How one man in China strengthens the rule of law
Hao Jinsong, a Beijing lawyer, defies authorities with small lawsuits.
To most Beijingers, the receipt the attendant gives them for the six cents paid to use the public toilets in the subway is a worthless piece of scrap, quickly crumpled up and thrown away.Skip to next paragraph
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To Hao Jinsong, that piece of paper is a seed of Chinese democracy.
It took the 35-year-old law scholar a court battle to force the subway authorities to issue the legally required receipt, and he still treasures the one he sued for. But the chit itself, he says, is not important.
"Behind this receipt is a law that gives people the right to ask for one," he explains. "If nobody respects the dignity of the law, everybody loses his own dignity. If today you lose your right to a receipt, tomorrow you may lose your right to your land, your house, your freedom, and even your life."
Hyperbole? In a country where the rule of law is very much a work in progress, and where the ruling Communist Party routinely dictates judges' verdicts in sensitive cases, Mr. Hao's passionate faith in the law might seem naive.
But it is the very weakness of the rule of law in China that inspires his crusade, he says. If "people don't use legal recourse to defend themselves because they think it's useless ... the law grows even weaker," he argues.
"When ... people use the law as naturally as they use chopsticks, China will be close to democracy," he adds.
Hao is a pioneer of public interest lawsuits, a growing trend in a country where they were unknown, or dismissed by judges out of hand, only a few years ago.
He and a swelling band of lawyers like him have attracted less international attention than legal activists whose efforts to defend human rights have earned them beatings, house arrest or jail terms.
But they are achieving prominence in China, and winning plaudits from their peers. "We need someone to stand up and challenge shortcomings of institutions," says Wu Ge, a law professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University.
Hao is best known for lawsuits he has brought against the powerful Ministry of Railroads, challenging its refusal to give tax receipts for goods bought on trains, and its ticket pricing policy.
He won the receipt case, on his third attempt, earning the government $2.7 million a year in tax revenue from the railroads. And though he lost two court battles to stop the railroad management raising ticket prices during the Spring Festival, when 150 million Chinese go home for the holidays, his campaign attracted wide public support. Management bowed to the pressure, and has left holiday ticket prices untouched for the past two years.
That, says Yiyi Lu, a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London who has written a study of public interest lawsuits in China, is an example of how "you don't need to win the case to win the cause."
Key to such victories has been media coverage and the public debate it provokes. Though Chinese newspapers don't dare report court cases involving political dissidents, many of them – including the Communist Party's mouthpiece the People's Daily – have written approvingly about Hao's cases.