Giving a voice to the voiceless in a highly complex political environment, Li Hua Tong is a leading global advocate for the rights of children, women and migrant workers.
In 1999, the public interest lawyer used his personal funds to establish the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Centre, the first non-government organisation (NGO) dedicated to providing pro bono legal services to children in the People’s Republic of China.
"More lawyers must stand up and fight for the rights and dignity of our most vulnerable people."
Determined to extend this life-transforming access to justice, Tong expanded operations to include legal assistance to migrant workers and women in China, later adding the protection of farmers’ rights and environmental issues to the portfolio. Operating under the new name Zhicheng Public Interest Lawyers, more than 400,000 children and migrant workers have already benefited from his work.
Tong leads by example, encouraging other lawyers in China to take on pro bono work. Globally, he continues to advocate tirelessly for policy and legislative reform. Diplomats and members of the international civil society community regularly use his views and the work of his organisation as an indicator of reform.
Forming the largest and most influential NGO in China is, in itself, a significant achievement for the Master of Laws (2004) graduate. But perhaps even more remarkable is the support he garnered from Chinese authorities for establishment of an independent legal NGO dedicated to helping a sizeable section of the population whose voices would otherwise go unheard.
The considerable impact of his inspirational work hasn’t gone unnoticed – he’s in receipt of over 80 awards, amongst them the prestigious International Bar Association Pro Bono Award in 2012. But Tong isn’t in it for the accolades.
"When I was around 14, I began to I care about a lot of environmental issues. There was a lot of deforestation around my village and the mountains were left bare. I also cared about a lot of social issues," says Tong.
"When I was young, I read a lot of wuxia (a period genre, with Chinese superheroes) novels. One of my favourite authors is Louis Cha. I really admired the heroes in those books, and they inspired me to help others in need."
“I was born in a poor village and have insight into the lives of vulnerable groups in China,” he recalls. “In these times of rapid growth in China, we need to increase our efforts to address the continued disadvantage of such groups. More lawyers must stand up and fight for the rights and dignity of our most vulnerable people.”
The Power of One
“When I first started working in children’s legal aid in 1998, I didn’t want to be a full-time advocate. I thought maybe I’d work in the field part-time,” he recalls. “There were not many others working in this field as it was a very new, and I realised very soon that there were many problems.”
Find out more in this Tower Magazine interview with Li Hua Tong.
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