China, Where Pure Power Is King, Develops A Legal System THE CASE OF WANG

Article excerpt

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. …