Legal eagles

Why CCTV’s ‘rule of law’ drama is winning over few fans

Jiang Shuying-w

In the legal hot seat: Jiang Shuying stars in Lady of Law

Over the years, courtroom dramas have offered some pretty memorable quotes. For instance, there’s Jack Nicholson famous line: “You can’t handle the truth!” at the end of A Few Good Men in 1992. In Erin Brockovich eight years later Julia Roberts comes out with the quip: “I hate lawyers; I just work for them.”

China’s latest legal series also hopes to make a lasting impression. The 40-episode series, Lady of Law, which started airing on CCTV last week (with Tencent Video owning the streaming rights), follows Xu Jie, played by actress Jiang Shuying, as she is recruited as a trainee at a new law firm. There, she meets another female lawyer Chen Ran (Liu Mintao). The two don’t get along initially but over time they come to understand each other and work together to ensure that ‘justice is served’.

Or as Xu says in one episode: “In the fairy tales, there are pumpkins and heroes that protect princesses, but in reality we can just rely on the law to protect our rights.”

In another scene, Chen adds: “Justice will never be absent.”

The Global Times was quick to sing the praises to the show, suggesting that in China, there has been a lot of interest about women’s rights and the law. The Supreme People’s Court of China also promoted the TV series on Wednesday on its social media account, listing 19 cases in the series that can show people the role of the law in maintaining justice. The timing of the series is interesting, coming at a time when legal experts have argued that China’s draconian efforts to stamp out Omicron-fuelled outbreaks – such as forcibly removing residents who test negative from their homes and into quarantine facilities – shows that there is lessening confidence in China’s rule of law.

Tong Zhiwei, a constitutional-studies professor at Shanghai’s East China University of Political Science and Law, wrote in an open letter that the forcible removal of residents to quarantine facilities was illegal and should be stopped. He argues that local officials forcing residents to hand over the keys to their homes so they could be disinfected has no legal basis and it was tantamount to an illegal trespass.

Meanwhile, Shanghai lawyer Liu Dali also called for an investigation into the legality of measures that saw police and other officials force people into quarantine facilities – even if they had tested negative – simply because a neighbour was infected.

“Constitutional and legal experts have expressed concerns both privately and publicly that some of the harshest control measures lack sufficient legal basis, while others are simply extra-legal and represent a complete overstep of officials’ authority,” Wang Xiangwei, former editor-in-chief at the South China Morning Post, wrote in his column last week.

Despite the Global Times’s enthusiastic endorsements, netizens, did not appear too keen about Lady of Law. On Douban, the TV series and film review site, the show was given no ratings, which happens usually when ratings are so miserable that producers of the show request that the platform disable the function.

Judging from the comments, netizens seem to have a big problem with the casting decisions. For a start, Xu, 36 in the show, is given a love interest, a 28 year-old intern at the law firm, played by actor Peng Yuchang.

“We are supposed to believe that Xu Jie is an elite in the workplace and she certainly behaves like one every time she’s on screen. However, Peng Yuchang looks so juvenile and immature so not only are they are not compatible on screen he also doesn’t even look like someone who should even be seen in the same workplace,” one complains.

“Watching them feels like watching a high schooler falling in love with his stepmom,” another wrote dismissively.

The show also cast the actor Liu Zhibing as Chen’s father. In real life, the two are just a little more than a decade apart since Liu is 46 years old. “Watching Liu Mintao call Liu Zhibing [they are not related] ‘father’ really felt very awkward. At first glance, the two look like husband and wife. But tragically, the show has to make them father and daughter,” Sina Entertainment lambasts.

Many say that it is not convincing to see Xu, who shows up with bright red lipstick and a big attitude to match in every scene, play a lawyer-in-training. Even though Chen Ran is her senior at the firm, her attitude doesn’t seem to match her credentials. After Xu Jie’s arrival, most of the negotiations are done by her while Chen sits on the sidelines. Xu is also the one who seems to push the case forward, Sina Entertainment added. “If anything, it almost feels like Chen is Xu’s assistant, not the other way round,” the portal queries.

Even though the show calls itself a legal drama, most of the cases are resolved outside of the courtroom. In one case a pregnant woman named Zheng Yan is fired after telling her employer she’s pregnant. Worse, her manager gets her ex-boyfriend, who also happens to be working for the same company, to give a false testimony that Zheng was not performing in the workplace. Zheng asks for help from Xu and Chen’s office to sue the company for violating labour laws.

But Xu, furious that her client has been unreasonably laid off because of her pregnancy, adopts an approach to justice that is more Jack Reacher than a case study for the rule of law: she finds the ex-boyfriend and kicks him multiple times. She even tells Chen afterwards that, “It is everyone’s responsibility to beat the hell out of scumbags.”

“How the case is handled is extremely unprofessional,” Sina Entertainment expresses with disbelief. 

Another case involves the story of a single mother (a former internet influencer) Zhang Wei as she fights for custody rights. Prior to the divorce, her conniving husband transfers all his assets away from his name and even makes it look like his ex-wife has a mountain of debt. But after Chen intervenes – delivering an empathetic speech about the unconditional love of a mother – he raplidly changes his mind and offers to share custody with her.

“This whole development makes the ex-husband’s scheming look so unnecessary. If he’d only known that Zhang doesn’t want anything from him but only visitation rights, why did he go through the trouble of transferring away all his assets and creating the illusion that she was heavily in debt?” Sina Entertainment asks incredulously.

The biggest problem with the show, critics argue, is that it has nothing to do with the actual workings of the law. “After Chen-Xu joined forces the two seem to be invincible, winning one incredible lawsuit after another. But the problem is, most of the lawsuits are not resolved under the existing legal framework. Instead, they were achieved through Xu Jie’s calculation, scheming, and tricks behind the scenes. Could this be the true portrayal of lawyers’ work?” one critic questioned.

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