Empowering the little guy, nurturing democracy. This year marks a decade of economic reform in China. This story is part of an occasional series examining how change has affected individual lives.

JUSTICE may be blind, but Duan Li believes it is a sure guide for China on the long road to democracy. More and more Chinese have come to Mr. Duan since the young, maverick lawyer opened China's first law firm free of direct state control last May.

Duan's clients are eager for his help in protecting new riches and fulfilling big dreams created by a decade of economic reform.

Gazing from his 19th-floor office window at workers turning emerald paddies into brown factory lots, Duan said his crowded docket testifies to the growing demand by Chinese for individual rights. Although he would not discuss specific cases, he said that their new claim for personal rights is a vital spark for democratic change.

``I aim to help the common man against big institutions,'' Duan said. ``That's the part I can play to help bring democracy to China.'

In the foreseeable future, the Communist Party is likely to resist democratic reform and crush any challenge to its rule. Yet Duan believes economic reform has helped build a foundation for democracy. By extolling individual business initiative, the party has unintentionally encouraged Chinese to claim their right to own property free of state control.

Duan pioneers the reform of legal practice for the cause of democracy with the tacit approval of China's totalitarian government. Peking has allowed Duan and a handful of China's other 27,000 lawyers to work beyond its direct control and help handle a surge of legal cases by reform. Duan frequently backs a common worker against one of the city's booming enterprises.

Still, most Chinese lawyers remain state functionaries. Feudalistic legal traditions and the party's jealous hold on power often compel them in criminal cases to tip the scales of justice in favor of the state.

Graduated from the law department of People's University in Peking in 1983, Duan is one of China's first lawyers trained since senior Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping revived the legal system in 1979 after more than a decade of lawless turmoil.

``As I studied, I kept reminding myself that despite the troubles Chinese lawyers faced in the past, a sound legal system would be one of the surest ways to nurture democracy in China by empowering the little guy,'' Duan said. ``Chinese leaders realize that China needs a good foundation of laws if it hopes to develop smoothly. The days of the feudal magistrate are over.''

Since the 1949 revolution the party has wielded vast judicial powers. It has strengthened its hold on society by drawing on the authoritarian legacy of imperial magistrates, who held total political and legal powers. Exploiting ancient legal custom, the party has perpetuated a basic principle of Chinese political culture that stymies democracy: The people derive their rights from the state, the state does not derive its power from the people.

The subordination of individual rights and the judiciary to the party was most glaring for the two decades after 1957. That year the party ostracized China's 2,800 lawyers in its ``anti-rightist campaign.'' Later, it destroyed the Soviet-style legal system during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), labeling attorneys ``the worst of the stinking intellectuals.''

Today the party hails lawyers as ``socialist labor heroes.'' But it tolerates progressive advocates like Duan out of necessity, not out of a yearning for an independent judiciary.

Under reform Chinese courts are busier, since many enterprises, allowed to manage themselves with less state tutelage, have turned to the law to resolve conflicts. (As in most Asian societies, the Chinese have historically relied on informal consultation to settle cases.)

Also, loosened social restrictions and a get-rich credo have spurred a dramatic jump in major crimes. Overall, the annual number of cases involving attorneys which are settled out of court has risen twelvefold since 1981, far more than the ranks of the country's lawyers, according to state statistics.

Independent lawyers like Duan have an incentive to help cope with China's burgeoning number of legal cases. Unlike state-employed lawyers, they do not receive a fixed wage regardless of their case load. Rather, they are paid by their clients and earn more money with each case they handle.

Playing a more prominent role in society, China's legal system and the prestige and privileges of its lawyers are stronger than at any time in three decades.

``By any standards of any country in any era, Chinese law reform ... has to be regarded as of historic significance,'' said Jerome Cohen, former director of East Asian legal studies at Harvard Law School.

Still, the party has far to go in the reform of criminal law. The party shields its power with the criminal-justice system: Opposition to its primacy is a ``counterrevolutionary'' crime, punishable by death. Its reluctance to surrender power to an independent judiciary denies the Chinese a critical guarantee against politically induced terror like that of the Cultural Revolution.

While espousing the rule of law, Chinese leaders regularly remind lawyers that their first duty under China's ``political-legal system'' is to the state and party, not to their clients.

Subject to political control, many lawyers face a paralyzing dilemma. Although their vocation compels them to throw a strong legal lifeline to their clients, they are harassed, jailed, or beaten for upholding their clients' interests against those of the state or party, according to official press reports.

Duan said he is free of official harassment in Shenzhen, a thriving ``special economic zone'' that is less regimented than most other areas of China. ``Officials leave us alone because they know that with Shenzhen growing so quickly and the number of economic disputes rising, we offer a service to Chinese that is in great demand - but lawyers in poorer areas aren't so fortunate,'' he said.

Since leaving a state job and opening the D.W.L. Law Office last May, Duan said, his clients have grown more trusting.

``My clients used to withhold information when I worked for the state, because they thought I was just a court investigator. Now they're much more open,'' he said.

During a springtime crackdown on bicycle theft in Duan's home province of Guangdong, the party showed how it can decisively use the judiciary for its political goals.

The government mobilized 340,000 Guangdong residents to register bicycles and help police gain confessions during public rallies or visits to the homes of suspected thieves. During what provincial police official Wu Gianghue called the ``flood tide'' of the campaign on May 13, the state executed a suspect named Xiao Guoqi for allegedly stealing $7,000 worth of bicycles.

``There is an old saying: `To execute one educates 100,''' said Xie Yingcheng, chief of a district police station in Canton, in reference to the execution of Mr. Xiao. ``To kill a criminal during a fight against similar criminals can be very educative to the masses. And it will be a great shock to those thieves.''

Judicial committees of state and party cadres, rather than courts, often determine the verdict in criminal cases such as Xiao's, according to Chinese officials. Advancing political aims, the committees in effect convict defendants before trial.

Despite efforts at legal reform, ``few abuses have been eliminated and the most conspicuous are pretrial convictions, which are common,'' wrote Yang Yintang, a judge in Jiangsu Province. The practice ``has resulted in many wrong judgments,'' he wrote in the official magazine Democracy and Law.

In his small outpost of legal progress high above Shenzhen, Duan said, ``There's abuse of the law by the courts. But today when the state kills one, at least it isn't killing the 100 too, as it did sometimes in the past.''

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