even though I have been “retired,” I still receive numerous requests for assistance in cases every day. They all point to judicial injustice. You would be surprised that in today’s era of rapid development, there are still a large number of wrongful cases occurring every day. Faced with these, we are almost powerless. Among them, a significant portion involves impoverished individuals, many of whom have been charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” for petitioning the government to redress the injustices inflicted on them. This “crime,” as “hooliganism” in the past, has ironically become a formidable weapon used against petitioners and the poor.


Countless people are looking to right the injustice done against them, and they are a massive group that is entirely overlooked by the rest of the society. Beneath the facade of prosperity lies the accumulation of decades of judicial injustice, with the absolute number growing every year. However, only a tiny minority succeed in turning their plights around, while the vast majority will suffer a lifetime of anguish.


Indeed, everyone is equal in the face of an unfair judicial system. Many people believe that the victims of wrongful convictions may be only impoverished individuals without power or influence, but this is not the case. In practice, victims of wrongful convictions come from all kinds of backgrounds, including both the poor and many former high-ranking officials, and even extremely wealthy entrepreneurs. Moreover, there are numerous cases where even leading cadres within the police, procuratorates, and judicial system, including the heads of judicial bureaus and political and legal affairs committees, have been wrongfully accused. The circumstances are both baffling and ironic. Without a fair and just legal system, nobody can feel truly safe.


How does a lawyer perform criminal defense? How can one truly defend in criminal cases [in the Chinese context]? To be honest, some lawyers cut corners and make big money without any qualms. Fighting tooth and nail for justice in a fundamentally unjust system can be exhausting. Later, when my license was revoked, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. But not taking the defense seriously, I felt like a fraud. However, it’s getting increasingly difficult to mount a serious defense. Lawyers face pressure from all directions, with pressure from the government’s justice bureaus being the most galling. Unfortunately, so far nothing has changed for the better.


I am surrounded by a profound sense of shame every day, because my clients are subjected to daily injustices. Injustice is a monstrous force that can devour everything; it does so arbitrarily, without rules, and at times, it even devours itself. I feel sorry for my clients; some have been wrongfully imprisoned for decades and still can’t get justice, while others are dying but still without a fair judgment. Their fate is so tragic that, every time I think about it, I want to cry. Sometimes I feel almost numb, finding excuses to justify my numbness. Once an official in [Shandong Provincial] Department of Justice said to me, in all earnesty: “Why can’t you just focus on making money like so and so?” But I can’t. I am grateful for the many blessings God has given me. However, I can’t help myself every time I think about those helpless people, their expectations, and their trust. When will we see the light at the end of the tunnel?


Here, worries are everywhere, and everyone is in a state of anxiety, regardless of their wealth or status. When people get together, they all start complaining and pouring out their grievances. What comes to me, as you can gather, is twice as negative: there are those who have been beaten to death, those who have been arrested, those whose cases are clearly not related to the so-called “organized crime” yet are judged as such; there are innocent entrepreneurs whose multimillion-dollar assets have been unlawfully appropriated. Family members are looking for lawyers everywhere, like startled birds in a panic.


I cannot understand at all why judicial injustice is still so prevalent despite our great material wealth. Why are there so many wrongful cases? We seem to be in an era of abundant information, yet for the victims of wrongful cases, each of them is in an information desert. No one pays attention to them no matter how serious a miscarriage of justice their cases are, no matter how outrageous the judicial errors. The traditional media, as well as social media, all ignore them. It’s truly a bizarre situation. I don’t understand why there’s so little scrutiny from the outside world regarding this issue. Wealth, freedom, security are all connected. If you only focus on wealth and neglect the issue of judicial injustice, you will pay a heavy price — it is the case for individual life, for society as a whole, and for the country.


Regardless of the circumstances, advocating for the rule of law, protecting the market, and safeguarding the personal freedom and property rights of citizens is the right thing. Everyone may have their own judgments, and opinions may vary, but from a lawyer’s perspective, this is what I can say at the moment. Many serious issues have arisen because of the awful state of the rule of law, the market, and rights protection. The role of a lawyer is to focus on individual cases and advocate for those who are vulnerable.


Despite towering difficulties, I still firmly believe that the rule of law will prevail. From my observations, the rule of law, the market, and development have become widely accepted principles. As lawyers, we have interacted with many entrepreneurs, and I particularly have faith in the younger generation of entrepreneurs. They will undoubtedly be the driving force for future development because of their international perspectives and their understanding of the market and the rule of law. There’s no need for pessimism. Although there are significant obstacles and even danger zones, this backward slide can’t possibly last long.


Discussions about the future are incredibly valuable. While the reality is grim, I believe such backsliding has been met with resistance too. The difference between today and the Mao era is immense after all. It’s unlikely for China to go back to the Cultural Revolution, and one can very well imagine the cost of economic stagnation. It’s easy to despair, but at the same time I hope you can see the vitality of society at the grassroots.


I hope to discuss with friends whether we should be pessimistic or optimistic about the future. It’s true that some of my most optimistic friends have become pessimistic. In the grand wave of history, where will we end up? How can we develop a “correct” understanding within this historical tide, and what appropriate course of action should we take? No one can evade these questions, I believe. The larger questions involve talent and capital mobility, and the narrower ones involve how we plan for our own future.


On the Lack of a Fair Judiciary in China: Reflections of a Criminal Defense Lawyer (One), Li Jinxing, September 8, 2023.

One response to “On the Lack of a Fair Judiciary in China: Reflections of a Criminal Defense Lawyer (Two)”

  1. […] On the Lack of a Fair Judiciary in China: Reflections of a Criminal Defense Lawyer (Two), Li Jinxing, September 28, 2023. […]

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