Making it easier for Chinese to sue the government

BEIJING - It was a dispute that happened more than 50 years ago, but the Zhuang family is standing its ground - even if it means taking the government to court, a rarity in China where the judicial system is often seen as biased.

The Shandong province natives are determined to get a government official to return an art piece they allege was seized by government officials in the 1960s.

Since 2007, the family has tried to take the case to court but both county and city courts refused to accept it, insisting it fell under the jurisdiction of the other or referring it to the government to settle.

"It wasn't due to a lack of documents that prevented us from lodging the case. Rather, the courts and government behaved improperly," said family member Zhuang Difei, 60.

His family's situation shows why people-versus-government court battles are rare in China.

It is notoriously difficult for people to challenge the authorities through the courts, seen as influenced by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a reality even Beijing recognises.

"Over the past years, the chances of a plaintiff winning such litigation cases have dropped significantly," Ms Fu Ying, spokesman for China's Parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), acknowledged at a press conference earlier this month.

"There are also cases where the government body is unwilling to be the defendant or the court is unwilling to take the case. People say they do not dare to sue; even if they sue, they will not win."

Official statistics back this up with a yearly average of just 120,000 court cases involving the people suing the government, a China Youth Network report stated. This figure makes up just a tiny fraction of the 14.2 million cases heard at local courts last year.

The NPC, however, is looking to change that. This year, it will revise two laws to make it easier for people to sue the government, in what experts say is a bid to shore up its legitimacy amid a rising number of "unjust" cases that have inflamed public opinion.

Professor Jacques deLisle of the University of Pennsylvania Law School said China's growth, which has largely benefited the politically connected and wealthy, has also led to social anger rooted in a sense of injustice.

"The revisions seem to address this problem by promising to provide legal relief from some of the most discontent-producing actions by state actors; the kind that is the focus of many of the more than 100,000 mass incidents every year," he added.

The draft amendments stress the courts' duty to ensure that citizens can take the authorities to court and stress the need to accept cases involving governments as defendants.

Governments should also not obstruct courts from filing and hearing such cases.

Challenges remain, including judges' deference to the CCP and the courts' lack of independence.

"The fundamental challenges facing China's legal system aren't with the content of the laws as written," said Professor Carl Minzner, an expert in Chinese law at Fordham University. "Rather, they involve how they are implemented in practice."

Prof deLisle pointed out that the law provides only remedies against state or government actors and not the party. Also, resistance from vested interest groups will be challenging.

Still, the number of people suing the government is set to continue rising as people become more aware of their rights and as increasingly complex social issues bring citizens into conflict with the authorities, said Beijing-based lawyer Hao Jinsong.

For instance, a man in the smog-ridden city of Shijiazhuang in northern Hebei province became the first person in China to sue the government for failing to curb air pollution last month.

And Mr Zhuang is not giving up either. "With the government's stepped up commitment to protect the people's rights, we are confident that we can get our property back. We will not give up till we do."

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