The rule of law in China

September 20, 2005|By Trudy Rubin

BEIJING -- One of the most exciting developments in China is the rising awareness at the grass-roots level that ordinary people have legal rights.

Chinese law has long been used as a tool to help the Communist Party control the people; call it rule by law, not rule of law. But the country's staggering pace of growth has spawned all kinds of injustices, including a huge gap between rich and poor fueled by government corruption. The population is looking for redress.

A few years ago, ordinary Chinese would have suffered in silence, afraid to raise their voices. Today, many are taking their grievances to court. A new breed of Chinese public interest lawyer is leading the push to establish real rule of law. The bravest handful of them have argued cases on illegal land grabs and seizures of private property by local officials, on freedom of the press, and on unauthorized taxation.

They've won a few cases that have become legendary among the growing body of Chinese lawyers. Their efforts, and the rising legal consciousness of the Chinese people, hold hope of change from within. Where did this "rights consciousness" originate?

"China is alive with a sense of injustice fueled by the huge gap between rich and poor," says New York University professor Jerome Cohen, one of America's foremost experts on Chinese law, who is currently in Beijing.

The government's pro forma endorsement of the rule of law has encouraged ordinary folks to try the courts. A wealth of legal information is now available on the Internet and elsewhere. "Chinese bookstores have shelves stocked with legal how-to books," Mr. Cohen says.

Chinese officials know they have a problem; they've rebuilt a legal system destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. But the Communist Party controls the appointment of judges, who are very vulnerable to pressures by local officials. Fearful officials try to deny their local residents the facts they need to build a case.

Enter the new generation of lawyers, professors and students interested in public interest law. Their goal is to get the word out to the public about legal rights and to help people find the facts to build cases. Public interest lawyers are the pioneers of peaceful political change.

"Professors and students are getting more and more interested in discussing these issues," says Wang Xixin, associate dean of Peking University Law School. He has created the China Center for Public Participation and Support to help people exercise their legal rights.

One center project: to help farmers in the Beijing region assert their legal right to comment on a draft municipal law on land expropriation. Local officials posted the draft only on the Internet, to which many rural farmers had no access. The center made the draft accessible on TV and in written form, then analyzed farmers' comments and made them widely available.

The center's work helped the farmers find a way to focus their legal challenge: They had been unable to organize because of restrictions on meetings.

"People are crying for fairness," says Mr. Wang.

Yet some brave lawyers who tackle the most controversial public interest cases wind up in jail. Among them is Chen Guangcheng, a blind peasant lawyer who tried to bring a class-action lawsuit challenging forced abortion and sterilization in the city of Linyi. He documented hideous cases, which are now illegal (fines are the punishment for too many births).

Officials seized Mr. Chen from his home district while he was visiting Beijing, and he is being held incommunicado, according to his lawyer, Teng Biao. The Chinese news media aren't permitted to mention the case, although details are circulating on Chinese Internet sites.

Mr. Teng, who has argued some seminal public interest cases, is a passionate advocate of the rule of law. He says some high officials fear that making all Chinese subject to the same laws would limit party control.

The party would be wiser to consider what will happen if it doesn't promote legal reform. There were 74,000 protests and riots nationwide involving 3.7 million people in 2004, according to China's Public Security Bureau, up from 10,000 incidents in 1994. Many of the protests were no doubt expressing grievances of ordinary people against corrupt officials.

If the government doesn't want a social explosion, it must offer people a means of redress. Lawyers such as Mr. Chen and Mr. Teng are China's best hope for continued peaceful economic expansion.

Block the rule of law, and an aggrieved public has nowhere to go but the streets.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her columns appear on Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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