Tribute to Zhang Sizhi, father of lawyers in the People’s Republic of China, dead at 94

Law and law above all else: the secrets of a career with extraordinary longevity

The legal profession appeared in China in concessions under Western influence at the end of the 19th century. It takes root little by little in the big cities; the transplant takes mostly to Shanghai. After the founding of the People’s Republic, lawyers are suspected – Marxist prejudice obliges – of defending the interests of the bourgeoisie alone. Thus, the experiment launched in 1954 with the establishment of legal advice offices on the Soviet model was brief: the lawyers were, for the most part, sent to labor re-education camps after the Hundred Flowers campaign in 19574. Zhang Sizhi was the first convicted in Beijing. He spent fifteen years doing heavy physical labor on the outskirts of Beijing. He lived in a labor camp the Great Leap Forward and its terrible famine, the political brutalities of the Cultural Revolution.

It was not until 1980 that the legal profession was re-established, shortly after Deng Xiaoping came to power. Law is then the foundation of the new national project, economic development and political and social stability. But the country lacks lawyers: Zhang Sizhi, by order of the Party, becomes a lawyer again at 52 years old.

Today, China is one of the few countries to criminalize lawyers – tampering with evidence and testimonies – and sometimes deporting them. manu militari of the court for “disturbance of public order”. Hence Zhang Sizhi’s strategy of avoiding the media, his refusal to institutionalize his legal fight within a political framework to better defend his clients. Not showing off, turning political questions into questions of law and law into a science, this method has earned Zhang Sizhi a career of extraordinary longevity when so many others saw their lawyer’s license revoked.

Bringing to life the rights enshrined in law, the application of which is made difficult by the lack of independence of the judiciary, such has been the line of Zhang Sizhi in some of the greatest political trials of the post- Maoist: Wang Juntao in 1991, an intellectual accused of being a “student black hand” in Tiananmen Square; Bao Tong in 1992, the highest Party official sentenced after 1989; Wei Jingsheng in 1995, China’s most famous dissident for having called for the “fifth modernization” in 1978; Zheng Enchong, a Shanghai lawyer charged with “leaking state secrets” in 2003; Li Zhi in 2004, a cyberdissident spotted thanks to Yahoo!.

Zhang Sizhi was awarded the Petra Kelly Human Rights Prize in 2008 by the Heinrich Böll Foundation. He was also the second signatory of Charter 08, published by Chinese intellectuals on the model of Charter 77 by Václav Havel and for which Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2010, was sentenced to eleven years in prison in 2009. .

Zhang Sizhi’s influence on new generations of lawyers has taken many forms since the 1980s. (1984) and the University of Political Science (1987), then as a journal editor (1988). His manual The Legal Profession, Theory and Practice (中国律师制度与律师实务), published in 1985, as well as the professional journal – the first of its kind – Chinese Lawyers (中国律师), that he created, without forgetting the training of young colleagues in the art of political litigation in the 1990s and 2000s, were all essential references for generations of young lawyers.

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