In another sign of the Chinese authorities clamping down on civil rights activists, on Friday officials confiscated the computers of lawyers working on last year's tainted milk scandal.
In a morning raid, 20 officers of Beijing's Civil Affairs Bureau filled the small headquarters of the Open Constitution Initiative. OCI's lawyers made headlines in 2008 for their pro bono work on behalf of the victims of the Sanlu Group's tainted milk powder, which killed at least six children and affected hundreds of thousands.
The raid comes a few months after the authorities effectively disbarred some of the country's most outspoken civil rights lawyers and ordered a prominent human rights law firm to close.
"In run up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in October, [Friday's] incident of harassment sends a clear message from Beijing: Anyone who tries to assert a civil society will be controlled," says Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, based in New York.
Organization declared illegal
Xu Zhiyong, a founding partner of OCI, said he did not know why the raid occurred when it did.
"The Bureau of Civil Affairs took everything away in the office, including the documents about the poison formula case and petitioners that we help, the booklets that we printed, computers, tables, and chairs," he said, when reached by telephone during the raid.
Mr. Xu said officials told him that OCI's office, which opened in 2007, was "illegal" and would be shut down for failing to register as a nongovernmental organization, a difficult process here. OCI was registered as a company instead, says Xu, a tack many Chinese rights groups take if they are unable to register as NGOs.
NGOs often operate on shaky ground, experts in Chinese law say. "Because the government is suspicious, if not downright hostile, to the work of NGOs, it's difficult to get them registered with the proper authorities," says Lester Ross, lead partner in the Beijing office of the US law firm WilmerHale. "As a result, those registered nominally as for-profit businesses run a risk of being shut down if they stick their heads too far above ground."
OCI faces a fine of more than 1.4 million yuan ($200,000), according to a tax office notice posted on its website.
A request for information about the raid sent to the Bureau of Civil Affairs went unanswered Friday.
Tainted-milk court cases slow to proceed
According to China's new food safety law, which went into effect June 1, victims of food poisoning can ask lower courts to award compensation worth 10 times the value of the tainted products purchased. In a new direction in Chinese law, courts also increasingly are awarding victims additional damages for loss.
Earlier this year, China's high court cleared lower courts to handle such cases. But after lawyers organizing mass lawsuits over the tainted milk powder were harassed or ignored, it was unclear if any cases would proceed.
Since June 1, the court in Sanlu's home city of Shijiazhuang, 168 miles southeast of Beijing, has accepted two cases against the now bankrupt company, Xu said. Neither has yet had a hearing.
Compensation vs. lawsuits
In China – where courts do not award damages for what US lawyers would call "pain and suffering," nor grant punitive damages that are regarded as a deterrent – compensation amounts vary widely.
For wrongful deaths in food poisoning cases, damages "certainly could be in the tens of thousands of yuan," says Mr. Ross, the attorney. "One would consider the loss of earning power and other factors."
China's central government already determined in 2008 that families of the victims of Sanlu's tainted milk would get 200,000 yuan ($29,272) for a death in the family and 30,000 yuan ($4,391) if surgery was required. Workers in Beijing, one of China's richest cities, averaged incomes of 44,715 yuan ($6,545) in 2008.
The milk powder produced by Sanlu and other manufacturers contained the toxic chemical melamine, whose high nitrogen content helped watered-down milk pass quality checks for protein content.
More than 90 percent of the families affected accepted a compensation deal led by the Ministry of Health. The deal curtails their right to sue the 22 milk powder manufacturers found culpable.
With backup files, 'we will continue'
Xu said the raid on Friday netted eight OIC computers and the paper records of several hundred court cases built up over four or five years. None of the mostly volunteer staff of seven or eight people in the office Friday was arrested. Xu said authorities did not lock the office.
"What they did is unreasonable, because legally the company still exists. The stuff they confiscated includes company property and private property," Xu said.
OCI had backup copies of the materials taken, he said. "We won't give up, because what we do is for a just cause. We do it with our conscience. I don't know what our next step will be, but we will continue."