Broken dreams

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 July, 2011, 12:00am


The many people who read Si Weijiang's blog are greeted by a photo of Martin Luther King.

'I appreciate his philosophy of non-violence,' said Si, one of the mainland's best-known rights lawyers. 'The Chinese people have a history of revolution that is too long, and abhorrent.'

He borrowed King's immortal phrase 'I have a dream' and titled his blog the 'dream of judicial reform' many years ago. However, he abandoned the dream after finding that creating an independent judicial system on the mainland was impossible, and changed the title to 'transform China through action', because he wants to use individual cases - 'substantial steps', he calls them - to try to perfect a flawed system.

In recent years, Si has helped hundreds of people, most of them victims of environmental pollution, health care and forced eviction, in addition to his full-time job at Debund Law Offices, a leading firm in Shanghai that deals with intellectual property rights (IPR).

Many activists and rights lawyers have been targeted by the authorities this year and intimidated through tactics including detention, torture and imprisonment.

Si's recent defence of lawyer Li Zhuang, who was accused by Chongqing prosecutors of coaching a witness in an embezzlement case, made him a household name among mainland intellectuals and lawyers.

'Only by upholding legal regulations can the public's rights be assured and the country's order be kept. That's why we decided to defend Li Zhuang, not only for Li, but also for our country's long-term peace and stability.'

Li was released from prison in mid- June after serving 11/2 years in jail awaiting charges of fabricating evidence while defending Chongqing crime boss Gong Gangmo in November 2009. Si had not been confident he would win and had warned Li not to expect any miracles.

After prosecutors dropped the charge, because of 'new evidence which conflicted with the evidence pointing to Li's guilt', Li was enormously relieved, but Si warned him: 'Don't rejoice too soon. They can do things beyond our imagination.'

The slightly built Si, a Zhejiang native, began his law career in 1992 after he received his bachelor's degree from the East China University of Political Science and Law in Shanghai. He served as a criminal defence lawyer for the first three years before specialising in IPR in 1997. Si now has a master's degree in international intellectual property law from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The atmosphere in the 1990s was better than it is today, he said. Previously, judges made verdicts based on the law and their 'consciences'; nowadays, in his view, many judges 'intentionally distort' laws or are influenced by government authorities.

In 2003 he was a guest on a China Central Television programme providing legal advice. From that experience, he realised how many people needed help, and he decided to offer legal aid under the general principle of doing it at no cost, including his expenses for transport and hotel stays.

Several of his campaigns have failed, as the courts rejected his lawsuits. Although he and his team presented strong evidence and eloquent defences, the courts have seldom favoured his clients and have handed down decisions Si sees as ludicrous.

He has lost almost all the cases he has taken related to environmental pollution, since the culprits are usually enterprises shielded by local governments obsessed with economic growth. One such incident occurred in Baoshan district, Shanghai, where residents complained of the foul-smelling air released from the joint-venture Richina Leather Company since 2003. Si and two NGOs filed a petition to the Baoshan District People's Court in 2009, which rejected it. The NGOs - Friends of Nature and the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs - then informed one of Richina's clients, US-based clothing group Timberland, which pressed the manufacturer to do something about its pollution.

'I feel ashamed about this incident because stopping the polluting activity should be the government's duty, right?' Si said.

Another case involved helping a couple in Songjiang district with a daughter who had died of leukaemia and a son with a mental illness. They accused the local environmental authority of malpractice for not promptly moving a waste-collecting and processing station that was close to their home for eight years. The couple thought the pollution was a key factor in the children's diseases. The couple lost the case, and Si is handling the appeal.

In February, Si agreed to help Beijing-based rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang with the case of a young man in Xianning , Hubei, who was detained for 'organising a crowd to disrupt the social order'. The man had allegedly helped hundreds of taxi drivers petition the local government, which planned to remove their licences and allow only state-owned taxi companies to get business.

Si said the man told him he had been denied hot bathwater and wasn't given any medicine even though he had high blood pressure and serious kidney problems. The man was later handed a suspended sentence. Among his most wretched clients were two women from Gansu , who came to Si in 2004 after their husbands were shot dead in a forest, one in the back and the other in the forehead, after they went on a hunting trip with their armed-police bosses. Police concluded that the two men had shot each other, which sounded implausible.

Si helped the women sue the armed- police officials, but the court rejected the application, saying it wasn't permitted to accept lawsuits involving the armed police. He tried to publicise the two women's ordeal, but no domestic media outlets would print the story, and he is now telling their story on his microblog account.

In 2006, he and a law professor took a state-owned highway company to court after learning that it charged each vehicle 15 yuan to leave Hongqiao Airport, because they knew of no legislation to authorise the toll. He won this time, and the fee was scrapped.

Since last year he has filed three suits challenging the legality of the municipality's controversial car- number-plate auction scheme to ration new-vehicle registrations. He is not surprised the lawsuits failed.

He said no state-owned TV station would ask him to be a guest any more, and he has been stripped of his membership of various committees of the government-backed Shanghai Lawyers' Association.

These multiple failures have left Si feeling 'very powerless' within the justice system, and he has learned to 'adopt a religious mindset'; otherwise, he says, he would have fallen into depression.

'I have been reading many books of various religions,' he said. 'They say ordeals are inevitable in this world and unfairness must exist. I will continue to help with each case, and when our efforts are defeated I will comfort myself with the belief that bad karma will catch up with the culprits sooner or later.'

Under mounting official pressure, Si said he had decided against seeking re-election as an independent to the Jingan District People's Congress this year, because 'I don't want to offend the authorities any more'. He has been a delegate since 2006, and his term will expire soon. In the past five years, he said he had been the only one to raise a hand to vote against anything.

Although some rights lawyers on the mainland have gone missing, Si said he wants to distinguish himself from them because he is not prepared to deal with the risk and needs to protect his family.

'The authorities' crackdown by making lawyers disappear demonstrates that China needs to be more governed by law. It's not good for society and has stoked fear. I felt lucky about my own situation,' he said.