When Guo Guoting pauses to think about the course his life has taken, it is the jagged lines, the result of a series of accidents, that impress him most.
As a college student, he set his sights on physics, but his score on the graduate study exam betrayed him, so he ended up studying law instead.
After graduation from law school, he was sent by the government to be a judge in Fujian Province. Upon arriving there, he was told that what the courts really needed was lawyers, so Mr. Guo complied and went into practice.
Mr. Guo eventually settled in Shanghai, where he became established in shipping law. Here, his life was altered once again by events more unexpected than anything that had come before. His troubles began when he heard about a law school classmate who had been jailed for taking on the Shanghai authorities over the sudden eviction of neighborhoods marked for real estate development.
The classmate, Zheng Enchong, had not been a close friend. Mr. Guo said he barely recalled him, in fact. But hearing the man had been jailed – after a five-hour secret trial – for filing hundreds of lawsuits on behalf of dispossessed Shanghai residents, and recognizing that no other lawyers would represent him for fear of being blacklisted, or worse, Mr. Guo said he felt compelled to step forward.
“I wasn’t being a hero,” said Mr. Guo, 46, a short, affable man previously known by his colleagues more for his strong work ethic and modesty than for crusading. “I was doing the right thing.”
The rest, as they say, is history, personal history of the brutal, hard-knock variety commonplace in China, a place that may be changing rapidly in many ways but where one old rule endures: you can’t fight City Hall.
Since he was a young man, Mr. Guo said, he has dreamed of a quiet life in a small village somewhere, a life in the shadows of a mountain in a small house close enough to a river or brook to hear the gurgling flow of the water from his study.
“I don’t like arguments,” he said, chuckling at himself, during a interview in a restaurant atop a skyscraper affording one of the best views of this city’s skyline. “I don’t even enjoy social intercourse so much, to tell the truth. My kind of personality really isn’t suited for being a lawyer.”
For his efforts to defend a friend and principle, Mr. Guo has recently been driven from the law, deprived of a livelihood after most of his paying clientele was scared away, but not before adding his name to a long and growing roll of accidental activists, people driven to do something in their own immediate spheres by the intolerable injustices they encounter in everyday life.