Jinjin Li’s path through Madison to a legal career in the U.S.

by Laurie Dennis

Jim Li, an alum of the University of Wisconsin Law School, was killed March 14, 2022.

News of immigration attorney Jinjin “Jim” Li’s murder March 14, 2022, at his office in New York City was shocking not only to Chinese legal circles, but also to those who knew him from his years as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

“He was a good person who deeply believed that a life of human dignity required constitutionally-protected freedoms, and who wanted to advance that cause for the Chinese people,” said Emeritus Political Science Professor Edward Friedman, who recalled time spent discussing Chinese labor politics with Dr. Li during the late 1990s.

“The world needs more people like Jinjin Li,” said Emeritus Law Professor Charles Irish, founding director of the Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Center, and a member of the reading committee for Dr. Li’s Master of Law (LLM) degree in 1995 and for his Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) degree in 1998.

According to the New York Times and other sources, Dr. Li was killed in an attack at his office in Queens. Police have arrested a 25-year-old woman from China, whose immigration case Dr. Li is reported to have refused to accept. The woman is currently being held without bail and charged with murder.

Dr. Li’s path to a legal career in New York City led through Madison, where he spent almost four years in the late 1990s transitioning from a Chinese labor rights activist to an American attorney.

“He spent his best time in Madison,” said fellow Queens attorney Wayne Zhu, who officiated at the March 27 memorial service for Dr. Li, which was attended by over 300 people, including prominent members of the Chinese legal and dissident communities. “His son enjoyed his adolescence in Madison as well.”

China’s 1989 Democracy Movement

Born in 1955 in Wuhan, Dr. Li served in the People’s Liberation Army and, after China’s Cultural Revolution, received a bachelor’s degree in law from the Hubei University of Finance and Economics. He continued his legal studies at Beijing’s prestigious Peking University, where he chaired the graduate student association.

When protests erupted in the heart of Beijing in the spring of 1989 (a movement that ended in the infamous June Fourth Tiananmen Square Massacre), Dr. Li was a 33-year-old graduate student focused on constitutional law, with a wife and young son. In interviews and writings about China’s democracy movement, he has described how he quickly became swept up in the activism emanating from Peking University and was soon being asked legal questions about worker’s rights, including the right to strike, in part because he was wearing a sunhat emblazoned with the phrase “Peking University Constitutional Law Doctoral Student.”

Jinjin Li as a student leader in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square during the spring of 1989.

As he recalled in a 2018 interview with medium.com blogger Grace Wong: “I began to think that this was not a student movement, but a people’s movement. So I made efforts to organize a workers’ movement. With two workers, Han Dongfang at the lead, I encouraged them to start a union under my guidance. I ended up being the legal consultant for the group. I explained to them their rights and how to effectively organize an activist group step-by-step.”  This group would eventually become the Beijing Workers’ Autonomous Federation, for which Dr. Li drafted the inaugural statement: “Our old unions were welfare organizations. But now we will create a union that is not a welfare organization, but one concerned with workers’ rights.”  The BWAF lasted only fourteen days, ended by the military crackdown the night of June 3-4. Dr. Li was among those arrested in the aftermath.

Dr. Li’s first wife, Hong Ou-yang, described the frightening time of the arrest in a 30th anniversary reflection on June Fourth published by the independent online news service Boxun News. She wrote of how she went with her mother-in-law to try to find where Dr. Li was being held to deliver him clothes and books, and of her sorrow at witnessing the “sparsely populated, desolate place with high-walled power grids” where her husband was being detained.

Dr. Li was not released until April 22, 1991. In February 1993, he was issued a passport and allowed to leave China for the U.S.  He began his American sojourn at Columbia University, but soon transferred to the UW Law School to resume his studies in law. Back in China, Peking University had expelled him, and his friends recalled that in the U.S., Dr. Li struggled with English.

The Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Center

Law was not a common pursuit for the first mainland Chinese students who came to American universities once academic connections resumed between the countries in the post-Cultural Revolution “Reform and Opening” period. Though UW-Madison, under the leadership of Chancellor Irving Shain, became a top destination, most mainland Chinese students came to Madison to study engineering or science. Among the first 461 such students and visiting scholars to enroll at UW-Madison in the period 1979-1984, none studied law.

Fortunately for Dr. Li and others, however, in 1990 Professor Irish had established the Law School’s East Asian Legal Studies Center as a place for students and scholars to pursue research on law in East and Southeast Asia.  “China was not a major player in the Center’s calculations,” said Professor Irish.  “Instead, we were focused on Japan, Korea and Taiwan – and a bit in Thailand. Jinjin came to us from Columbia, which had by far the most active program for Chinese legal scholars. In most cases, when a Chinese student came to Wisconsin from Columbia it was because their English skills were not sufficient for them to continue their studies at Columbia.”  It is likely that Dr. Li’s move from Columbia to Madison was facilitated by the Committee on Legal Education Exchange with China (CLEEC), a Ford Foundation-sponsored network of legal scholars in the U.S. who supported Chinese legal reforms.

