Suing the Local State: Administrative Litigation in Rural China*

By O'Brien, Kevin J.; Li, Lianjiang | The China Journal, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Suing the Local State: Administrative Litigation in Rural China*


O'Brien, Kevin J., Li, Lianjiang, The China Journal


The promulgation of the Administrative Litigation Law (ALL) in 1989 was hailed in China as a "milestone of democratic and legal construction".1 Hopeful observers anticipated that the law, by empowering citizens to dispute unlawful administrative acts, would curb official misconduct. However, more than a decade after the ALL came into force, the best evidence suggests that its deterrent effect has been modest. While the number of cases has grown (see Table 1 at the end of the paper) and about two-fifths of these reportedly result in some form of relief,2 the law's implementation has been hounded by interference and feigned compliance.3 To this day, the law is widely regarded as a "frail weapon" that has not greatly reduced administrative arbitrariness.4

The ALL's effect has been especially problematic in the countryside, where many local officials continue to mistreat villagers in egregiously illegal ways. Litigating is expensive, getting a case accepted is difficult, and long delays are common. Even when rural complainants manage to win a suit, they often face retaliation or uncertain enforcement. Many villagers have understandably concluded that it is futile or even dangerous to contest unfair administrative decisions or unjust sanctions.5 In a 1999-2001 survey in Fujian, Jiangsu and Jiangxi, for instance, only 9 per cent of 1,368 respondents said they would consider filing an administrative lawsuit if they discovered that their township government had made a decision contrary to central policies and regulations.6

Still, despite a widespread belief that suing the powerful is like "throwing an egg against a stone",7 hundreds of thousands of rural people have used the ALL to challenge acts by county and township governments, Public Security Bureaus, industrial and commercial departments, cultural, environmental and public hygiene agencies and Civil Affairs Bureaus. Charges commonly involve the grievances of individual villagers (such as detention, land confiscation or home demolition), as well as decisions that affect many people (such as increasing fees, closing village clinics, selling fake seed or selling off village land). While many suits are filed by individuals, others are organized efforts that involve hundreds, thousands, or even ten thousand plaintiffs.8 These suits, particularly collective ones, are often preceded, accompanied or followed by non-judicial mass action, such as joint letter-writing, sending delegations to government compounds or media outlets, and group appeals to Party authorities or People's Congresses.9

That some villagers find the ALL to be a useful if imperfect tool to combat official malfeasance suggests that state-society relations in rural China can be fruitfully explored by examining the dynamics of administrative litigation. The cases recounted below cannot be said to be representative, but are illustrative of the problems that many plaintiffs encounter. They were chosen mainly to shed light on questions such as: what tactics do litigants and their targets employ both in and out of court? How have villagers fared in their struggles with local officials? What can the emerging set of practices surrounding the ALL tell us about the relationship between law and politics in contemporary China?

Dynamics of Administrative Litigation: Gaining Access to Court

Although there is evidence that Chinese officials have become somewhat more accepting of being sued,10 local officials generally do not welcome legal challenges, and often do everything possible to preempt, derail or undermine administrative litigation. They sometimes even block the local populace's access to official documents and regulations. When a county government, for instance, began distributing some pamphlets and books, township leaders ordered that no materials related to legal education be made available because "as soon as ordinary people learn anything about the law then they become impossible to govern". …

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Suing the Local State: Administrative Litigation in Rural China*
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