He Weifang 贺卫方

He Weifang 贺卫方 is a Chinese law professor affiliated with Peking University (PKU). Before being given tenure at PKU in 1992, he was the editor at Comparative Law 比较法研究 and Peking University Law Journal 中外法学, both published by the university. Aside from his academic life, He is also a popular essayist and social commentator.

He Weifang made his first mark in the judicial reform scene with an article published in Southern Weekly in 1998. In the article, ‘Decommissioned Servicemen Find Their Way to Court’ 复转军人进法院, he criticized the practice of the state assigning demobilized army officers with no legal training to work as judges at courts. The article, which likens the practice to deploying untrained soldiers to perform surgery, drew strong criticism from PLA publications. The resulting political pressure was so intense that Southern Weekly was forced to issue an apology. However, He’s view was subsequently vindicated when the government released a policy denying ex-officers the privileges he had criticised and stipulated that those of them who wished to pursue careers in the judicial system undertake the national law exam.

He’s view on judicial reform can be summed up as follows: 1. Support for judicial independence and the professionalization of Chinese law; and, 2. Precedence of judicial reform over political reform. Recently, his emphasis on independence has shifted from a focus on interference from the government to interference from public opinion and the media. This is, as he has commented, because ‘people’s feelings are not always reliable and can change rapidly. Therefore it is not viable for judgements to be made on the basis of people’s feelings’. He’s wariness of public opinion puts him at odds with He Bing 何兵, another prominent Chinese law scholar, who has called He’s ‘judicial independence’ a euphemism for ‘judicial dictatorship’. He Bing claims that He Weifang’s ideal judicial system would be one that pays no heed either to the party-state or the people.

He Weifang is a consistent and bold advocate for democracy. He was a signatory of Charter 08, a manifesto drafted by Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 and initially signed by over 350 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists. During the heyday of Bo Xilai (for more details, see The China Story Yearbook 2012), He Weifang published an open letter criticizing the Chongqing Model.

He’s hopes for China’s future were best expressed at what was later dubbed the ‘New Xishan Meeting‘ 新西山会议, a closed-door meeting attended by some of the country’s most distinguished intellectuals. At the meeting, He Weifang expressed a belief that China should follow the model of Taiwan, that the Chinese Communist Party should split into different alliances or factions according to their various political inclinations and that Party control over the military should be terminated. He’s speech, which was supposed to be off record, was later leaked and provoked the ire of the ‘leftists’. They denounced the lawyer as ‘One of China’s Ten Biggest Traitors’ as well as being a trojan Party member whose clandestine mission was to sabotage the organisation.

One thing that sets He apart from his peers is his enthusiasm for public debate. As a ‘public intellectual’ rather than merely an academic, he sees enlightening the public as being more important than theoretical research. Since publishing his essay in Southern Weekly, he has established himself as a social commentator; he is a frequently-quoted source on a wide range of topics in the mainstream media. He also blogs and microblogs actively.

In a 2006 interview, He Weifang explained his view of the role of the public intellectual:

I think that public intellectuals should reach beyond narrow disciplines and see the world in a broader perspective. Academic disciplinary divides should never be social divides. The divides within scholarship are created to facilitate our perception of the world. Over-emphasis on such intellectual divisions can only limit us, allowing us but an incomplete perception of the world. As a public intellectual, one should not only have interest in his own discipline but also show interest in general social affairs and have the ability to see things from different angles. An academic background creates the possibility of the public intellectual.

Law is a very social discipline. Society is our laboratory, one in which all our theories get tested. If you say that your discipline is not connected to society, or rather, when you remain silent in the face of society’s shortcomings, observing things that harm the rule of law, I think you lack concern for society, and your credibility as a legal expert should be questioned.

Aside from teaching and writing about law, He is also a prolific essayist who writes on a wide range of subjects from higher education to such diverse topics as the Cultural Revolution and Nazi Germany architecture. His cool-headed prose appeals to liberal-minded readers and often displays his equal knowledge of both China and the West. An essay collection co-authored with the controversial memoir writer Zhang Yihe 章诒和 became a best-seller list and was enthusiastic received among Chinese readers overseas.

He Weifang’s extramural activities have been controversial. In 2011, Fang Zhouzi 方舟子, the science writer known for his anti-fraud campaigns (for more on vigilante Fang, see Chapter 6 in The China Story Yearbook), charged He with failing to satisfy the requirements of scholarly publication, and said that He’s list of recent work was dominated by literary works and opinion pieces rather than serious academic papers.

He’s departure from Peking University in 2008 to take a position at Zhejiang University prompted students to petition the PKU administration to do whatever was necessary to keep him on. When Zhejiang University later revoked its offer for undisclosed reasons, He returned to PKU via a two-year stint at a branch campus in Shihezi, Xinjiang, an appointment viewed by his supporters as retribution from authorities for his general disobedience.

Additional links