Jiang Ping, the ‘Conscience of China’s Legal World,’ Dies at 92

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He was removed from his university presidency after supporting pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square. He remained a relentless advocate for rule of law.

A portrait of Jiang Ping wearing a blue sweater, black slacks and glasses and looking at the camera.
Jiang Ping, a legal scholar who helped draft China’s first civil rights framework.Credit…via Jiang Family

Jiang Ping, a legal scholar who helped lay the foundation for China’s civil code, and whose experiences with political persecution shaped his relentless advocacy for individual rights in the face of state power, died on Dec. 19 in Beijing. He was 92.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by the China University of Political Science and Law, where he had served as president and was a longtime professor.

Often called “the conscience of China’s legal world,” Mr. Jiang established himself in the 1980s as a highly regarded teacher and leading scholar, one of four professors who helped oversee the drafting of China’s first civil rights framework. His reputation was cemented during the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, when as university president he publicly supported the student protesters.

After the government quashed the protests and massacred the protesters, Mr. Jiang was removed from the university presidency. But he remained wildly popular on campus. Even after his removal, law students wore T-shirts printed with one of his best-known refrains: “Bow only to the truth.”

In the preface to his 2010 autobiography, Mr. Jiang outlined two qualities he said were important for Chinese intellectuals: “One is an independent spirit that does not succumb to any political pressure and dares to think independently. The other is a critical spirit,” he wrote. “My only wish is to earnestly inherit these two qualities,” he added.

His moral authority was augmented by his own story. In the 1950s, as a young teacher, he was denounced as anti-Communist after criticizing excessive, top-down bureaucracy and ordered to be “reformed,” as the government called it, through labor. He was not allowed to teach law for two decades. And while working, he was hit by a train, leaving him with a prosthetic leg.

In the 1970s and ’80s, as China began to recover from the chaos of Mao’s rule, Mr. Jiang returned to his quest for reform, taking up teaching and administrative roles at the university and serving as a high-ranking member of China’s legislature and deputy director of its legal committee. In addition to the civil rights framework, he helped craft China’s property law, contract law and company law, as the country moved toward a market economy.

But it was in the decades after Tiananmen, when he no longer held official or administrative positions, that he made the most sweeping calls for change. He argued that human rights and constitutional democracy were inseparable from the property and commercial rights he had helped introduce. He signed open letters criticizing censorship. When Beijing mounted a crackdown on hundreds of human rights lawyers in 2015, Mr. Jiang said that all of Chinese society should be concerned with protecting lawyers as watchdogs.

In recent years, as the rule of law has retreated even further under China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, Mr. Jiang continued lecturing widely.

“He was the legal mentor of our era, and the legal mentor of our people,” said He Weifang, a prominent Chinese legal scholar and former student and friend of Mr. Jiang’s.

Jiang Ping was born Jiang Weilian on Dec. 28, 1930, in Dalian, a city in northeastern China. His father, Jiang Huaicheng, worked in a bank, and his mother, Wang Guiying, was a homemaker.

He enrolled at Yenching University in Beijing to study journalism but dropped out to work for the Chinese Communist Party, which was recruiting students as it fought the ruling Kuomintang in the Chinese civil war. He changed his name to protect his family.

Two years later, in 1951, the new Communist government sent Mr. Jiang, along with a batch of other students, to the Soviet Union; Mr. Jiang was assigned to study law and earned a bachelor’s degree. While there, news emerged of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Joseph Stalin’s reign of terror. Mr. Jiang said that was one of his first indications that socialism in name alone did not guarantee freedom from tyranny. He resolved to keep working for freedom upon returning to China.

But his return in 1956 to teach at the Beijing College of Political Science and Law, later renamed the China University of Political Science and Law, coincided with a campaign to quash criticism of Mao. Mr. Jiang, like many intellectuals, was labeled an enemy of socialism and sent to the suburbs of Beijing for labor. His wife, whom he had married a month earlier, divorced him under political pressure.

One day, exhausted while dragging steel wires across a railroad, he didn’t hear an oncoming train. His leg was crushed.

In 1978, after the Cultural Revolution — another Mao campaign to consolidate power — the government’s persecution of intellectuals let up. As Beijing sought to rebuild its educational system and re-engage with the outside world, Mr. Jiang returned to teaching law at the university.

He lamented the lost decades but was never bitter. “Adversity gave me the ability to meditate and look back, and see things calmly,” he said at his 70th birthday celebration. “There was nothing to believe in blindly anymore.”

Mr. Jiang rose quickly after his political rehabilitation. He oversaw the drafting not only of civil and commercial laws, but also of China’s first administrative litigation law, which gave citizens a limited right to sue official agencies for misconduct.

In 1988, he was named president of the university. The next spring, protests broke out on Tiananmen Square. Mr. Jiang, fearing bloodshed, sat on the ground at the campus gate despite his bad leg and pleaded with students not to go.

When the students still went, Mr. Jiang lent his support. Along with nine other university presidents, he signed an open letter urging the government to open a dialogue with the students.

After his ouster in 1990, Mr. Jiang stayed on as a professor. A passionate teacher, he once said that he regarded himself more as a legal educator than a scholar.

Even as he established himself as a steadfast voice for reform, he was careful not to cast himself as an antagonist of the party. While some of his star pupils were jailed or blacklisted for their advocacy, Mr. Jiang was still invited to give reports at China’s Supreme Court.

“Jiang didn’t seek martyrdom and knew how to express his disdain for dictatorship without going to prison,” said Jerome A. Cohen, an emeritus law professor at New York University.

Though he refrained from open confrontation, Mr. Jiang was quick to point out what he saw as the authorities’ inconsistencies.“You cannot vaguely say ‘the road is torturous but the future is bright,’” Mr. Jiang wrote in his autobiography, referring to a common party slogan. “A nation that does not know how to summarize the lessons of its own history is not a serious nation.”

Pu Zhiqiang, a former student who became one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers, said Mr. Jiang’s greatest accomplishment was his quiet but consistent refusal to do anything that betrayed his values. “He didn’t go against his own nature for the sake of his influence, or his bosses, or the propaganda cameras,” said Pu Zhiqiang, a former student who became one of China’s most prominent human rights lawyers.

Ultimately, he said, Mr. Jiang had maintained a “normal mentality” amid wildly changing circumstances. “But I think in the next generation, there aren’t so many people who can do that.”

Mr. Jiang’s second wife, Cui Qi, died in July. He is survived by a son, Jiang Bo, and a daughter, Jiang Fan, as well as an older sister, Jiang Weishan, and two grandchildren.

Mr. Jiang’s famous optimism began to waver in recent years, as the political environment deteriorated. But he never lost his passion for teaching younger generations about the law’s potential, speaking with students until his final days.

“We should have a spirit of tolerance, which is to say to what extent can we compromise with reality?” Mr. Jiang told a Chinese publication in 2009. “Don’t feel bad about compromising. Time will slowly change everything.”

Vivian Wang is a China correspondent based in Beijing, where she writes about how the country’s global rise and ambitions are shaping the daily lives of its people. More about Vivian Wang

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