China lightens up - a little

Citizens now can sue the government - and some even win. But thechanges only go so far.

A 15-year-old Chinese girl was forced to undergo a pregnancy test by local population control officials in the eastern province of Jiangxi. Just a decade ago, she would have had no recourse.

But recently she and her family sued the Chinese government. And they won.

In fact, 90,000 Chinese citizens filed suits against government officials here in 1997 alone. In litigation-happy America, that may not sound like much. But in China, it is another small step toward a freer society.

After the Communists seized power in the 1949 revolution, they used the courts largely to punish their "class enemies." But three years ago, Beijing gave attorneys limited autonomy in China's first Lawyers' Law, and the government partially opened itself to lawsuits for abuse of power or process.

The changes have made lawyers and a growing number of ordinary citizens "more aware of their legal rights on paper and more willing to test those rights in court," says a Western official who requested anonymity. People are beginning to sue the government for illegal detention or official abuses, and "some have even won," he adds.

But these reforms, designed to restore confidence in the legal system, only go so far.

Take the case of Wang Wenjiang.

Attorney Wang Wenjiang's crusade to defend political dissidents was once a shining symbol of Chinese trying to use the law to secure their rights.

Mr. Wang's drive to seek fair trials for those labeled Communist Party opponents coincided with Beijing's campaign to polish the image of its courts.

Recent criminal law amendments ostensibly gave the accused greater rights to mount a defense, allowed some detainees to challenge their imprisonment, and abolished "counterrevolutionary" crimes as being too overtly political.

Beijing signed two United Nations rights pacts, and Wang and other activist lawyers pushed the courts to implement those changes. But Wang apparently went too far by suggesting to judges that they not allow the courts to be used by the Party to silence its critics.

The legal system that Wang dared to challenge has since turned him into a human scarecrow: He's spent the past five months in a Manchurian jail, awaiting trial this month on charges of "attempting to overthrow the government."

Wang began testing the law's boundaries when Beijing began holding mass trials of students who led nonviolent pro-democracy protests that swept across China in the spring of 1989. After the Army crushed the protests, the students were charged with staging a "counterrevolutionary rebellion."

Wang never won a dissident case, but he continued to try to force the government to recognize its own constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech.

While Wang's recent imprisonment represents a great leap backward in terms of separating the justice and political systems, China has taken several small steps forward on legal reform.

"The party has freed the courts to do their business with relative independence in areas that are not politically sensitive, but in big and important cases the party maintains tight control," says Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese law at Columbia University in New York. So although thousands of dissidents languish in jail, ordinary Chinese in nonpolitical tangles with bureaucrats have began scoring small legal victories.

The US State Department's most recent human rights report on China says that "The public is beginning to use the court system ... to protect their rights and to seek redress for a variety of government abuses."

The Western official cites a case in central China where "a priest threatened to sue the authorities for church property that was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. First the authorities tried to intimidate the priest, saying they had connections in the court," he says. "But on the eve of the hearing, they settled the case."

During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong abolished the courts and the law. Mao's more moderate successors vowed to rebuild the legal system in part to regain the support of China's disillusioned masses, but it is unclear how successful they have been. "The vast majority of Chinese still think the government is a monolith that always wins," says the Western official. One barrier to creating public trust in the evolving legal system is that police, prosecutors, and judges routinely ignore laws when it comes to handling political activists.

During last week's rushed trials of four leaders of the China Democracy Party, a would-be opposition group, "only two of the activists could find lawyers to defend them," says Frank Lu, who heads a human rights group in Hong Kong.

"When [democracy activist] Zhu Yufu started reading a statement in self-defense, a court official grabbed the speech away and ordered him to be silenced," says Lu. The court, in Hangzhou in eastern Zhejiang province, has not yet issued its verdict, but last year the same court sentenced Democracy Party founder Wang Youcai to 11 years' imprisonment.

"One of the changes that China has publicized is its amended Criminal Procedure Law, which is supposed to provide defendants with early and easy access to their lawyers," says the Western official. "But this requirement is almost always violated when it comes to political defendants."

Wang Wenjiang tried to fly to Hangzhou last December to defend the first of the Democracy Party organizers to go on trial, but "he was arrested and held until the trial ended," says Lu. The police used similar tactics to prevent Wang from representing a dozen more Democrats who have been tried and sentenced since, and finally charged Wang himself several weeks ago.

As he faces trial and a certain guilty verdict as an enemy of the state, Wang has become another kind of symbol, a warning not to expect that incremental reforms have placed the law above the Communist Party.

The Western official says that while China tries to build a more just system, it is simultaneously strangling political defendants trying to exercise new rights. The strategy is breeding cynicism among many Chinese. "How seriously can people take these reforms if they know the new rules can be arbitrarily suspended in political trials?" he asks.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.