Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Chinese Courts Get a Hearing

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Chinese Courts Get a Hearing

Article excerpt

In an increasingly conflict-prone society, ordinary Chinese are shunning guanxi - personal connections - and granny patrols, and calling their lawyers instead

The sort of skulduggery to which the 80 women labourers fell victim is now so common that the case might well have escaped public notice.

Four years ago the women, from a poor area of inland Hebei province, came to the country's capital to work at the Huayi Clothing Mill, a fully Chinese-owned business. Given a slowdown in the economy, the women considered themselves lucky to have jobs. Unfortunately, however, the clothing mill didn't pay its workers for more than a year.

The women complained to local authorities, but to no avail. Finally, as a last resort they applied to the Centre for Women's Law Studies and Legal Services in Beijing for help.

Recently, they won their lawsuit and have been awaiting a decision on damages. Their lawyer estimates that a total of between $120,000 and $230,000 will be awarded to the 80 women. Amounting to between $1,500 and $2,900 per person, that may not sound like much, but compared to the average per capita income in China it represents a small fortune.

What is perhaps most amazing about this story is that the women bothered to turn to the courts at all given that the judicial system has such shallow roots in both pre- and post-revolution China. Though the legal system is in its infancy and, according to human rights activists, is subject to government interference in the case of sensitive political issues, it is nevertheless being taken increasingly seriously.

In imperial times up until the beginning of this century, China didn't even have lawyers. Rather, it had scribes, commonly known as "litigation tricksters", who might launch appeals on behalf of people who felt they had been wronged. Engaging in this practice was potentially dangerous. "Habitual litigation tricksters" could be exiled to the "malarial regions" of the south.

After the 1949 communist revolution, the priority of the judicial system was to serve socialism, a principle which often worked against protection of individuals' rights. Things got worse. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, Mao Zedong wiped out legal institutions in favour of "revolutionary justice".

Coping with a judicial vacuum

In this vacuum, ordinary Chinese people have had to depend on informal neighbourhood committees, commonly run by elderly, retired women workers forming a sort of granny patrol, or on party or government leaders to intervene in disputes. Invariably, the politically well-positioned have used guanxi, the Chinese term for personal connections, to sway arbitrators. Meanwhile, those without good guanxi have often had no choice but to suffer in silence, or make a desperate journey to Beijing where they camp outside the State Council's petition office for days or weeks hoping that some government official might give them a sympathetic ear.

Since the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of economic reform in the late 1970s, the Chinese leadership has gradually been rebuilding a legal system. This year, for the first time, the government amended the national constitution to declare China a country governed "according to the law". …

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