BEIJING - As part of a larger struggle unfolding in China between law and power, authorities have detained a Chinese lawyer who is a leading activist in pushing for the development of rule of law here, after he tried to file a landmark civil suit against the government, according to the lawyer's colleagues.
Zhu Jiuhu, a Beijing attorney, was taken into custody late last Wednesday or early Thursday morning in a hotel room in Yulin city in Shaanxi Province by local police, according to colleagues, after five of his leading clients in the suit had been detained in the preceding days.
Earlier that Wednesday, the colleagues said, lawyers working with Zhu had attempted for a second time to file a lawsuit in the Shaanxi capital of Xian against the provincial government, the Yulin government and lower-level governments for confiscating private investors' oil wells believed to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
The case, which Zhu had been researching for many months, embodies a growing conflict here between citizens and authorities: individuals asserting that their property rights have been violated by government officials, who in turn control the courts that would decide any lawsuit. The detention of the investors' lawyer suggests which side is winning that conflict.
"`The rule of law' is only a beautiful phrase that remains in official documents," said Gao Zhisheng, another Beijing attorney and activist who is considering representing Zhu, despite warnings from State Security that he not get involved in the case. "Laws are worthless in terms of constraining state power. ... The regime does not have the right to do this, but they have the power to do it."
The director of the office for receiving lawsuits at the provincial high court in Xian, which Zhu's colleagues said had refused to take the lawsuit, denied that there had been two failed attempts to file it. The official, who gave only the surname of He when reached by telephone, said he received the papers yesterday.
"We'll study the lawsuit for a period of time and then decide whether to start a case or not," He said.
The detention comes at a time when many in press and legal circles sense that the government is tightening its grip with more arrests, detentions and intimidation of journalists, attorneys and professors who are involved in politically sensitive issues. For more than a month, China has been holding a Hong Kong journalist for a Singapore newspaper; yesterday the government accused the journalist of being a spy.
The detention of Zhu also deals a harsh blow to a strategy employed by him and others for tackling politically difficult cases, by rallying different elements of Chinese civil society - journalists, academics and reformers within the central government - behind a legal cause.
Zhu and his colleagues had believed that such a "legal campaign" might work because their oil case involved private property rights, a hot issue in Beijing policy circles and a concept enshrined last year, on paper, in the nation's constitution.
This case seemed attractive also because the aggrieved included tens of thousands of farmers who had thrown their savings into a rare chance to make money in the countryside.
The case grew from an unusual rural experiment in private enterprise, where individual farmers and entrepreneurs in northern Shaanxi were allowed for almost a decade to drill privately for oil, a resource that normally belongs to the state.
Local authorities seized the roughly 4,300 producing wells in 2003, saying that the drilling had been outlawed by the central government, and eventually offered settlements totaling $157 million, about one-sixth of what investors felt the wells were worth at the time, before rising oil prices further increased their value.
Associates said Zhu, his fellow lawyers and the leading investors had hoped to exploit potential cracks between factions in the government and turn central leaders in Beijing against the provincial and lower-level authorities. Zhu and others in the case had come to believe from friends in government that they might have an ally in Premier Wen Jiabao, the nation's second-ranking leader.
But the recent string of arrests, and State Security's apparent desire to keep Zhu's friends and colleagues in Beijing from promoting the case, suggest that if Zhu and the investors have allies within central government, they are on the losing side.
"It probably remains a hope of the lawyer Zhu and the other investors that such a difference exists" between Beijing and provincial authorities, Gao said in a pessimistic appraisal. "But actually there is no such difference."