MORE than three decades ago, Wang Guofon was the toast of China, after Chairman Mao praised his creation of a rags-to-riches cooperative without even the full support of all the farmers.
Since then he has fallen on hard times: His fortunes collapsed when the party investigated him and accused him of corruption and falsely jailing party members. Now an elderly official in Zhonghua County in Hebei Province, he has had to file a libel suit to protect his reputation.
His case is testing China's nascent legal system and shaking the intelligentsia. It underscores that politics still prevails over law in China.
For thousands of years this society has been dominated by a succession of imperialists, warlords, and Communist bureaucrats who have imposed their political will on their subjects in place of law. The country has scant legal tradition to fall back on.
The lawsuit pits Mr. Wang, who, though discredited, is still an influential farmer thanks to Mao's praise during the collectivization of Chinese agriculture in the late 1950s, against Gu Jianzi, a respected writer in Beijing. Mr. Gu is the author of "Empire of the Paupers," his first novel about farmer Yin Dalong. Yin is acclaimed for his agricultural cooperative but disgraced for corruption, womanizing, and brutality.
Wang claims Yin is modeled on him. He sued Gu and the publisher, the China Writers Publishing House, three years ago for almost $800, a huge sum in China, in economic and "spiritual" damages and demanded an apology. In March, a district court in Beijing decided in Wang's favor and banned the book. The case is now on appeal.
This kind of legal battle could not have happened several years ago in China. As market economic reforms spread and communist power erodes, lawsuit-happy Chinese have been rushing to the courts in droves, mainly to protect their growing prosperity. Last year, 2 million civil cases were filed, 32,000 of them in Beijing.
Although the number of lawyers is still a tiny fraction of the population, it is double the number of a decade ago, according to the official Legal Daily.
"I had never thought about [the possibility of being sued]," says Gu, who published the book in 1989. "When I first heard about the lawsuit, I thought they were kidding."
Like its reforms, the government encourages legal change strictly on the economic front. China, a looming international economic force, is under growing pressure to safeguard its business climate for overseas investors.
The Chinese press has applauded recent victories by farmers who chose the legal route against greedy local officials in Sichuan Province where rural riots erupted in June. Even "Qiuju Goes to Court," a film by once-banned director Zhang Yimou about a peasant woman winning legal justice against an abusive village head, is now showing in China.
But Chinese officials admit there are limits. China now sanctions private law firms but only has 50,000 lawyers in a population of 1.2 billion, says Justice Minister Xiao Yang.
The country needs 300,000, he estimates, but will only have half of that at the turn of the century. Legal Daily reports that only
one in 500 litigants had a lawyer.
"You can't pass a law saying a person has a right to call a lawyer when there are no lawyers to call," says a senior Western diplomat. "Building up the legal system is going to take a long time."
Nor has the new legalism forced major changes in the brutal capriciousness of criminal procedures, in which evidence is gathered by torture and many are summarily executed.
Dissidents say China will not begin to forge a better human rights record until there is recourse to a fair legal system.
"Chinese laws need to be overhauled," says a journalist who was jailed for backing pro-democracy protests in 1989. "We need to begin to look at more fundamental issues rather than just concentrate on the release of jailed dissidents."
Despite talk of reform, China's legal institutions remain mired in politics. Wang's lawsuit, for one, is a prime example of a case rooted in political infighting and fueled by appeals to influence in high places.
The lawsuit is not the first battle between the farmer and the writer. Indeed, it goes back more than three decades when Gu, then a revolutionary intellectual, was assigned in 1959 to the commune run by Wang.
Engulfed by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the writer was charged with criticizing Mao and Wang, stripped of his party membership, and lost his wife, who was forced to divorce him.
Gu contends that Wang is out to settle old scores. Sitting at his desk in the modest apartment he shares with his daughter, Gu is surrounded by Chinese calligraphy scrolls, many presented by friends after his March defeat in court. Aside from his friends, dozens of writers and intellectuals have rallied behind Gu's cause, seeing the case as an attack on their already limited freedoms and calling for legal protection.
The writer, whose second novel is banned because of the legal fight, contends his character is not Wang. Indeed, he says, he chose fiction over reportage, because it was "safer" and took pains to make distinctions.
Wang's lawyer, Cai Zhige, admits his client was hardly the model leader cited by Mao and that the case would have gone nowhere without Wang's political connections.
In fact, the lawyer says he knows first hand what can happen when one runs afoul of political clout. This year, he lost his legal license for bribing a court official. He was singled out for the "very common practice of gift-giving" because he had angered officials in another case. "If political connections have to be used, this shows China doesn't have a sound legal system yet," he says.