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The Gandhi of the courtroom

Zhang Xingshui practises law as a type of passive resistance -- facing tremendous personal risk, he brings cases he can't win to court, to expose an unjust system. He loses almost every battle, but he still hopes to win the war. ROD MICKLEBURGH talks to a hero

Globe and Mail Update

BEIJING — In most parts of the world, lawyers who lose almost all their cases aren't lawyers very long. Not in China. Here, for a small group of crusading counsel, losing has become a badge of distinction.

Asked if he has ever won a case in his 10 years as a criminal and civil-rights lawyer, Zhang Xingshui laughs and laughs.

"Yes, of course," he replies, finally. "Recently, I convinced a judge to suspend the death penalty against one of my clients. In China, that is considered a great victory."

And last year, Mr. Zhang proudly points out, he helped controversial entrepreneur Sun Dawu win a suspended sentence, despite his conviction in a high-profile trial of raising money from depositors without the approval of the Bank of China.

Mostly, however, Mr. Zhang loses. In case after case, he represents people who have fallen victim to the heavy hand of Chinese authorities in what is, after all, still a Communist-run country.

When a human-rights website was closed down this year, Mr. Zhang sued the government and lost. He filed a damage suit on behalf of an artist who had been beaten by police while in custody over a bus-fare dispute. He lost that one too.

"It's the people versus the government. You can't win," he says.

There are no juries, judges report to their political masters, and no freedom of the press exists to hold anyone to account. In such a partisan climate, it's little wonder that victories for those who challenge the system are rare.

For his troubles, Mr. Zhang's telephone is tapped, he is followed by security police and, with scores of lawyers jailed every year for little more than annoying those in power, he never knows when he may be next.

"I am often frightened. It can happen overnight," Mr. Zhang says. "All civil-rights lawyers live under this shadow. Speaking from the heart, I can say that lawyers in China work under very risky and bad conditions."

Yet Mr. Zhang soldiers on, fuelled by his strong idealism and an effervescent personality that seems to view every reminder of his travails as cause for laughter.

The slight, bespectacled 37-year-old, with a prematurely receding hairline and a waist so thin that it barely holds a belt, has stuck to a decision forged from the 1989 massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square. Although he left the square before the tanks rolled in, he saw the chaos in the streets and heard the gunshots on his way home.

Depressed by the bloodshed and the failure of the pro-democracy movement, Mr. Zhang concluded that gradual change, not revolution, was a better goal.

"The protesters took great risks, but they were weak, and the price they paid was very high. I felt we needed another way. I decided the way to go was to build a proper legal system," he explains.

"I also wanted to help people whose rights are violated, who have suffered injustice. That's why I became a lawyer."

Ten years after his graduation, Mr. Zhang readily agrees that not much headway is being made. "To be honest, it's almost hopeless," he says. "Decisions are already made long before cases get to court. Criminal and civil-rights lawyers are simply there to perform."

Meanwhile, with capitalism at full throttle, less-committed Chinese lawyers flock to commercial law, where many exact huge fees from corporate clients.

Mr. Zhang's wife is one of them. She makes lots of money as a lawyer for a big Hong Kong company and doesn't understand her husband's work at all.

"We quarrel about it," he says cheerfully. "Our relationship is parallel, like water in a well and water in a river. I am the river. I keep moving. Her life is stable, without risk."

Mr. Zhang estimates that 90 per cent of the country's lawyers care more about money than issues such as fairness, justice and improvements to the legal system.

"My income is comparatively low, but I like this kind of life. If I cared about money, I wouldn't be doing a job with such high risk and low pay."

No matter how many cases he loses, the fact that Mr. Zhang is there at all, in his cramped and cluttered office at the Beijing Kingdom law firm, desk piled high with files and documents that tower over two small bronze Buddhas placed carefully at the front, is cause for hope.

Though they are still few in number and often feel akin to Sisyphus forever failing to roll his boulder to the top of the hill, 10 years ago there were no lawyers like Mr. Zhang, battling against the established order.

At times, Mr. Zhang even allows himself a little optimism. He was buoyed recently by the release of editor Cheng Yizhong without charge after five months in custody. Mr. Cheng heads a large, popular newspaper in Guangzhou that had exposed a number of government cover-ups.

"I think this is a big stride forward," Mr. Zhang says. "Of course, it may only be an individual case that is not repeated. But perhaps there is a contest within the Communist Party, like a game of chess, and the progressive elements are winning."

Mr. Zhang does not restrict his crusade for a better China to the law. This year, he ran -- unsuccessfully, of course -- against the Communist-approved slate of candidates for Beijing's municipal government. As well, he belongs to several citizen groups agitating for change.

As a long conversation draws to a close, it is suggested to Mr. Zhang that, just maybe, he is a hero.

"Oh no, no, no, no. I only hope that one day I can be a hero in the future. I look forward to that. But not now. Oh no."

His laughter seems to go on forever.

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