The Power of One

Li Hua Tong is bringing justice to China’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged

Li Hua TongThe Beijing Zhicheng Public Interest Law Firm is China’s largest non-government organisation dedicated to providing free legal services to children, women and migrant workers. As of 2015, it has dealt with more than 30,000 cases and provided services to more than 400,000 people. These are overwhelming numbers by any standard, not surprisingly because it is taking place in a country with a population four times the size of the USA and more than 50 times that of Australia.

However, one cannot fully appreciate this achievement without understanding the environment it operated in and the humble beginnings of its founder and CEO, UTS alumnus Li Hua Tong.

“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.”

Elaborating on the legal climate of that time, Tong explains, “Children suffered physical and sexual abuse from parents and teachers. There were already some special laws in place to protect children’s rights, but we needed more specific laws and policies.” Another challenge was convincing lawyers and government officials to implement new executive laws and policies.

In 1999, Tong used his personal funds to set up the Beijing Children’s Legal Aid and Research Centre, the first non-government organisation in China dedicated to providing pro-bono legal services to children.

“For the first two years, I had no idea about fundraising. I just thought it was only natural that if I wanted to work in this field, I would have to pay,” he confesses. “Then one day in 2001, a foundation officer told me he’d like to offer financial support, and asked if I could write a proposal.

“He called me back two weeks later asking why I didn’t submit a proposal, and that’s when I realised that a public interest law firm could be supported by other organisations.”

He has since been involved in the creation of 29 child protection committees at a provincial level, and a further 90 at a city level. He also helped create a network of more than 9000 lawyers nationwide who work on child protection.

The eldest of two children, Tong grew up in a rural village in Hebei, in northern China. His first aspiration was simply to become a city resident because “life is very poor for farmers.” That dream expanded to become a police officer, a government officer, or a judge, after a number of what he describes as “unfair” experiences.

“I was really inspired by his superhero stories, especially of the swordsmen who’d help disadvantaged people achieve justice.”

Tong also became concerned for the environment at age 14, when he witnessed entire mountainsides being stripped of trees by local farmers.

Interestingly, as his desire to make a positive difference to society took root, Tong was an avid reader of Louis Cha wuxia (action genre) novels.

“I was really inspired by his superhero stories,” he says, “especially of the swordsmen who’d help disadvantaged people achieve justice.”

In 1991, Tong went to study at the China University of Political Science and Law. He was the first from his county to study at this university. After graduating, he didn’t specialise in any particular field. “It was a very early time for Chinese lawyers back then,” he explains. “It wasn’t like Australia or the US where there is a lot of history and structure… as long as the clients could pay, I worked on any cases I could get.”

He enjoyed quick success. Within two and a half years, he was made the deputy director of the law firm he worked at. A year later, he became a director; and one of Beijing’s youngest, at that.

But it wasn’t the success he was looking for. “As a young commercial lawyer, I had a car, I had bought an apartment and I was earning a good income. I was living a good life compared with other people my age,” he explains. “But I didn’t feel satisfied with my life, so I continued with my studies and started getting involved in public interest work.”

In 2002, through a partnership with the Beijing Management College of Political Science and Law, Tong undertook UTS’s Masters of Laws program. After completing it in 2004, he went to Columbia University in the US for more than a year as a visiting scholar.

“It was very important for me to broaden my understanding of other countries’ legal systems. China has benefited a lot over the last 30 years from its open policy, and a lot of the comparative research conducted by academics includes my studies at UTS and abroad.”

To whit, Tong and his organisation have been able to help draft reform legislation for the protection of abandoned and homeless children, child welfare, labour disputes and more.

His work with migrant workers (workers who have moved between provinces) began in 2003 when two of his childhood friends moved to the city and had trouble being paid for their work. He resolved their disputes within a week but, as with children’s legal aid, he felt that there was a lot more he could do to help. And so, after two years of study and research in the field, he expanded his operations in 2005 to provide free legal assistance to migrant workers and women under the name Zhicheng Public Interest Layers. Together with 30 other affiliated organisations, it has won more than RMB600 million in payments and compensation for his clients to date.

Reflecting on his achievements compared with his life as a young commercial lawyer, Tong remarks, “I have worked very hard in the public interest field for the last 15 years and we have changed a lot for children and migrant workers. We’re promoting more lawyers to work in those fields and we’re now able to promote legal and policy reform. In this context, I can see my work and my life’s meaning. And it’s good.”

However, there is a lot of work that remains to be done. While most foreign commentators observe that Chinese society is progressing and changing at a rapid rate, Tong thinks it isn’t fast enough.

“I hope it can be faster,” he says. “In some fields, especially in the rule of law, there are so many problems that I just want the reforms to happen faster.”

Despite achieving so much in policy reform and being recognised as an expert in the legislative community at a national level, Tong has no desire to enter politics. Instead, his continuing work is driven by continual self-evaluation.

“In China, we have an old saying that you should introspect yourself three times a day,” he explains.

“I always think about what I can do better, if I could work more, or study more… If I can change myself, then I can change the outside world. I ask myself this a lot, and it drives me to have more new ideas and do more good work.”

Mr Tong and Zhicheng Public Interest Lawyers host international students including UTS to broaden their global network. Visit the UTS Faculty of Law website for more information.

Story and photography by Kevin Cheung

Profile of Li Hua Tong

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