The Li Family in Madison

Ms. Ou-yang recalled the time spent in Madison as a happy respite after the years of difficulty for Jinjin Li. Like other international students around them, Ms. Ou-yang said they found jobs in local restaurants to make ends meet, shopped at garage sales, and took their son trick-or-treating during Halloween. She also recalled Dr. Li’s commitment to his academic goals. “When Jinjin started his studies for an LLM and SJD, he would record lectures so that, when he could not understand the English, he could listen to the class content over and over again back at home,” she wrote in prepared remarks read at the March 27 memorial service. “I was so moved by his earnest ability to overcome hardship.”

The signature page from Jinjin Li’s 1998 Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD) degree.

The family was able to reunite in Madison with a Peking University law school classmate and friend, Ms. Jiuhua Wang.  “At the University of Wisconsin in the United States, Jinjin and Jiuhua successively studied for a doctorate in law under the guidance of the same professor,” Ms. Ou-yang noted in her reflection on the June Fourth aftermath, referring to Emeritus Professor W. Lawrence Church, their doctoral advisor. “Our children also spent a happy childhood together.”

Colleagues said Dr. Li kept a low profile on campus. He lived with his family in Eagle Heights and became a fan of the Badgers and the Packers.  “He did not talk about his time in prison,” said Professor Friedman.

The titles of Li and Wang’s academic works reflect their continuing interest in Chinese law even as they took classes in contracts, corporations and other aspects of American jurisprudence. Dr. Wang’s 1997 doctoral (SJD) thesis was titled, “Reform of the legal profession in China: Comparative analyses with the experience of the United States,” while Dr. Li’s the next year was, “China’s Family Planning Program: Policies, Regulations, and Implementation.”

Dr. Li’s earlier master’s thesis, titled “Freedom of Speech in China,” was dedicated to Beijing human rights activist and dissident Wei Jingsheng, who was being sentenced to a second prison term as Dr. Li was finishing his thesis. The work reviewed the history of laws and policies related to freedom of speech and the press in China, and cited his own case in the footnotes. “The verdict of Jinlin Li charged him with the call ‘Remove (impeach) Li Peng,’” he wrote in footnote 132, referring to the fourth premier of the PRC.  The thesis concluded with an outline of the problems China then faced:

To establish the principle of free speech, we must first rebut the rationale of authoritarianism that political stability is preferable to all else. Free speech may bring political instability, but only in reaction to a despotic society. Political instability results from suppressing freedom of speech, not from freedom of speech itself. In a democratic society freedom of speech is a healthy means to maintain political stability. Chinese history teaches us that is a dangerous game to sacrifice political freedoms, including freedom of speech, in order to maintain a political stability under an autocracy.

A Career Focused on Immigration and China

After graduating, Dr. Li returned to New York, where he passed the New York bar in 1998 and opened a law practice in Queens specializing in immigration. In 2004, he qualified to appear before the United States Supreme Court, and in August 2010 served as the lead attorney in Bi Xia Qu v. Holder, 618 F.3d 602 (6th Cir. 2010), which held that women who are sold or forced into marriage and involuntary servitude are a “particular social group” for asylum law purposes.

Dr. Li also remained involved in pro-democracy projects, advising advocacy groups and speaking to the media in both English and Chinese about Chinese legal topics. In 2011, he published a memoir in Chinese with Mirror Media Group, with a title that translates into English as “From the Peoples’ Square to the Qincheng Prison.” He served as director of Human Rights in China and chair of the supervisory board of the China Democracy Party National Committee.

“He felt that law, and narrowly constitutional law, is very important for the transformation of China,” said Xiaoping Chen (SJD, 2012), who followed Dr. Li’s recommendation to come to Madison and study with Professor Church. “He had dreams for China, even after 1989. But he started to change his mind in the last few years and became less optimistic about transformation.”

At Sunday’s memorial service, Dr. Li’s younger brother expressed hopes that Jim Li & Associates can remain open.

“Jinjin was a big tree, which spread seeds on the earth,” said Wayne Zhu. “He is always living in our hearts. I appreciate UW-Madison for remembering the amazing life of Jinjin.”

Jinjin Li, at right, and Xiaoping Chen both received SJD degrees from the UW-Madison Law School. They stayed in touch over the years and are seen here on a July 2021 broadcast of Mingjing News.