HONG Jun was an unusual attorney in 1990s China, when most crime lawyers did no investigation, dealt mostly with paperwork and only bothered to read up on their defense when they got to court.
Hong, who had studied and practiced law in the United States, was different. He dug up evidence like a detective and went deep into cases while successfully handling the hated bureaucracy that was so prevalent at the time.
Hong is fictional — the central character of the book series “Hong Investigates,” five crime novels written by He Jiahong, a law professor at Renmin University of China specializing in criminal law and law education.
Penguin has recently published “Black Holes,” in which Hong takes on a case to defend a young and ambitious stock trader, Xia Zhe, who is indicted for corporate fraud and later involved in murder cases. “Hanging Devils,” the first of the series, is also available in English.
He has also written non-fiction books about the legal system and law education in China, including “Top Ten Wrongful Convictions in China,” recently published in Chinese.
“From the very beginning, I wanted Hong to be a role model for all lawyers, an idealistic image of how lawyers should have been,” He, the mastermind behind Hong the lawyer, tells Shanghai Daily.
“He is a junzi, a man of noble character, with a strong sense of justice, with a certain sense of humor, almost perfect. In that sense, I might have made him too perfect to seem real.”
Like Hong, the law professor He went to the US and was impressed by how different the legal scene, especially in the area of criminal law, was. In 1991, he published a book on the role of detectives in the US, just as the first batch of private detectives were appearing in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing.
During his stay in the US, He also read many crime novels, which reminded him of his passion for Sherlock Holmes stories and his love for writing.
“When I was in China, like others of my generation, I thought only of a hard-working and concrete job, not something so abstract and creative like writing,” he recalls. “But it all came back when I was in the US.”
Not long after the law professor, born in the 1950s, came back to China, he started the Hong series, at first as a serial in a daily legal newspaper in 1994.
But He faced a big problem.
“The government made an official announcement forbidding the practice of private detectives in 1993, just before I started writing the stories,” he explains. “So for my detective series, I couldn’t have a detective!”
He soon thought of a lawyer, and more specifically a crime lawyer who had been teaching law and came back from overseas.
“In the United States, lawyers are very important. They play key roles in reality and in TV, movies or novels. There is a whole culture genre about law,” he says. “But not here, not in China, then, or even now.”
“At the time, the structure of the system made it very difficult for crime lawyers to actually do anything other than a simple routine of reviewing the file, meeting the suspect and basically defending by saying nice things about the suspect rather than digging out strong evidence against the prosecutors.”
At that time, lawyers were hired only a few days before the court case opened, which left them no time for investigation. They also were hindered from meeting and talking to witnesses, getting to the crime scene or collecting other evidence.
“It has been greatly improved, but still you face a lot of difficulties as a Chinese crime lawyer, which partly explains why good lawyers all go to corporate or transaction, where there is more money and less trouble,” He says.
His first story, “Hanging Devils,” was inspired by a wrongful conviction that, in a rare circumstance, was publicly reported. A man was convicted of murder largely because his blood type matched that left at the crime scene. DNA testing was in its early phase and wasn’t available in this rural case.
No other suspects had matching blood types but years later it was discovered that it’s possible in very rare cases for a person to have a blood type that can change, which was thought to be the case for one of the other suspects. It turned out that his blood did match the crime scene.
Four years after the crime, a robbery suspect admitted that he knew the killer and told prosecutors what happened. That was when the wrongly convicted man was freed.
“I felt very strongly about the case, and I felt I had to write it out,” He recalls.
In addition to wrongful convictions, He also wanted to explore the question of whether humans were born good or bad, a philosophical question through the ages.
“I think it’s circumstantial. Very few people are extremely good or extremely bad, most people just follow the trend,” he says. “So in the 1970s, there were a lot of good men because the mainstream idea in society was to be a good person, to be kind to others, and to sacrifice individual benefits for the sake of larger purpose.”
“It resonates with the key of the story — two blood types, two personalities — you can either act good or bad depending on the circumstances.”
The idea is further explored in “Black Holes,” where some of the main characters were largely influenced by their experience in the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976) and even seemed to undergo complete personality changes.
“That’s how much political movements could change people,” He says. “For thousands of years, the fundamental idea of traditional Chinese culture was harmony, but the ‘cultural revolution’ had changed everything — teaching people to fight. It damaged the good side of people and induced the bad one.”
He adds, “I think the influence lingers on today.”
The law professor has also been devoted to popularizing the legal system, laws and regulations, another reason behind his writing of crime novels.
“You make law, and then implement it. But more importantly, you have to let people understand it, to follow it, and to make it their habit not to break law,” he says.
“That takes a long time and much more than just handing out a book or giving a few lectures. You have to make them (laws) understandable to everyone, like how Americans simplified and popularized it in novels, TV and movies. We don’t have something like that.”
He has been very active in the media, writing articles, hosting TV programs on crime cases, and getting other legal experts to write for a seasonal journal he started in 2001.