Visiting Chinese attorney in uphill struggle to have rule of law govern in his country


legal news photos  by cynthia price

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A lively group of lawyers who get together informally for lunch and probate conversation had a distinguished visitor last week in the person of Peter Jiang, a business attorney from the People’s Republic of China.

There were actually two distinguished visitors, since one of the reasons for Jiang’s U.S. visit was that his son Tianyi — playfully introduced as Peterson —   was touring law schools.

The probate lunchers and attorney Jiang have in common Sharon Brinks, who “instigated” the small networking group, attended on and off by a variety of attorneys such as Comptroller for the City of Grand Rapids Sara Vander Werff; Ken Tiews of Wheeler Upham; Susan Dickinson of Fisher and Dickinson in Ada; and such solo estate practitioners as Jim Schepers and Steve Marshall, who could not attend the luncheon with Jiang.

As reported in an earlier Grand Rapids Legal News, Brinks is the part-time magistrate for the 62B District Court, while continuing her private practice in Kentwood. That court’s Judge William Kelly also attended last week’s luncheon to meet Jiang, who visited the Kentwood courtroom later in the afternoon.

Brinks met Jiang, a pioneer in the movement for China to allow private attorneys, when she visited a friend there in 1992. Long interested in “rule of law” issues — her work in Nicaragua, also the subject of Grand Rapids Legal News coverage, has spanned a decade and will continue this coming January — Brinks sought out an attorney so she could learn more about the Chinese situation.

After she introduced herself and met with Jiang in his own country, they continued to correspond. She hosted him and his wife when they visited the U.S. for a conference. And in 1999 Brinks led a group of attorneys and judges to China on a professional exchange tour, again meeting and conferring with Jiang.

“My main involvement with Peter has been to answer questions about everything from the Bill of Rights to open meetings,” Brinks says.

Jiang devours the information she gives him, astonished by such principles as transparency, which Brinks and Kelly emphasized stems from a desire to engender public trust in the legal system.

While Jiang comments, “Even for us, the complexity of the Chinese legal system is very difficult to explain,” his view of it could be summarized as a struggle to institute the rule of law and defense of human/individual rights into the system.

Though he has a healthy respect for the rich traditions of Chinese cultural history, he feels that the Communist Party takeover in 1949 toppled them and forced a clean slate. “After the establishment of the New China,” he says, “we adopted the Soviet System, or maybe even worse.”

That legal system regarded the law and courts as entities which protected the state and state interests, and therefore threw out most of the philosophical underpinnings of Western law including property guarantees along with the rule of law and protection of civil liberties.

Indeed, concern about civil rights and the right of lawyers to protect those rights is of utmost importance to Jiang, and is the point at which “Peterson” intersects with his father.

As evidenced by a video found at, Peterson made a trailer for an upcoming book about recent intimidation, detention, and threats against lawyers in China who defended dissidents or “unpopular” clients.
Peterson interviewed several of these lawyers for the trailer, which convinced him to pursue a career in the law.

This “cause-lawyering” has been the subject of government crackdowns,  and indeed, some suggest, even political disappearances, but the opposition to the actions of these cause lawyers is by no means unanimous.

Indeed, Peterson’s video is sponsored by the Human Rights and Constitutional Law Committee of the All China Lawyers Association, an organization comparable to the American Bar Association. The ACLA also has a Committee for the Protection of Lawyers’ Lawful Rights.

As Jiang tells it, there have been many highs and lows in the struggle to move China away from a Soviet-like system. They have sometimes, as in the case of the governmental reforms under Deng Xiaoping in 1978-1992, corresponded with changes in the economic system towards a more market-based approach.

In 1992, the movement resulted in an eight-year pilot test allowing attorneys to operate in private practice, and in 2000 all state-held firms became private.

While the Communist Party still holds all the political power (original leader Mao Zedong proudly referred to his government as a dictatorship), the economic reforms have been fairly successful. Jiang himself practices in the area of arranging joint ventures with foreign companies wishing to operate in China. His firm is C & M Law, which stands for Commercial and Maritime.

Despite doing well enough himself to  afford sending his son to law school in the U.S., Jiang has deep concerns about income disparities in his country. There is no indigent defense system, but the gap widens as the years pass. “Confucius said that the problem is not poor or rich, it is if the difference between them is huge,” he comments.

His own background is rural, a part of china that was severely damaged by the years after the 1949 revolution.

Jiang emphasizes that the result of that revolution has been merely to install members of the Communist Party as the people who profited, including from bribes, instead of the tsars. This is something he feels a reliance on the rule of law will help fix, and he is dedicated to continuing the fight for it.

Jiang says he does feel hope, and perhaps his colleagues in the United States will be able to assist. There is an opportunity created by an attorney friend of Jiang’s recently becoming a judge — a hopeful sign in and of itself in a country where most judges come from the army or party leadership.

“We hope to have the friend visit us when he attends a month-long training on the East Coast,” Brinks said. “Peter was very impressed by Judge Kelly, and he is also [going to] see if he can issue an... invitation to Judge Kelly to come and meet with them in China.”