A Chinese judge caused a kerfuffle in the legal profession and online last month when he protested on behalf of his wife, dressed in his judicial garb, outside the High People’s Court of Hubei Province.
Feng Bin, now a former judge from Hubei, was attempting to get a fair hearing for the dismissal of his wife from her work after 10 years of employment—Chinese labor laws prohibit the dismissal of workers after 10 or more years of employment.
Feng wore his judge’s black robe, with an official court badge, in what was for several days a mostly peaceful demonstration outside the court building. After his appeals went ignored by court staff for several days, Feng began head-butting every car that came out of the High Court in an effort to get more attention.
Though the court finally scheduled a hearing date, Feng’s high profile appeal and the resulting public sympathy was not enough to preserve his career: at the end of July he was quietly removed from his post, for demonstrating in public as a judge.
While the Chinese constitution in theory gives citizens the right to petition or appeal, Feng’s case shows the difficulties that even a judge faces in attempting to navigate China’s complex appeal and grievance resolution system.
“I want to use my experience to tell society that not all people who appeal are irrational or ignorant about the law. I had to risk my life in order to file a simple case against an employer,” Feng was quoted as saying in Chinese media.
Feng is one of many former judicial employees that have sought to resolve grievances with little or no success.
Wu Zongming, a retired official from the State Bureau of Letters and Calls (also known as the ‘appeals office’), found himself on the receiving end of that department’s infamously ineffectual bureaucracy when his home was slated for demolition in 2008. Wu had been a director of the local Bureau Guiping City, Guangxi Province, for three years prior to retiring in 2001.
The Bureau nominally accepts “petitions” from Chinese citizens and is supposed to resolve grievances that could not be resolved through the court system.
For over a year after hearing the news of the impending demolition, Wu visited the appeals offices of many cities as well as other government agencies and courts to attempt to save his home. None would give a definitive answer, despite his extensive government connections.
Wu in the end admitted defeat: “After years of working in the appeals office, I know that appeals have a very limited effect.” Yet, he wanted justice and fairness for himself and other petitioners he met along the way. After a Beijing-based magazine ran a special report on him, he thought more governmental agencies would pay attention to the case.
He was wrong. His home was forcedly demolished in January 2009. The demolition crew was escorted by over 100 police officers. They came at 5 a.m., instead of the scheduled 9 a.m., and dragged his startled wife out of the building before getting to work.
“Many people go to Beijing to petition just for solace. Our statistics show that only 0.2 percent of all petitioners hear back from the Appeals Office,” says Yu Jianrong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “People choose to petition even when they know it’s useless.”
Given the dismal record of China’s appeals system, petitioners are usually realistic about their journey, and some are prepared for the great challenges they will face. Feng told a Chinese media outlet: “Every step of the rule of law in China takes bloodshed. If my blood could awaken the conscience of the judicial system, then my death would be worthwhile.”