There is a grotesque photo that speaks volumes about the Chinese culture of formal politeness and saving face. The photo depicts Ji, together with a woman and man, standing behind a large banner. The picture was taken shortly after he had secured the release of 46 migrant workers who were imprisoned after the police refused to recognize their valid and properly stamped work permits. The 2000 case ended in an embarrassment for the security apparatus and the judiciary, and it was reported in the newspapers. The photo shows Ji with two migrant workers and the banner, which the group presented to the court, reads: "In appreciation to the court, for the wisdom of its decisions." The words are not meant to be sarcastic. They are the Chinese way. China is not easy to understand, as Ji's attorney in Fuzhou keeps repeating. His name is Lin Hongnan, and his office is at the end of a dark corridor in a house across the street from the glittering tower of the Shangri La Hotel. Lin is a dark, disheveled-looking man with puffy eyelids that make his eyes seem almost closed. His office is littered with mementoes, pictures and calligraphy scrolls. He has a benevolent face, and when Lin, 70, is asked simple questions about the weaknesses of the Chinese judicial system, he says: "It will probably take some time before we have liberated ourselves from thousands of years of tradition."
The experienced Lin was happy to take on Ji's case, together with Liu, the attorney from Beijing, and the two men devised a strategy for the appeal. Everything about the case, including the evidence and the court's conclusions, seemed odd to them. The judge's verdict was easy to contest, particularly the claim, which served as grounds for the harsh sentence, that Ji had forged "national documents" and "sovereign seals."
China, like any other country, has laws, and there are regulations and ordinances that can be consulted. In Ji's case, it takes little effort to realize that the trivial form in question was clearly not one of the 13 "national documents" defined by law, and it is not even clear if it should have been in circulation under the current administration of justice. And as far as the "sovereign seals" and "national stamps" are concerned, the first sentence of the applicable regulation states unequivocally that they are always round and not, as they were on Ji's documents, oval.
Ji was not even summoned to appear at his appeal hearing. After being sentenced by the trial court, he was imprisoned at the Wuyishan prison, and yet he was optimistic. Liu had found cases that also clearly called the three-year length of the sentence into question. For instance, he had uncovered a case against a fellow attorney in Jiangsu Province. In order to trick a client into believing that his trial had been decided in his favor, the man had forged an entire verdict, including authentically round national stamps. But the crooked attorney was only ordered to serve an 18-month sentence, and he never saw the inside of a prison, because the sentence was suspended.
When Liu describes his method, he says that he is always careful not to insult anyone or make any false accusations, and that he never goes beyond the framework of the law. In the case of Ji, however, the Beijing lawyer is beginning to lose his self-control, and he has even been tempted to rail against his opponents and to leave the framework of the law.