What Makes a Hero?

December 30, 2015 China

Clarence Darrow

“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Miami Herald printed an inspiring story about Ai WeiWei and his retrospective show at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Ai WeiWei is a wonderfully inventive artist who has recently been released from custody in China and given back his passport so he could travel. His so-called crime is labeled the “subversion of state power.” The last line of the article caught my eye:

“Asked if that [the Chinese government’s] attitude has now changed, Ai said: ‘It’s hard to measure. In my case it’s improved or I wouldn’t be here.’ He pointed out, however, that his lawyer remains in detention in China.”

The lawyer’s name was not considered significant enough to put into the story. His sacrifice only collateral damage.

The lawyer is Pu Zhiqiang, who was charged with inciting ethnic hatred and “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” This “serious” offense carries a 10-year jail sentence. His real crime was doing something the Chinese government didn’t like.

The prosecutor detailed the charges: “Defendant Pu Zhiqiang has used the internet to publish posts that incited ethnic hatred on many occasions which has caused serious consequences. He publicly insulted others and disturbed social order, which has caused serious consequences.” The charges are thought to be based on 30 blog posts, but this being China it is hard to tell. Shades of Joseph K. in Kafka’s The Trial.

We live in a world that employs the term “hero” too loosely. We overuse it for movie stars, politicians, and professional athletes. While they might have unique and singular abilities, they are not heroes. “Hero” was originally crafted for the man or woman who takes on a cause, who sacrifices, and accomplishes something great.

Let us not devalue the meaning of courage. Churchill wrote that “courage is rightly esteemed as the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.” John Fitzgerald Kennedy opened his book Profiles in Courage with — “this is a book about the most admirable of human virtues –courage.” It takes a hero to fight for a cause, for an idea, for integrity, for a country. Lawyers are frontline warriors in these battles.

Pu Zhiqiang is by no means alone. In 2014, the Chinese government conducted a sweeping campaign in which it detained 955 rights advocates, in addition to more than the 1,160 detained in the previous two years. In the face of these threats, the human rights lawyers posted a defiant public statement on social media sites:

“We declare: We will continue to devote ourselves to human rights and law in China, join in individual cases, strive to realize the part of the Constitution about ‘respecting and protecting human rights’ and work diligently to defend human rights!”

Lawyers have been reviled and the butt of sarcasm and jokes for centuries, not without reason. The public perception is that there are two systems of justice: one for the rich and powerful and another for the rest. There is a lot of truth to that. Corporate America skims off the top law school graduates for its mega law firms. But there is another side to the profession — from the civil rights revolution, to the Warren court, to public defenders laboring in anonymity, to legal services lawyers representing the poor. All the way from McDonald’s coffee to Occupy Wall Street, lawyers balanced the scales, righted the wrongs and compensated the injured.

It is time to honor those lawyers who made our civilization a better place. Without a lawyer to enforce them, rights are merely hypothetical. Lawyers take on the hot issues, the controversies, the daunting moral and social issues. That is another reason why we are so unpopular. We shake things up while most people resist change. We get things done while others sit on their ass thinking about them.

After being detained for 19 months, Zhiqiang was put on trial December 14, 2015 by the Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court. The government quickly found him guilty of criticizing Communist Party policies through his blog posts and gave him a three-year suspended sentence. The verdict automatically strips Zhiqiang of his attorney’s license — and eliminates his ability to give a voice to the voiceless. His career as a lawyer is finished.

“The first thing we do,” says Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, is “kill all the lawyers.” It is Dick’s suggestion to the traitorous Jack Cade, who envisions a quasi-communistic social revolution, with himself installed as dictator. While it is not entirely clear, the majority of scholars (and lawyers) believe Shakespeare’s point is to portray lawyers as the guardians of the rule of law.

The Chinese government is far more clever than Dick. They understand that killing all the lawyers will cause an international backlash. It is more acceptable to silence them.