Zhang Sizhi, a Chinese lawyer who defended politically contentious clients, including Mao Zedong’s underlings, Tiananmen-era dissidents, purged officials and victims of police frame-ups, inspiring generations of human rights lawyers with his advocacy, died on June 24 in Beijing. He was 94.
His death, in a hospital, was announced by Wu Luan Zhao Yan Attorneys in Beijing, where he had worked as a senior consultant. Fu Kexin, a lawyer who worked with Mr. Zhang for many years, said the cause was cancer.
Mr. Zhang survived war and then persecution under Mao Zedong to become one of China’s most famed lawyers. Outright victories were rare in the country’s courtrooms, which are controlled by the Communist Party. But Mr. Zhang refused to accept that he was there as a mere ornament. He used painstaking preparation and rigorous argument to discredit sloppy prosecution allegations, challenge indictment charges and, occasionally, score victories.
“There are those in our country who nowadays see Chinese lawyers as decorative vases,” Mr. Zhang said in an interview published in 2008. “But even if you’re put in a vase, you still have the right to decide whether you’re going to be a dew-covered rose with thorns or a stick of dogtail weed.”
Mr. Zhang began his legal career as a functionary of a Beijing court, proud to serve the Communist revolution. After the armed suppression of protests in 1989, he stoutly defended people accused of fomenting “counterrevolutionary turmoil.”
His efforts set an example for other Chinese lawyers, who increasingly took on abuses of state power. In the last decade of Mr. Zhang’s life, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, worked to stifle the so-called rights defense movement, disbarring, detaining or imprisoning hundreds of lawyers and legal activists.
“He was most tenacious, fighting on after each defeat. He was unbreakable,” said Ms. Fu, who had worked with Mr. Zhang since the early 1990s. “All his life, he firmly believed that rule of law was a path that China had to take, and lawyers definitely had an important role in that path.”
Mr. Zhang was born on Nov. 12, 1927, in Zhengzhou, in central China, the eldest of 10 children. His father, Zhang Jingtang, was a doctor, and his mother, Meng Yanrong, managed the household. Growing up during the Japanese invasion of China, Mr. Zhang first planned to study diplomacy to help his homeland, he wrote in a memoir published in Hong Kong in 2014.
As Japanese forces gained ground, the family moved to southwest China. Days after turning 16, Mr. Zhang joined the army of the Nationalist government and was sent to fight in the India-Burma border region. After Japan’s defeat, he enrolled at Chaoyang University in Beijing, where he studied law. He also became increasingly involved in underground Communist Party politics.
When Mao’s forces came to power in 1949, Mr. Zhang, one of the few party activists with legal training, was assigned to work as a judge in a Beijing court, although he was only 21. Filled with revolutionary zeal, he used a sharp tongue when criticizing older court officials, although he later came to regret being so harsh.
As Mao tightened his grip, Mr. Zhang also became a target of official suspicion and criticism, partly because of his time in the defeated Nationalist forces. After being labeled a “rightist” in 1957, he was stripped of his Communist Party membership and sent to labor in the countryside. His law books were sent off as scrap paper. He later taught at a school in Beijing, his legal career apparently behind him.
After Mao died in 1976, Mr. Zhang’s talents were again needed as China’s new leaders began rebuilding the legal system. He received a request in 1980 to act as a defense lawyer for the Gang of Four and other former officials facing trial over their role in the extremes of the Cultural Revolution. More experienced lawyers had refused the high-pressure job; Mr. Zhang agreed, though he loathed the Cultural Revolution.
The defendants — including Jiang Qing, Mao’s widow — were accused of usurping power and persecuting officials. Ms. Jiang rejected Mr. Zhang’s offer to represent her, and he later said he regretted that he could not defend her vigorously in the highly rehearsed trial.
When another former official, Li Zuopeng, stood trial, Mr. Zhang and his colleagues persuaded the judges to reject two of the most serious accusations. Ms. Jiang received a suspended death sentence, commuted to life in prison; Mr. Li was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Mr. Zhang waded back into criminal defense work after 1989, when he defended activists and a former senior official, Bao Tong, accused by the Communist Party of backing the Tiananmen Square protests demanding political liberalization.
Mr. Zhang “put his heart and soul into defending the rights of citizens and the dignity of the law,” Mr. Bao said in a written message. Mr. Bao was sentenced to seven years in prison, although he and Mr. Zhang methodically contested the charges at a 1992 trial. “The law is always a losing battle,” Mr. Bao wrote, “because it’s a creature of politics.”
By the 1990s, Mr. Zhang had honed his strategy: Pore through the hundreds of pages of evidence, an exhausting feat before photocopiers were common; locate the weaknesses in the prosecutor’s case; and develop a watertight argument that could perhaps persuade, or shame, judges into reducing charges or giving a relatively light sentence. Even if courts usually ignored his arguments for finding someone not guilty, former clients said, Mr. Zhang worked every angle.
“Zhang Sizhi always conducted a defense within the framework of Chinese law,” Gao Yu, a journalist in Beijing whom Mr. Zhang defended in 1994, said in an interview. She credited him with cajoling the court to accept lesser charges after she was indicted on a charge of leaking state secrets.
“That law has many faults,” Ms. Gao said, “but he would always find places in that framework that helped his client.”
Mr. Zhang continued defending or advising clients in dozens of long-shot cases, striving to stay calm in the face of obstacles set by prosecutors and court officials.
Those he represented included Tenzin Deleg Rimpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk convicted on a bombing charge that his supporters denounced as a frame-up; Wu Ying, a businesswoman who fought, and ultimately overturned, a death sentence on a flimsy charge of financial fraud; and Nie Shubin, a factory worker executed in 1995 on false charges of rape and murder. In 2016, China’s highest court exonerated Mr. Nie.
“Even in his 60s, 70s and 80s, he was extraordinarily acute in identifying the legal connections and the important facts,” Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer in Beijing who worked on cases with Mr. Zhang, said in an interview.
Mr. Pu was arrested in 2014 after taking part in a meeting in Beijing to mark the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and Mr. Zhang was preparing to defend him when he suffered a stroke, forcing him to curtail his court work. Mr. Zhang continued to advise and encourage Chinese lawyers, sometimes scolding those he thought put publicity ahead of their clients’ interests.
“Where are there any fellows like him now?” asked Mr. Pu, who has been banned from court work. “There will truly never be another like him.”
Mr. Zhang is survived by his wife, Qu Yuan; a son, Zhang Ji; a daughter, Zhang Jian; a granddaughter; a great-grandson; three brothers; and four sisters.
After his death, many Chinese lawyers offered tributes. But the authorities kept his funeral brief and limited attendance to 20 people, citing Covid limits, Mr. Pu said.
Their real worry, he said, was Mr. Zhang’s legacy.
“I’m not willing to be pushed around, so I’ve had to constantly resist,” Mr. Zhang said in a talk in Hong Kong in 2014. But in contemporary China, he added, “it’s impossible to achieve the goals of ensuring rights and defending justice, and I’ve shed tears over this.”