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Her smile is reliably there each day in the offices and corridors of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Few are aware that Yi Tong’s smile was her principal means of defense in dealing with policemen and guards during nine months in a Beijing prison cell and almost three years of beatings in a forced labor camp in her native China. “It’s not something she wears on her sleeve, it’s what she carries in her heart,” said Gibson partner Randy M. Mastro of Tong, 35, a third-year litigation associate. “Yes, her smile lights up a room. But unless you ask her to talk about her life, you don’t know the incredible ordeal she went through to get to this point.” Peter J. Beshar, another Gibson partner who has likewise come to know Tong, counseled a reporter, “This isn’t just a lawyer story, this is a story about courage.” In 1994, when she could hardly imagine earning a master’s degree in political science at Columbia University and a juris doctorate from Columbia Law School, Tong worked in Beijing as chief aide and translator to the renowned Chinese pro-democracy polemicist Wei Jingsheng, whose work she came to admire as a student demonstrator during the bloody Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. She met a foreign visitor in ’94: Robert L. Bernstein, the former president and chairman of Random House, founder of Human Rights Watch and benefactor of the Bernstein fellowships in international human rights at Yale Law School. “I was there to meet with Wei Jingsheng. She [Tong] was our interpreter,” said Bernstein, who proposed to publish Jingsheng’s letters and political essays. “He insisted on a contract. I said it wasn’t necessary. But he insisted, and so [Tong] wrote it up and delivered it to my hotel. “As it turned out, that was very fortunate. Some of the letters got loose, and someone else was going to publish them — but I was able to produce what turned out to be a valid contract.” Shortly after their meeting, Tong was detained by the Beijing police, interrogated and jailed in the Chinese capital. Accused of falsely using an official Chinese government stamp in connection with applications to leave the country to further her studies in the U.S., she was transferred to the Hewan Re-education-Through-Labor Camp in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where Tong’s parents still live as retired factory workers. “Before I went to labor camp, I was determined to do something as a dissident,” said Tong in an interview at her midtown Manhattan office. “I was mentally prepared to confront, and to suffer.” She described the Chinese “re-education” system as an administrative rather than judicial authority, and “totally controlled by the police, with no checks and balances, with no law, only petty regulations.” Suffering was swift for Tong, who described her 18-hour workday in an interview with the Chinese News Digest shortly after arriving in New York in 1997: “Where does cotton yarn come from? It’s made by breaking cloth into fabric, by human hands. This was what I was doing … Some cloth was so hard to break, like a dead knot, there was no way to pull the fabric out. So what could you do? We had to use nails. Sometimes it cut into our flesh. There was absolutely no way one could make the quota. This is the way they extorted our labor, in order to increase profit margin for those ‘Education-through-Labor’ and ‘Reform-through-Labor’ institutions, to sustain the machine of violence.” Tong organized a hunger strike, demanding an eight-hour workday. For this, she was punched, kicked and beaten by other detainees seeking to curry favor with the guards. Skin was peeled from her face. With the personal help of Bernstein — along with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and Columbia University — Tong’s plight became a cause c�l�bre at the 1995 United Nations Women’s Conference, held in Beijing, and the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. “I miss China, I miss my parents,” said Tong. “I hope to return some day to a democratic China — as a lawyer, or especially a judge. “The law gives me the power of persuasion, logic, the ability to make a presentation — all the things necessary to push for change in China,” she said. “I think I am creating new history. When you look at the [U.S.] Chinese community, 95 percent go into the sciences. But the trouble of China is law and social sciences and public policy. A very tiny percentage [of Chinese students in the U.S.] go to the law. “In my class [of 400 at Columbia Law], eight were from mainland China. Seven of my classmates practice corporate law.” When Tong joined Gibson in 2000, she, too, landed in the corporate department. After a month, she opted for litigation. “To be a competent American litigator is very daunting,” she said, particularly for someone not born to American cultural references. “In the labor camps, it was intellectually simple. Here [in litigation practice], you must use your intellect. There is so much to learn. “At what point do I overcome the cultural gap? When I learn to engage well in small talk with Americans. I cannot do that from books. I must just do it.” On larger matters of conversation, Mastro has no doubt of her capability. “I saw her give a speech at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, an organization that has heard many dramatic stories,” said Mastro. “She spoke without notes, with dignity and a reserve of strength that will serve her well as a litigator. She wowed that crowd. “We litigators pride ourselves on passionate advocacy and rational thought,” Mastro added. “Yi Tong brings great passion and principle from her experiences, and her drive and intellectual rigor will see her excel here in the law — in the same way it will compel her to reform her homeland.” Tong remains in touch with Beijing dissidents, most notably with the writer and philosopher Jiang Qisheng, who has recently emerged from four years in prison. To ease some of his personal pressure as he continues his activism in China, Tong and Bernstein now provide Qisheng’s son with an American college education. Additionally, Tong continues her efforts to gain passports that would allow her parents to travel from Wuhan to New York. She has not seen them since leaving China. “They were not allowed to come to her graduation [from Columbia Law],” said Bernstein. “So [my wife] and I filled in as parents. It was very moving. I’m filled with emotion as I speak. “They were not allowed to be here on her wedding day. So Helen and I were there,” he added. “The Chinese government is petty and nasty if you disagree with them.” Tong found her own way of dealing with Chinese authority. When she was released from the labor camp in Wuhan, a guard warned her, “Don’t try to set yourself against the government.” Tong smiled inscrutably, and replied, “I don’t know what that means.”

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