WEARING A SIMPLE black top and demure string of pearls, Zhang Jingjing doesn't look like the fearless public- service lawyer that she is. Yet this petite, soft-spoken woman scored a notable legal victory last year when she secured the mainland's first public hearing for an environmental case - in the northwest Beijing suburb of Baiwangjiayuan, where villagers are protesting against the construction through their land of a power cable the government says is necessary for the 2008 Olympic Games.
'The government argued it was in the national interest to put up the power cable,' says Zhang. 'But if the state is breaking the law, they shouldn't get away with arguing it's in the national interest. What's the national interest? I'm part of the national interest, and the state should respect my rights.'
More recently, Zhang has taken on the high-profile case of the villagers of Huaxi in Zhejiang province, who are fighting to get back land they say was illegally seized by the local government to build 13 chemical plants.
Zhang, 35, is part of a new movement for social justice on the mainland. She's one of a group of lawyers in their 30s and 40s working to force the government to apply its own laws. Some, such as Pu Zhiqiang, have won fame for their work (Pu last year defended authors Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao against legal action by a local official over their book An Investigation of China's Peasantry). But there are others who eschew the limelight, preferring to work in the background. Each victory, they feel, is a small step on the road to a more equitable China.
Their tools are the country's legal system - plus a dogged persistence that keeps them up at night working for free on behalf of the poor. Many offer their services for a pittance. Often, they hold down day jobs in commercial law firms to fund their pro bono work. Adopting a narrow focus to increase their effectiveness, many lawyers concentrate on just one aspect of society that they think desperately needs changing. In Zhang's case, it's the environment.
Many, such as Zhang, come from the generation that witnessed the 1989 democracy movement from its beginnings. The 20-year-old Zhang was in her second year of undergraduate law at Wuhan University when students took to the streets to call for an end to corruption and a push for further democracy. For some, that idealism has been strengthened in the years since by a flood of information into the mainland, as well as increasing exposure to foreign ideals over the past decade. But all the lawyers are adamant that they're not politically minded - just determined to implement China's laws on behalf of the poor, as well as the rich.
Zhang's mother wanted her to be a librarian, to keep her safe from the world. 'But I ended up choosing law - the most political subject of all,' she says.
'What I want is for the poorest, the most in need, to also have access to the law to solve their problems. I feel a big sense of responsibility.'
Personal history, perhaps, played a significant role in triggering Zhang's interest in environmental issues. 'My parents worked in a chemical factory,' she says. 'I grew up there. It was so big it was a city of its own, with 10,000 people.'
Now called the Sichuan Group Company, the old state-owned factory north of Chengdu was a vast, polluting enterprise. As children, Zhang and her friends didn't know the world held anything better than belching smoke and discoloured rivers.
'I thought it was natural when the river ran red. Factories were just dirty,' she says. 'The cancer rates around there are high now, but no one can prove if it's because of the factory.'
Zhang says she was a natural 'green', adamantly opposed to environmental waste. 'I was well known in my dormitory because I'd go around turning off the taps in the bathrooms. People were a little afraid of me.'
After graduating, Zhang joined a law firm in Chengdu, but grew bored with the work, and left to pursue a master of arts in legal studies at the University of Politics and Law in Beijing.
Her mentor at university was Professor Wang Canfa, who, in 1999, set up the Centre for Legal Assistance for Pollution Victims as a unit within the college. Zhang began by volunteering to answer phones. 'We set up a hotline, but we didn't realise there would be so many calls. Then we started turning the calls into cases.'
Zhang now works for a Beijing law firm, but remains a volunteer at the centre. The legal aid service takes her to the heart of many important issues on the mainland, where clashes between farmers and officials are springing up more frequently over land use, corruption and pollution. Recent riots in Huaxi, Chizhou, Ningbo and Dingzhou are only the tip of the iceberg.
According to figures cited by the government-backed Ta Kung Pao, there were an estimated 74,000 protests across the mainland last year, involving 3.8 million people. Many end in violent conflict, with local governments apparently incapable of solving the problems. 'What I hope is that our centre can resolve these problems before they get violent,' says Zhang.
There's a pressing need for more pro bono lawyers on the mainland, she says, citing the case of one Beijing law firm that asked farmers for 500,000 yuan to fight their pollution case. It's way beyond their means, says Zhang. 'I wish more lawyers would get involved in this kind of work.'
Her dream is to set up a legal assistance centre of her own, where she and a team will take on cases for free.
Passionate and committed, Zhang hopes one day to start a family with her long-time fiance, although she knows the demands on her time will be extreme.
'I'd like to have a child,' she says. 'My mother managed it. She was a doctor at the factory, and had two children. And because [my parents] weren't from Sichuan, but from Hunan, they didn't have relatives around to help. She's a role model for me.'