December 28, 2005


When Chinese Sue the State, Cases Are Often Smothered (JOSEPH KAHN, 12/28/05, NY Times)

China's legal system often hands down verdicts that the powerless consider unfair. But a bigger problem is that courts often refuse to issue any verdict at all - or even acknowledge that some bothersome legal complaints exist.

The English translation is simply "put on the record" or "register a case," but in China "li'an" is so fraught with official meddling that for many with complaints against the government, the judicial system is closed for business.

Since Communist China first created the semblance of a modern legal system a quarter-century ago, criminal cases - the state suing individuals - mostly go through the courts. Private citizens and businesses now often resolve civil disputes in court. But the third and most sensitive use of the judicial system, a 1989 statute that entitles people to sue the state, remains a beguiling fiction, scholars say.

"The number of people wanting to sue the government is large and growing," says Xiao Jianguo, a legal scholar at People's University in Beijing who has studied the issue. "But the number of people who succeed in filing cases against the government is miniscule. So you could say there is a gap between theory and practice."

Though fast-rising China wants to persuade the outside world that it is governed by law, pressure to improve the system comes mainly from within. Protests are erupting around the country over land seizures, pollution, corruption and abuse of power, with 74,000 officially recorded incidents of mass unrest in 2004.

China's leaders know they need to manage such unrest. Indeed, President Hu Jintao says "democratic rule of law" is a crucial ingredient of his plan to build a "harmonious society."

Such pledges spread awareness of legal rights, but have yet to change legal procedures. It is not clear how many protests follow failed attempts to settle disputes in court. But lawyers say the judicial system bars its doors to so many contentious cases that it effectively forces people to take to the streets.

These regimes somehow never learn that when they try to speak like liberals they create expectations of liberalization and are eventually forced to grant it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 28, 2005 8:00 AM
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