He was presented as “the conscience of Chinese lawyers”, Zhang Sizhi, defender of the indefensible, tutelary figure of human rights lawyers in China, died Friday June 24, at the age of 94, in Beijing. He came to prominence in the 1980s, during the trial of the “gang of four”, when he was chosen to defend Mao Zedong’s widow, Jiang Qing, accused of the worst crimes of the Cultural Revolution. Cautious but determined, he had enjoyed an exceptional longevity, managing to avoid the prison sentences suffered by many of his younger colleagues. He remained active until a stroke in 2014. France awarded him the Legion of Honor in 2016.
Born November 12, 1927 in Henan Province, central China, Zhang Sizhi practiced first as a judge, then as one of the few lawyers in the young People’s Republic of China, established after the victory of the Communists in 1949. Coming from a family of doctors, he was considered a “right-hander” during the Hundred Flowers campaign, and sent to a labor re-education camp in 1957. He spent fifteen years there, on the outskirts of Beijing. He could not resume his activity until 1979, three years after the death of the despot Mao Zedong, and while his clique, which had led the country during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), was going to be judged.
A tight argument
During these highly political trials, between 1980 and 1981, Zhang Sizhi, who had become a high school teacher after leaving the camps, was recalled by the authorities. He is appointed to represent Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow, who dismisses him to defend himself alone. “She was hated, but he had the idea that everyone has the right to be defended, including someone monstrous”explains Judith Bout who spoke at length with him from the 2000s to write The Confessions of Master Zhang (ed. François Bourin, 2013). He finally assures the defense of another member of this clique, Li Zuopeng, former general and close to Lin Biao. If he has no illusions about the outcome of a political trial, Zhang Sizhi obtains, thanks to a tight argument, the lifting of half of the charges against his client.
Other cases reinforced the reputation of Zhang Sizhi: in 1988, he defended the innocence of a forest ranger held responsible for a deadly fire. In 2005, aged 78, he obtained, posthumously, the rehabilitation of a man unjustly sentenced to death for murder, ten years earlier. He also does not hesitate to seize political cases that his colleagues avoid: a sociologist accused of having supported the demonstrations of Tiananmen in 1989, or officials like Bao Tong, the secretary of Zhao Ziyang, general secretary of the Communist Party, purged in 1989 because he refused to use strong force against the Tiananmen students. Cases that the Chinese media were careful not to mention when they reported his death this week.
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