March marks the start of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, one of the Communist Party’s most important annual events. On March 5, 2012, a twenty-year-old college student named Li Ning caused uproar on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, when she strode onto Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, removed all her clothes, and knelt on the cold paving stones. She was promptly arrested.
The story of Li Shulian
Before her March 5 statement, Li Ning had spent two years trying to tell her mother’s story. Her mother, Li Shulian, had owned a pair of profitable clothing stores in Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province—so profitable, in fact, that they became targets for official graft.
Mrs. Li had resolved to expose this corruption. Knowing that Shandong officials would cover for each other, she made the 200-mile trip to the central government in Beijing in June of 2009. “Jiefang” agents—goons dispatched by local governments to intercept would-be petitioners to central government authorities—followed. They apprehended her in the capital, stripped her naked as punishment, and transported her back to Jinan. Undeterred, Mrs. Li made a second pilgrimage to the seat of the Party in September of 2009. Once again, she was followed; this time, she did not return. On October 3, 2009, Li Ning received word that her mother had hanged herself while in custody.
Li Ning was incredulous: Her mother would not do such a thing. A perfunctory viewing of the body did little to put her mind at rest, especially when officials declined to release the autopsy results. Li Ning began to suspect that, in fact, her mother’s tenacity had spooked security agents to the point where they beat her to death. Then, in a shocking case of institutional “crossed wires,” Jinan officials admitted as much: Three security personnel, they said, had been prosecuted for the death of Mrs. Li. Daughter Li Ning has still not received either names of these agents or any evidence of their prosecution.
Li Ning was enrolled at Renmin University of China when her mother died. Grief-stricken, she visited every government office she could find, pleading for answers. Each time, she was flatly informed that the case was “closed.”
At last, Li Ning’s desperate Tiananmen Square statement had the desired effect. Moved by her story, rights lawyer Zhou Minghai penned a Weibo post that drew 30,000 hits (it was hastily removed by government censors). It also captured the attention of Li Zhuang, the renowned rights lawyer barred from practicing after he defended men accused of organized crime in Chongqing under Bo Xilai’s reign. Unable to take the case himself, Li Zhuang reached out to fellow rights lawyers. So it was that, on December 26, I met Li Ning and her aunt in the Beijing offices of lawyer Li Jinxing.
Face to face with the drama’s players
Li Ning is a tall, slim, serious young woman possessed of a bright, if occasional, smile. On the day we meet, she wears block heels, black jeans, and a discolored white parka to ward off the cold. Her maternal aunt, a tight-lipped Shandong native with penciled-on eyebrows, is dressed in shades of lavender. They tell me how the pain Mrs. Li’s death, three years earlier, has been compounded by the callousness of people around them. At the time of the murder, Li Ning was working for Vanke, China’s largest real estate developer, to support her studies. When he learned of the incident, her boss tried to cut her loose. Li Ning refused, citing the three-year contract she had just signed. The company relented; Vanke waited until her contract expired, then let her go. Meanwhile, her aunt, furious about Mrs. Li’s fate, began seeking legal recourse. Afraid of repercussions, her husband filed for divorce. The authorities have twice rejected his divorce petition, Li Ning’s aunt said, hoping to leverage his fear to secure her silence.
Having finished some other business, the attorney Li Jinxing joins us around the long mahogany table that serves as his desk. Mr. Li is a broad-shouldered man in his late thirties with hair cropped close in the Chinese style. His hospitable nature is often in evidence: Since I arrived a day earlier, he has gamely tried to engage me in English, inevitably turning to an assistant for help midway through his first sentence. As he picks up steam in his native Mandarin, his right hand hovers like a hummingbird with an earthenware teapot, topping off everyone’s tea. With a wave, he directs Li Ning’s attention toward a wall covered in photos. In each, he poses with another famous Chinese lawyer: Li Zhuang; Mai Li; Zhou Ze. His message is clear: You are in good hands.
For a few minutes, the trio discuss the latest news out of Shandong, the province all three call home. Then, Mr. Li circles back to the murder. It turns out Li Ning and her aunt have already petitioned courts at both the county and provincial levels to take their case. They have asked for 5 million RMB (about US$800,000) in damages, a sum which will help pay for Li Ning’s studies and support her after graduation. Thus far, they have nothing to show for their efforts. Mr. Li shows little emotion and no surprise as they speak, only nodding at intervals to show he is listening. “I will take the case,” he says when they finish.
He outlines his plan: Round up a team of rights lawyers, travel to Shandong Province, set up an office. In order to keep expenses to a minimum, the team will eat, sleep, and conduct legal research there. More comfortable accommodation is out of the question; as with roughly half his legal work, Mr. Li will not receive a fee. However, he urges Li Ning and her aunt to find what money they can to cover the cost of the lawyers’ travel and food. If they cannot raise enough for these necessities, Mr. Li says, they will ask the community for donations.
Certain frustration, yet certain victory
After ninety minutes or so, the meeting comes to a close. As she rises to leave, Li Ning’s face shines with gratitude. For almost three years, her mother’s body has lain in a Jinan morgue. At last, a qualified team will delve into the specific circumstances of her death. Once the truth is out, Li Ning and her family will be able to decide their next move.
Even if the investigation ends with a wrongful death suit, Li Jinxing knows he is not likely to win. The Communist Party controls the courts, and no amount of evidence or legal argument can guarantee Li Ning a just verdict. Yet Mr. Li does not fixate on this fact. No one can restore Li Shulian to life. But, by taking her case as far as possible, Mr. Li can keep her story alive in the public consciousness. “Whatever the outcome,” he tells Li Ning as they make for the door, “our struggle will be a victory.”