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Chinese Test Emerging Legal System in Court

May 17, 1993

BEIJING (AP) _ When a magazine quoted a singing star as saying a rival criticized her at a rehearsal and accused her of having AIDS, the rival did what an increasing number of Chinese are doing: She sued.

Reporters thronged the courtroom for the trial, which ended in favor of the complainant. One reporter was evicted for allegedly breaking court rules, which caused his newspaper to sue the court.

For the first time in decades, Chinese have enough confidence in their legal system to use it to redress wrongs. The courts, long considered places for only criminal trials, are overwhelmed with civil lawsuits as people try to exercise new legal rights.

The changing attitude is reflected in the responses Xiao Wei, a Beijing lawyer, gets when he introduces himself to people. He said the most common are something like, ″When I have a lawsuit, I’ll call you.″

Taking a problem to court traditionally was considered shameful, and most disputes were settled by mediation. After the Communist takeover in 1949, lawyers and judges were purged and party policy replaced law.

When China began modernizing in 1978, however, it had to rebuild its legal system to attract foreign investors who wanted guarantees that their interests would be protected.

Wan Li, until recently chairman of the national legislature, said the government’s goal is to ″use the law to strengthen our economic reform ... so that the law is the yardstick for all economic and social activity.″

Foreign businessmen were among the first to resolve disputes in the courts, setting an example the Chinese quickly followed.

″I think it’s a function of economic reform, where people have a greater stake in protecting their economic interests,″ said Tim Gelatt, a professor at New York University who specializes in Chinese law. ″And it’s a function of an increasing sense that the legal system is there and means something and is useful.″

In the past five years, Chinese courts have seen a 9.9 percent annual increase in the number of civil cases.

″Today, more and more people know to use the law,″ the Legal Daily said. ″With knowledge of law, naturally there will be more lawsuits.″

But there are limits. So far, the courts have rebuffed efforts by political dissidents to sue the Communist Party and government under new civil laws for infringement of rights.

For example, the courts rejected suits filed by political prisoners Wang Juntao and Chen Zimin for better conditions and the return of personal property seized when they were arrested. They are serving 13 years each for taking part in the 1989 pro-democracy movement.

The Communist leadership has yet to reconcile the contradiction between its efforts to build a legal system and its insistence that the party remain the supreme authority.

″They are telling people, even encouraging people, to use the legal system to assert their economic rights,″ Gelatt said, ″but they have tried up to now to draw the line between those types of economic rights and political rights.″ Still, Western legal concepts are eroding Communist notions.

John Kuzmik, an American lawyer in Hong Kong who follows Chinese legal developments, said artists are adopting the Western view that their works and reputations are valuable personal property. The Communists long held that art was the common property of society.

In one case, China’s biggest rock star, Cui Jian, sued the author and publisher of a biography that he says defamed him by describing him as greedy and uncouth.

The book ″belittled me and made my commercial image very ugly,″ Cui said in an interview with China Sports News.

Cui also sued a music company for marketing a tape of his songs without permission. Several other musicians also have filed suits over pirated works.

Western lawyers say many of the defamation cases filed by movie and pop stars and other personalities would be thrown out of U.S. courts as frivolous, but that Chinese judges have little experience with such concepts.

″Definitions of libel and defamation here are not well developed,″ said Tim Steinert of Coudert Bros., a U.S. law firm.

One case the courts did reject was filed by prominent movie director Zhang Yimou and Gong Li, his girlfriend and leading lady.

They tried to sue the author and publisher of a forthcoming book about them. A Beijing court refused to hear the case on grounds that they had not been defamed because the book had not yet been distributed.

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