One man’s fight for China’s right
to build a society ruled by law
Undeterred by threats and pressure, Mo Shaoping has defended many famous
Chinese dissidents, joining them in their dream of creating a democratic nation
By Robert Saiget, AFP, BEIJING
July 8, 2008
In a small courtyard building a stone’s throw from Tiananmen Square and the political center of China, veteran rights lawyer Mo Shaoping (莫少平) dreams of the day his nation will be ruled by law and not by men.
Mo, 50, only has a tiny office situated between the Forbidden City and the Communist Party leadership compound of Zhongnanhai, but for years it has been his base for challenging the mighty state in defense of famous dissidents.
Most of them have been either jailed or sent into exile, largely for opposing the ruling party, advocating democracy or accusing powerful politicians of corruption.
But Mo is undeterred.
“It is really simple. I defend these people because a lot of lawyers refuse to take cases that are sensitive or deal with human rights, even though in China everyone is entitled to legal counsel no matter what the crime,” Mo said.
“I am trying to be a force to help the law and see to it that these people get a legal defense and that their cases are placed on the public record,” he said in an interview.
Another reason Mo takes on the cases is that he believes China’s political dissidents are right in trying to help his country transform into a democratic nation ruled by law.
“I think that in the end history will judge these people I have defended differently; history will show that these people were right,” Mo said.
As inspiration, he quickly cites South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and South Korea’s Kim Dae-jung — both of whom were jailed for their political views but went on to become Nobel Peace Prize winners and presidents of their countries.
The short and bespectacled Mo’s list of former clients reads like a who’s who of political dissent in China.
They include 1989 Tiananmen democracy leader and writer Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), founder of the outlawed China Democracy Party Xu Wenli (徐文立), Harvard academic Yang Jianli (楊建利) and former New York Times researcher Zhao Yan (趙岩).
All were convicted and served prison terms. Xu and Yang were sent into exile after they were released. Liu, who has been in and out of prison over the last 20 years, remains under house arrest.
Mo has also defended the outlawed spiritual group the Falun Gong and thousands of people in class action suits who have been evicted from their homes and relocated against their wishes.
He has been threatened, pressured and warned against defending such people, but he has persevered. The reason? He believes it is possible for China to build a society ruled by law.
Currently Mo’s law office has accepted the case of a group of “rights defenders” who have been detained or jailed ahead of next month’s Olympics.
Members of the group include fellow lawyers Gao Zhisheng (高智晟) and Ni Yulan (倪玉蘭), as well as cyber-dissident Huang Qi (黃琦).
While applauding China’s parliament for placing constitutional protections on both human rights and private property in recent years, Mo said such efforts were far from enough and that a whole series of related laws needed to be amended.
“Human rights in China still cannot be adequately protected because China has a lot of corresponding laws and regulations that pertain to human rights that have not been amended or changed with the Constitution,” he said.
Such laws need to incorporate clear definitions of basic human rights concepts such as freedom of speech and the press.
“Freedom of speech, no matter if your point of view is right or wrong, is the most basic human right,” Mo said.
“But in China’s criminal law and judicial procedures there are no clear legal explanations on what defines freedom of speech from things like incitement of subversion. This is a problem of unclear legislation,” he said.
China convicts far too many political dissidents with its vague laws on subversion and on revealing so-called state secrets, he said.
Nor have the new constitutional amendments stopped police from “extracting confessions through torture,” he said, adding that police do not respect the legal rights of suspects to remain silent and obtain legal counsel.
Mo remains most pessimistic about the likelihood that the ruling Communist Party will relinquish control of the legal system, a move that would lead to a truly independent judiciary, which is especially needed at the local level.
Mo said he believes the rise in complaints of rights abuses by ordinary Chinese largely stems from the party’s control of all aspects of government, especially at the grassroots level.
This, he says, allows local party officials to freely abuse their position, often in the name of economic development, and then escape legal redress through their control of the local courts.
“China’s judicial system is not an independent system. China’s system stresses the leadership of the [Communist] party,” Mo said.