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Lawyer who takes pride in picking hard battles
Yuan Yulai doesn't shy away from a challenge, even if it means squaring off against local governments on the mainland. Based in Ningbo, Zhejiang, Yuan, a lawyer specialising in administrative lawsuits, takes cases his peers will not touch: alleged illegal acts by local authorities or land grabs in the restive village of Wukan in Guangdong. The 46-year-old has felt more comfortable speaking to the foreign press as it has become less risky and the political atmosphere has become more liberal. Astute and frank, Yuan (pictured) opens up about the rewards that come with handling difficult cases.
Who are your clients?
Eighty per cent of my clients are farmers whose lands have been illegally grabbed or whose houses were demolished by force. Over the past decade, land disputes have exploded in Zhejiang as industrialisation and urbanisation have flourished.
I also represent enterprises whose lands have been seized illegally or who want to fight punishments handed down by local commerce officials. Most of my cases end up in negotiations and my clients receive compensation, though not as much as they expect.
I speak highly of Zhejiang officials because they like to solve problems rather than ignoring or stalling our cases. Sometimes I pick up cases from Jiangsu and the southern part of Anhui. For disputes in Shanghai, I am reluctant to get involved, because the judicial atmosphere in the city, with its aggressive government, is deteriorating.
How did you get involved in the rights campaign in Wukan?
I seldom provide free legal aid because I believe my services are of five-star quality ... But I do have a number of lawyer friends [who] are enthusiastically engaged in offering legal aid, so that has influenced me.
A reporter from the Guangzhou-based Southern Wind Window magazine introduced me to Lin Zuluan and Yang Semao, the leaders of the Wukan campaign. They phoned me on December 25 to seek my advice. I agreed to go there to have a look.
When I arrived in Shenzhen on December 28, the reporter who originally planned to meet me and my assistant in Lufeng ... called and said he couldn't go with us [to Wukan] because his magazine suddenly called him [back to their office], where officials from the Ministry of State Security's Guangzhou branch were ... waiting to ask him some questions.
I soon realised I was under supervision, too. When my bus from Shenzhen stopped at the Lufeng station, four people claiming to be from the local judiciary gathered around and invited me to have a cup of tea. They also offered to bring me to the village in their car. I refused their invitation and offer. Finally, my assistant and I got in a taxi and made it to Wukan.
What did you do there?
I talked with Yang and Lin. The villagers had three demands: an investigation into the death of campaign leader Xue Jinbo in police custody, the release of the financial records of the previous village committee and an investigation [into] the village land sold over the past two decades. I told them I couldn't help with the first two issues, but the third one is what I am skilled at.
I told Yang to draw me a map of their village and mark the spots where they suspected land was [seized] illegally. If the new village committee hires me, I will try to find out whether these plots of land were seized legally by [requesting] the local land-resources bureau to ... release land-trade information or by turning to administrative lawsuits.
I think the future of Wukan's movement will largely depend on whether the two leaders, Lin and Yang, can persist. I hope they can withstand the mounting pressure from the government, which harasses them frequently.
Can you tell us about the lawsuits filed by the victims and kin of the Shanghai high-rise blaze in November 2010?
I have represented 21 victims and we have filed more than 20 administrative reviews or lawsuits. So far, seven lawsuits against the Shanghai municipal or Jingan district governments have been accepted by the Shanghai No2 Intermediate People's Court.
Since the State Council released only a summary of the fire investigation report, in August we sent a letter to the [council] asking for the release of the full report ... The State Council hasn't responded, and we plan to bring it to court.
We lost in our lawsuit seeking to force the municipal government to release details about the distribution of donations, [the] list of [members of the] work committee assigned to the fire [investigation] and documents showing that the apartment building had passed previous fire-safety tests.
To be honest, I knew from the start that there was no chance of us winning. We plan to file other lawsuits involving sensitive issues such as obtaining a list of names of those killed, where they lived and how much responsibility the fire department should shoulder in failing to extinguish the blaze in time.
Tussling with authorities, how has your practice managed to stay open?
It's due to the relatively open environment in Ningbo and across Zhejiang, where the private economy is advanced. I am lucky that many local officials are not that conservative, and they tend to protect me. I have formed good ties with many local officials, and some respect me and even call me 'Teacher Yuan'. I have become, to some extent, a business card for [Zhejiang's] openness and tolerance. With my current nationwide fame, I feel quite safe.
What do you think of the judiciary?
There have been tremendous setbacks in the last 10 years. I am very, very disappointed with our courts. They are not only unfair and not independent, but also shameless. Judges are humbled in front of government officials, and have to obey what the governments tell them. At one recent hearing, an arrogant lawyer representing the government even talked on his mobile phone while the court was in session and the judge didn't stop him. I couldn't bear it, and I asked the judge to stop him.