More people are going to court in China's legal boom


BEIJING -- He drives a Lincoln, works out of a hotel and has plans to open new law offices with Ivy League talent. A high-powered U.S. lawyer hoping for lucrative business abroad? Try Zhang Chijun, one of a new breed of Chinese lawyer riding China's legal boom.

His ambitions may seem incongruous with China's communist rule and with its ancient past, where law and politics were inseparable, but Mr. Zhang and lawyers like him are proof that China is developing a rough and ready legal system that can resolve disputes.

There is, for example, the case of Huang Huilin and her husband, Shao Wu, two of Mr. Zhang's clients:

They spent three years in China's remote northwest interviewing 200 people for a movie script about a legendary Chinese general. But when the movie was screened, the couple got a nasty shock: Their names had been eliminated from the credits and replaced with someone else's.

"We were angry because all the main points of the movie were ours," said Ms. Huang, who has co-written a half-dozen movie scripts with her husband. "We wanted to sue, but everyone told us not to because we're just ordinary people and the movie studio is big and well-connected."

But like an increasing number of Chinese, they decided to take their case to court and test China's nascent legal system.

After being referred to Mr. Zhang through a screenwriting guild, they filed a lawsuit alleging violation of intellectual property rights. They won in court, with the judge ordering the studio to pay them $270 for suffering.

More important to the couple, the court ordered the studio to add their names to the movie credits in recognition of their work.

The number of civil lawsuits like theirs is increasing rapidly: When the new civil code went into effect in 1987, 1.2 million cases were filed. Last year, the number was 2.1 million.

"The growth of a legal system is extremely important for China," says Mr. Zhang, the lawyer. "China is still a country of peasants where intellectual property rights and the law are ignored. But it's improving."

This development of a code of civil law, and the corresponding expansion in the number of courts, contrast with China's handling of dissidents, whose rights are often ignored. For example, China's most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, disappeared last year without being charged with a crime or any notification to his family, clear violations of China's laws governing arrests and detention.

"The government wants to bring a greater rule of law to the country, but what the government often means is to use the law to rule," says Hungdah Chiu, director of the University of Maryland's East Asian Legal Studies Program.

Lawyers, however, have won some cases against China's security apparatus, though none has involved well-known dissidents.

A Beijing lawyer, for example, won a case last year against China's security police, alleging they had beaten him during interrogation. He was paid $375, a considerable sum in a country where 80 million people live below the official poverty line of $50 a year.

Old ways crumbling

Most of the court cases are less significant, but the courts are rapidly supplanting traditional ways of settling disputes, especially in China's cities. Old methods, such as parental authority and the influence of locally respected authority figures, are quickly crumbling in the face of modernization.

One of the most common charges in the courts is libel, with China's sometimes imaginative journalists now being held accountable for their work.

In one case, the official Communist Party newspaper, People's Daily, was sued by a woman whom the newspaper had accused of being lazy and disruptive after she filed several complaints alleging misdeeds by her co-workers at a state-run factory.

It took the woman several trips from distant Xinjiang to Beijing before the case was heard, but the court in Beijing eventually ordered the newspaper to issue an apology.

At first, the outcome seemed a clear victory for the woman. But two years after the verdict, the newspaper has yet to apologize.

The ambiguous outcome is similar to the screenwriters' case.

The movie studio has so far ignored the order to pay damages and reinstate the screenwriters' names in the movie credits.

"We're not satisfied with the outcome because we never got our money or our credit, but we did win a moral victory," Ms. Huang says. "We have a scrapbook full of newspaper articles exposing the film studio's practices, and we feel we've helped prevent other violations of intellectual property rights."

China's booming economy means that such cases are becoming more common and could signal the beginning of a true culture of law, in which foreign intellectual property such as U.S. movies, music and software is protected from piracy by Chinese factories.

More lawyers

The growth of China's legal system also puts lawyers such as Mr. Zhang in demand. When China's economic reforms began in 1978, China had fewer than 5,000 lawyers; by 1994, the number was 70,000.

Some of those lawyers have gained prestige and wealth, but the profession still has risks, because the law remains a very personal matter. The official Legal Daily recently reported, for example, that a lawyer handling a divorce case in central China had his eyes gouged out by the husband and children, who were unhappy with the settlement.

"News like this has become more common in recent years," the newspaper noted in an editorial. "Creating a socialist market economy includes protecting the rights of lawyers to handle cases without fear of attack."

So far, Mr. Zhang has managed to avoid physical attacks and has benefited from the legal system's steady growth. Once working out of plain offices in a plain part of town, the 41-year-old graduate of a Chinese university -- and self-taught lawyer -- recently moved into a hotel, where he works out of three rooms with his assistant.

He plans to open a partnership with several U.S.-trained lawyers in the fall and find a proper office.

"Lawyers in China are still more passive than those in the United States," he says. "In your O. J. Simpson trial, lawyers can argue and be famous. They can seek out information and bring evidence to light.

"We still can't do that, but we can still represent people and work for justice."

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