Many Laws, Little Justice in China

The image on the computer screen is shocking: a man, lying on a hospital bed, his head bandaged, with long trickles of blood running from the top of his scalp. The man, now sitting next to me, explains with a bit of understatement, “Of course I must continue to have faith in the Chinese legal system, although I must admit that this incident has somewhat dampened my optimism.”

The “incident” occurred last December, as he and another attorney traveled to prepare the re-trial of a blind, self-taught legal activist. That activist had been framed by local authorities after he had denounced abuses by the local family planning authorities. As the two lawyers were traveling on a bus, a gang of men, some of them wielding metal pipes, boarded it and brutally assaulted them.

The injuries proved minor, but the incident embodies the paradox of China’s legal system: over the past two decades, China has enacted hundreds of laws and elevated “ruling the country according to law” to ideological and constitutional prominence. Legal awareness in society has soared to unprecedented levels. Last week, China finally enshrined private property by passing the long-awaited property rights law, in what the government called “significant progress in promoting rule of law in the country.”

Yet access to justice remains tightly constrained, courts are still controlled by the Communist Party of China (CPC), and lawyers involved in litigation against local state agencies remain highly vulnerable to retaliation by state and non-state actors. Reprisals range from suspension of lawyers’ licenses by the judicial bureaus to physical intimidation or assault by criminal elements. After their attackers left, the two lawyers made repeated calls to the police to report the incident, but police did nothing beyond take the call. Formal complaints to the justice ministry and the national bar association weren’t even acknowledged, let alone answered.