FUYANG, China -- Attorney Pu Zhiqiang sat with the two authors on trial, listening intently and taking notes, his broad shoulders hunched over a small table. Facing him on the other side of the courtroom, Zhang Xide, a short, slightly pudgy Communist Party boss, leaned back and smiled as the first witness took the stand.
Zhang had sued the authors for defamation, accusing them of libeling him in a best-selling book on rural China that portrayed him as a local tyrant. In a country where the courts are controlled by the party, he held the upper hand.
Lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, center, and client Chen Guidi, at right, brief peasants outside the courthouse about libel trial's progress.
(Special To The Washington Post)
But then Pu, 39, a tall, brawny man with a crew cut, began grilling the witness, an official who had worked for Zhang, and accused him of extracting illegal taxes from peasants, embezzling public funds and killing a man while driving drunk.
"How did you get away with it?" he asked, prompting laughter from the gallery. The witness protested angrily, then refused to answer questions. But Pu pressed on: "You obey the leadership of Secretary Zhang, so aren't your problems Secretary Zhang's problems? Shouldn't he be responsible for you?"
By the time he finished his cross-examination, the mood in the courtroom had begun to change. When the trial ended three days later, the authors remained at the defendants' table, but it seemed as if Zhang -- and the Communist Party itself -- were the ones on trial.
What happened in the Fuyang case highlights a momentous struggle underway in China between a ruling party that sees the law as an instrument of control and a society that increasingly believes it should be used for something else: a check on the power of government officials and a guardian of individual rights. How this conflict unfolds could transform the country's authoritarian political system.
More than a quarter-century after launching economic reforms while continuing to restrict political freedom, the Chinese Communist Party remains in firm control of the courts. Most judges are party members, appointed by party leaders and required to carry out party orders. But the government's claims of support for legal reform and human rights, and an influx of information about Western legal concepts, have fueled public demands for a more independent judiciary.
China's citizens are asserting their rights and going to court in record numbers. About 4.4 million civil cases were filed in the last year, more than double the total a decade ago. Behind this surge in legal activity is a belief that everyone, even party officials, can be held accountable under the law, a belief promoted by a new generation of lawyers, judges and legal scholars trained after the death of Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.
The party appears torn by this rising legal consciousness. It recognizes the value of an impartial judicial system to resolve disputes in a country with growing social tensions and an emerging capitalist economy, and it sees the potential of citizen lawsuits to curb corruption and improve governance. But it is also afraid that rule of law and independent courts might threaten its monopoly on power.
A rare chance to sit in a Chinese courtroom unnoticed by the authorities and observe a four-day civil trial in August offered a glimpse into a society's struggle to establish rule of law, and the stark dilemma that presents to the party.
Pu's aggressive defense tactics left the court with a difficult choice. It could ignore the evidence he presented in open court about Zhang's transgressions and rule against the authors, risking a backlash that could further erode the party's legitimacy. Or it could reject Zhang's lawsuit and send a powerful message to the public about the law as a weapon against the party.
Four months after the close of the trial, the court has yet to issue a verdict.
A Free Speech Lawyer
Growing up in rural eastern China, and studying history and classical Chinese literature in university, Pu Zhiqiang had always planned to be a teacher. But he joined the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square while in graduate school, and in the crackdown that followed, the party barred him from academia.
He drifted for years, working as a secretary, a salesman, even at an agricultural market. But in 1993, a friend suggested he try a career in law. He studied on his own and passed the bar in 1995.