Why China's New Regulation on Lawsuits Won't Make China Any Freer

Legal experts have doubts as to whether the new legislation will have much relevance in a system where "political clout remains above the law."
Why China's New Regulation on Lawsuits Won't Make China Any Freer
Frank Fang

A recently passed piece of Chinese legislation has been touted by the communist regime's state-run media as an "important step in judicial reform," but legal experts have expressed their doubts as to whether the new ordinance will have much relevance in "allowing the people a taste of justice," as the state-run Xinhua would have it.

The new system, outlined in Article 123 of China's Civil Procedure Law, requires courts to accept legitimate lawsuits within seven days of filing and provide transparent explanation when rejecting cases.

In the past, courts could reject lawsuits for minor errors in the case papers. Decisions made by court officials were often influenced by outside political pressure or lobbying.

Now, according to Chinese legal literature, courts must promptly inform plaintiffs of the specific mistakes in their suit documents, request more information if needed, and make a decision on whether to accept the case within a week of filing.

People's Net, a state-run online publication, holds that the legal situation in China is improving—this May, Chinese courts accepted a total of 1.13 million lawsuits, a 29 percent increase compared with figures from the same month last year—but the high rate of acceptance is not the whole picture.

There is no guarantee that a lawsuit will be processed or heard, as accepted lawsuits can still be voided or ignored at the discretion of higher courts, according to China's 21st Century Business Herald.

Zhou Yuanqiu, a lawyer based in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province, wrote on his blog that neither the new system nor the state media's reporting reflect real developments.  

"Court officials told us specifically that they remain under the control of the government, which means the law is still being controlled by [political] power. So if you sue government officials and government, court officials are reluctant to accept the lawsuit," Liu Feiyue, a Chinese legal activist, told Radio Free Asia on May 12.  

Liu is the founder of Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch, a civil rights website based in Hubei Province.

"As most of the lawsuits petitioners file are civil cases against government officials, the rate of lawsuits [ultimately] accepted by the courts remains very low," Liu said. "In Chinese society, political clout remains above the law."

Civil Rights & Livelihood Watch follows up on lawsuits that have been turned down by the courts. On June 3, Wang Jingzhi, a mentally ill petitioner who said she was illegally sent to a labor camp, had her lawsuit turned down by a mid-level court in Changzhi City, Shanxi Province.

On June 4, Xu Wenxiang and Chen Hang, had their lawsuit against the Beijing Food Research Institute turned down by the court in Fengtai District in Beijing. They had been trying to recover pension money that had been withheld by the institute.

According to a website run by the Chinese regime, lawsuits deemed by the courts to have an undermining effect on national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national security, national unity, or the regime's religious policy are not to be considered valid cases.

"There is no law and order under China's authoritarian rule. Officials and people of powerful interest groups put themselves above the law," Li Xiangyang, a lawyer in Shandong Province, said in an interview with New York-based New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD).  

"Many lawsuits are not accepted by the courts. Even should they be accepted, there will be long delays and the cases will not be heard," said Li.  

Beijing lawyer Cui Hui, also in an interview with NTD, said: "The courts treat lawyers and people filing the lawsuits as enemies. A case might take three to five years before it is even accepted by the courts, then another three to five years to be processed. Court officials don't answer the phone when you call them, and they lock their doors when you try to find them."

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.