Chinese are learning to sue government and win

Some hope rule of law will lead, in time, to democratization

April 29, 1999|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- Several years ago, police in North China's Hebei Province tried to extort money from a farmer by beating him until he confessed to an assault for which he hadn't even been present.

After he spent two years in jail, the man's family hired a Beijing attorney, who won a reversal and then sued local police. The department settled last year, paying the man more than $3,600 -- a huge sum by the standards of rural China.

With the help of new laws and increasingly sophisticated attorneys, more and more Chinese people are doing something that a decade ago would have been impossible: taking the government to court and winning.

A 10-fold increase

Since China's administrative litigation law was established in 1989, the annual number of suits against the government has risen from more than 9,000 to nearly 100,000 last year.

About 35 percent of the plaintiffs either win their cases, persuade the government to mend its ways or receive some sort of settlement, according to justice officials.

The rise in administrative suits is part of a continuing litigation boom. While the nation's authoritarian regime continues to strictly limit political rights, Chinese are increasingly exercising their legal ones.

Communist leaders hope that stronger courts will bring order out of the relative chaos brought on by the country's shift from a command economy to a more market-oriented one.

As incomes have risen and people have begun purchasing cars and homes, Chinese have developed a stronger sense of individual property and their rights to protect it.

Citizens now haul retailers into court over shoddy goods or litigate against industrial polluters for damaging their communities and businesses.

The right to directly sue the government goes a step further, permitting people to hold local authorities accountable for abuse of power -- a constant and potentially explosive problem in a country where rural officials often run roughshod over the populace.

"This is a system to protect human rights," says Luo Haocai, vice president of China's Supreme People's Court.

"This shows that in court, the civilians are treated equally with government officials."

Theoretically.

Abuses persist

Despite progress, favoritism and injustice abound in China's legal system, which at times seems mired in the nation's feudal past.

Authorities in Inner Mongolia have held an ailing Hong Kong businessman for more than eight months without charges in lieu of a former employer's debt.

Dissidents Qin Yongmin and Wang Youcai, who helped found China's first political opposition party, had to represent themselves in closed trials last year because police either detained or intimidated the lawyers they had planned to hire.

Their conviction was never in doubt. Qin and Wang were sentenced to 12 and 11 years respectively.

Those who can find attorneys to take their cases sometimes wish they had never filed them in the first place.

Whistle-blower suffers

Wang Rizhong, a worker at a factory in the eastern city of Hangzhou, blew the whistle on company managers in 1994 for evading taxes. He subsequently lost his job and was put under police surveillance.

Pressure from the Chinese media pushed the local tax office to finally investigate the charges three years later. Officials ordered the company to pay the $25,000 it owed, but refused to give Wang a reward as required by law.

The court found in Wang's favor after he filed suit. But the tax bureau gave him just $240 -- nowhere near the more than $8,500 he had spent pursuing the company and the case.

This month, his brother is expected to lose his house because Wang can't meet payments on a loan he took out to pay legal fees.

"If I had known that this would drag on for four years and my family would be persecuted, I would never have done this," says Wang, 41. "I believe in justice, but even the law could not protect me."

Earlier this year, Chinese judicial officials publicly acknowledged that the legal system is riddled with corruption and hack jurists. Torturing suspects, arresting witnesses and bribing judges with money and housing are not uncommon.

The government is trying to improve the quality of judges.

Officials say some judges -- other observers say most -- do not even have undergraduate law degrees. They earn from $120 to $480 a month, depending on the region.

Improvements on bench

China established a national judges' college in 1997. Last year, the government either fired or transferred out of the system about some 4,000 court staff and a few judges.

More than 200 were prosecuted for crimes.

This year, for the first time, the court has begun recruiting law professors, experienced attorneys and legal staffers to fill positions on the bench.

"From now on, we won't recruit those without legal backgrounds," says Luo.

The development of China's legal system has been an evolutionary one. Flight 2138 is a case in point.

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