Tea Leaf Nation

You Have a Right to an Attorney. You Have No Chance at Going Free.

Even for show trials like that of Zhou Yongkang, China recruits top legal talent to “defend” its fallen officials.


In footage broadcast on the Chinese nightly news on June 11, the two defense lawyers, a man and a woman, sat impassively in court, far from their client, the gray-haired man standing in the dock, admitting his guilt and declining to appeal the verdict against him. His sentence: life in prison. The defendant, looking like a shadow of his former self, was Zhou Yongkang, the once-powerful former chief of China’s state security apparatus, and the biggest “tiger” — or prominent Chinese communist cadre — to be nabbed in the sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, shortly after he ascended to power in November 2012.

The trial was closed, reportedly because it involved Zhou’s alleged leaking of state secrets to a fortune teller-turned-oil baron. So the three-minute clip of the May 22 proceedings was the only available glimpse of the legal proceedings that marked Zhou’s long and precipitous fall from grace. His case has been so shrouded in secrecy that the debut of his legal team, Hao Chunli and Gu Yongzhong, was, itself, something of a revelation. Bloomberg had reported in April that Gu had been appointed to the case, but there was no confirmation of the fact until the news cameras panned the courtroom and caught him and Hao sitting politely in their dark courtroom robes. Both are respected figures in the Chinese legal world but there were no clips of either “in action,” if indeed they were allowed to take any action at all.

Zhou’s case represents the highest-level conviction of a Chinese leader in decades. There is little doubt that his verdict and penalty were decided not in the courtroom, but in discussions among the party’s top leaders, the small circle of power from which Zhou himself tumbled. Donald Clarke, an expert on Chinese law and professor at George Washington University Law School, said that “given the sensitivity of the case, the appointment of Zhou’s lawyer must have been approved at much more senior levels” than the court. The trial itself was theater, a visual bookend signaling to the public that he had been dealt with and will now permanently disappear from view. For this charade, you don’t use unknowns or unqualified people. Instead, China recruited two top lawyers, presumably for maximum verisimilitude. But the pair had little to do, and are probably best described as observers. Experts say the role of the defense lawyers in politically sensitive trials like Zhou’s is next to nil, yet the party surprisingly appoints qualified and respected figures to sit the part. And perhaps even more surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to harm their careers.

Jerome Cohen, New York University law professor and Chinese legal expert, told Foreign Policy via email that lawyers in such high-profile closed trials are “not able to do much” and are usually brought in at the last minute. Cohen said they are very short on time, don’t have much access to their clients, and can’t conduct independent investigations of the allegations. They don’t cross-examine witnesses and “judges have no discretion to heed them.”  In short, Cohen said, “lawyers are generally window dressing, although in closed trials there is virtually no window.”

On China’s Twitter-like Weibo, some less kind terms were used to describe Zhou’s legal team. Under a screen shot grabbed off the nightly newscast showing the two of them in court, a colleague of Hao’s wrote a congratulatory note to the pair, saying “Every suspect has the right to a defense.” The post drew more than 700 comments, many of them biting and sarcastic. “You’re just props and sets, that’s it,” wrote one commentator. Another added:  “You call this successful defense, they are unwitting ornaments. It’s pathetic and sad.”

Harsh words for such esteemed jurists. Hao has acted as counsel in numerous major cases, and is the director of Dong Wei, a law firm established in Beijing in 2009 that today has more than 90 practicing lawyers, according to its official site. She defended Ding Shumiao, a businesswoman who was sentenced to 20 years in jail and fined $408 million in December 2014 for paying bribes to prominent rail officials. Hao also defended Song Wendai, the former CEO of a state-run gold company in Inner Mongolia who was convicted of embezzling nearly $14 million in state assets in October 2012 and sentenced to death. (The court heard that Song stole 295 pounds of gold from his company and hid it in a car parked in the underground garage of his Beijing home.) Perhaps not surprisingly, Hao keeps a low profile. In an August 2013 article about how lawyers should deal with the media spotlight, Hao said that her high-profile cases had made her “afraid to answer phone calls or texts” because of all the media queries. She said that avoiding press attention was more conducive to a fair trial.

Gu is a vice dean of the Procedural Law Institute at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing, and a deputy director of the Criminal Committee section of the All-China Lawyers Association. Both lawyers travel internationally for legal conferences. Gu spoke at Harvard in 2008. Gu and Hao both spoke at a conference in Melbourne in 2012.

But those intimately familiar with the Chinese legal system and its players say that playing the role of defense lawyer is far from a career killer. Clarke said that even though they are not defending clients in a traditional sense, lawyers still play a role. “If the lawyer is a clever bargainer, perhaps he can achieve something for the client that the client would not have been able to achieve for himself,” Clarke said. Cohen, who says he knows and admires Gu, explained that being selected to defend someone like Zhou doesn’t diminish the defender’s reputation and also can telegraph their clout. “People understand that the lawyer can do little and accepting the task is a type of legal duty as well as a political one,” Cohen said.

Photo credit: Feng Li/Getty Images News

Alexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.

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