China / Life

Creating a model lawyer in books

By Andrew Moody (China Daily) Updated: 2017-04-05 06:43

He Jiahong, also known as 'China's John Grisham', keeps pushing for legal reform, Andrew Moody reports.

If He Jiahong had been better at mathematics, he might never have become one of China's top legal experts.

The professor of law at Renmin University of China, who is also a best-selling author of legal thrillers, failed to get into the economics program at Renmin University because of his poor math and so did law instead.

"I picked up law almost randomly but the more I learned about it, the more I realized the importance of it," he says.

He, a spry 63-year-old who owes his fitness to playing badminton and also competitive soccer until he was 50, was reflecting on this twist of fate after the Beijing launch of new Chinese editions of his books, which feature the fictitious lawyer Hong Jun.

Some have said He - who has been described as China's John Grisham - is the living incarnation of his literary creation.

"His experience is very similar but I wouldn't say Hong Jun is me. I essentially created a model lawyer for promoting the rule of law in China," he says.

He, who has been a professor at Renmin for more than 30 years, is a fervent believer in legal reform in China.

He backs the government's aim to move to a system of rule of law "in line with socialist and Chinese characteristics" as was outlined at the 4th Plenary Session of the 18th National Congress in 2014.

"Rule by law is still rule by man but still using the law as a tool," He says. "Rule of law is that none should be above the law. Everybody should be equal in front of the law."

He is also director of the Center for Anti-Corruption and Rule of Law at Renmin University, which was set up last year.

In this area, he is also an expert consultant to China's Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate, China's highest prosecution and investigation agency.

More than 100 officials above ministerial level have been probed for corruption in China since the current top leadership was elected at the end of 2012.

"They can no longer bypass the law," he says. "They have to abide by the law and this is one area of legal reform that really has actually worked."

He was born in Beijing in 1953, the son of a military officer who died when He was only 10 years old.

"I had a family background of intellectuals. My father had a college degree and my mother also had a very good education by the standard of the time. She was from a big landlord family."

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), he went to work on a farm in Heilongjiang province in Northeast China before returning to Beijing in the late 1970s to work for a construction company - but with aspirations to become a famous writer.

It was meeting his future wife, Ren Xinping (a medical doctor to whom he has been married 35 years) that changed his life.

"Her parents wouldn't accept a plumber in a construction company as a future son-in-law, so that made me take my examinations to go to university," he says.

Initial failure in these exams proved the catalyst in his fortuitous switch to law. After earning both bachelor's and master's degrees in law at Renmin, He also went on to do a doctorate in juridical science at Northwestern University in the US.

His parallel literary career took off in 1995 with the publication of Hanging Devils in 1995.

One French newspaper has described his work as being similar to that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

"I actually like Sherlock Holmes and also Agatha Christie. I have also had some inspiration from modern writers like Scott Turow and, of course, I have been referred to as the John Grisham of China since we have this similar background in the field of law."

He is something of a convert on one of the key legal issues in China - capital punishment.

The academic used to believe the country's stance on the death penalty was right because it truly reflected public opinion.

"I changed my mind after leading a group of people conducting a study on unlawful convictions for about 10 years. I noticed there were some loopholes in our criminal justice system and because it is just human nature, there were mistakes by judges, prosecutors and police officers. In the case of capital punishment, mistakes are always inevitably very serious ones because there is obviously no way to correct them."

He has also actively campaigned for more than a decade for a better operating court system in China with more focus on trial proceedings.

The government has now accepted there are needs to have a more trial-centered approach.

"The trial in the court room (in China) is not a substantive part of proceedings but a move to this is the way to promote judicial independence," he says.

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