A prosperous lawyer aids China's migrant workers
Liu Pifeng, the wealthy founder of a law firm, spends part of his time defending the rights of China's poorest: migrant workers. His ultimate goal is to fix China's faulty legal system.
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Not all of the 54 lawyers at Liu's firm agreed with his new direction. "But I yelled at them" and the dissenters came around, he says with a laugh. "I have a very strong personality."Skip to next paragraph
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Since then the clinic has helped more than 30,000 migrants recover nearly 5 million renminbi ($735,000) in unpaid wages, he says.
As China muddles its way toward the rule of law, rather than that of arbitrary officials, lawyers are playing a key role, Liu says. "Thirty years ago we just represented our clients in lawsuits. Today we take part in politics and pay attention to ordinary people's well-being."
Wealthy lawyers have a special responsibility, he argues, pointing to a framed piece of calligraphy on his office wall that he says "is the philosophical basis for what I am doing."
It is a saying from Mencius, a 4th-century BC Chinese philosopher in the Confucian tradition: "If you are poor, polish your virtue; if you are successful, help save the world."
At the practical level, that might mean offering legal advice to a man like Zhu Shengguan, a worn-looking migrant worker who came to Liu's office recently, kneading the mangled stumps of two fingers he had lost in a construction site accident.
Mr. Zhu's employer had tried to deny having anything to do with him before eventually paying his medical bills. Zhu was too ignorant of the law to have filed his appeal on time against what he thought was inadequate court-ordered compensation. Liu offered to represent him in the appeal Zhu's employer had filed seeking to lower the compensation still further.
Once, trying to obtain unpaid wages made up the bulk of the clinic's work. Today Liu's team of five lawyers spends most of its time on labor disputes or helping workers whose employers have refused to pay their social security contributions or to give them a contract.
Out of such small, day-to-day cases Liu hopes to build the rule of law in China. He acknowledges that the results can be limited and that progress sometimes seems slow.
By the front door of his offices hangs another piece of ancient calligraphy proclaiming the three principles that Liu says should guide a lawyer's work: "natural justice, national law, the people's feelings."
In China, though, "natural justice" and "national law" do not always coincide, especially when it comes to migrant workers.
"The purpose of what I am doing," Liu says, "is to bring national law into line with natural justice."
But he picks his fights carefully, and his instincts are to stay on the safe side.
"Natural justice is the highest value," he says, "but when it conflicts with national law, I quit. I do not fight against the law. If you are too radical, you get marginalized. It's better to stay in the mainstream and try to change things gradually.
"Promoting the rule of law is a long process, and we can't be in a hurry," he argues. "But each time we help one migrant worker to use legal measures, that influences a group of people around him.
"It doesn't sound spectacular," he says, "but in the long term it will have a big impact."