Public Interest Litigation and Political Activism in China page – 5

Public Interest Litigation and Political Activism in China

March 2008

Yiyi Lu

The Impact of PIL Lawsuits

Some PIL lawsuits have resulted in victories for the plaintiffs. For example, in the hepatitis B discrimination case mentioned earlier, the court ruled that the Wuhu Personnel Bureau’s decision not to hire Zhang Xianzhu was invalid. However, the majority of PIL lawsuits, so far, have not not resulted in court rulings in favour of the plaintiffs. In fact, many lawsuits were rejected by the courts straightaway. For example, in the case of the painter suing the cultural bureau for administrative inaction, the court dismissed the case on the grounds that the plaintiff did not have the standing to bring forward the lawsuit, since his interest was not directly affected by the nonfeasance of the cultural bureau. As the legal scholar Huang Jinrong calculated, of the 42 PIL lawsuits mentioned in his paper, only 17.5 percent had resulted in full or partial success for the plaintiffs.

However, losing a case does not mean losing the cause. In many PIL lawsuits, although the plaintiffs did not gain legal victories, they nevertheless achieved their objectives. In the aforementioned case concerning the viewing tower at a mountain resort, the court did not accept the suit, but because of the publicity it generated and the strong public opinion against the 30 million yuan project, Nanjing municipal government stopped the construction of the tower and demolished the half-completed structure. In the case involving discrimination against Henan people, after the lawsuit was filed, the police station organized a press conference to offer its apologies. Subsequently, the plaintiffs agreed on a settlement with the police station, accepted its apologies and withdrew their case.

These victories outside the courtroom indicate that the legal impact of PIL lawsuits is separate from their social, political, or economic impact. In fact, many plaintiffs knew from the start that they had little chance of winning their cases, but they felt the lawsuits could serve a number of purposes, from affecting change in government policy to encouraging more people to use the legal system to defend their rights. For this reason, every single PIL lawsuit can be said to have had a positive impact, regardless of the outcome of the legal proceedings.

PIL lawsuits leave positive impacts, specifically they:

• affect change in government policy and practice.

For example, hepatitis B cases have contributed to the adoption of a new government regulation ending discrimination against carriers of hepatitis B virus in the recruitment of civil servants.

• make the government more accountable.

Some lawsuits exposed illegal actions by government agencies or officials; others, such as cases challenging administrative inaction, created pressure on government agencies to carry out their responsibilities more conscientiously.

• alert the public to unfair practices, especially those associated with unfair charges for goods and services provided by state monopolies, and open public debate on such practices.

In a typical case, legal scholar Huang Jinrong sued the Beijing Railway Bureau for including an insurance premium in the price of train tickets without informing passengers. Before this lawsuit, most people were unaware that they had bought compulsory insurance every time they made a journey by train. The suit opened up a debate on whether this compulsory insurance, based on a 1951 government regulation, should now be abolished.

• raise the public’s rights awareness.

PIL lawsuits not only promoted awareness of basic human rights but also raised issues such as a taxpayer’s right to monitor government expenditures and every citizen’s right to ask the government to release information. As one lawyer argues, PIL is very useful in nurturing Chinese people’s “constitutional awareness,” which includes awareness of their human rights, awareness of the sanctity of contracts, awareness that the people are the the masters of the country, awareness that citizens should supervise the government, and the preparedness to go to court to defend their rights (Hu 2006).

• inspire more PIL lawsuits.

Nearly every PIL suit has inspired more copycat suits. The demonstrational effect of successful PIL lawsuit is particularly significant, but failed suits can also spur more likeminded people to join the fight and keep the pressure on by filing more suits. The Ministry of Railways (MOR) has been the target of a number of lawsuits. The price and quality of rail services have drawn numerous complaints over the years. However, because the MOR not only holds a commercial monopoly but also possesses extensive administrative powers, it has been largely impervious to criticisms from rail passengers. PIL lawsuits against the railways have sought to curtail the MOR’s asymmetric power over passengers. Some plaintiffs have talked about organizing “relay litigation” against the MOR: after the first person loses his/her case, the next person will file another suit over the same issue, thus the battle with the MOR will continue until victory is achieved.