Posts tagged: constiution

China’s First Gay Marriage Case: Pyrrhic Victory for its Lawyer?

By , January 20, 2016

Will these fake gay marriages in China become real?

For China’s LGBT community, Tuesday, January 5, 2016 proved to be a historic day: the first case challenging the ban on gay marriage was accepted by a Chinese court. While it might not sound like a triumph, in a legal system ultimately run by the Chinese Communist Party, getting a case officially “accepted’ is usually considered a major step forward on the road to victory.

Or is it? Does this “case acceptance” signal a regime that is ready to accept gay marriage? Or is there something more? Given the recent criticism of the attorney who is handling the case, likely not.

In China, A Court “Accepting” Your Complaint is Not Given

In the United States, filing a court case is exclusively a technical affair. You bring your summons, complaint and filing fee to the court’s clerk office. The clerk, almost always a non-lawyer, might examine the papers to ensure you signed the summons and the complaint, that you brought enough copies and that the check is the right amount, but as long as your ducks are in a row paper-wise, the clerk will accept your case, give it an index number and then spin the wheel to assign a judge. Your case is now in the system and will be heard by a judge. All substantive and procedural arguments – that your claims are bogus, that you sued the wrong person, that you are outside the time frame to file the suit or that you don’t have enough evidence – will be raised by the other side, through a motion and hearing before the trial judge.

Let’s file a case!

But since the early 1990s, China has been different from the U.S. (see Nanping Liu & Michelle Liu, Justice without Judges: The Case Filing Division in the PRC (2011). Under China’s Civil Procedure Law (which governs cases between two private entities) and China’s Administrative Procedure Law (which governs lawsuits brought against a government agency or actor), filing a case, even if your papers are technically proper, is insufficient to get it in the court system. Instead, the Case Filing Division (立案庭), staffed by judges, would examine some of the substantive and procedural aspects of your case – does the plaintiff have an interest in the matter, is there a specific defendant, are there specific facts, claims and causes of action and is the case brought in proper court, geographically (Civil Procedure Law, Art. 108; Administrative Procedure Law, Art. 41). All of these issues, which in the United States would be raised in a motion to dismiss, would be determined by the judges in the Case Filing Division, behind closed doors and generally with no argument from either side. If the Case Filing Division rejects your case, it does so with a mere cite to the law and with little to no explanation.

It was this lack of transparency that proved problematic in more politically-charged cases. With a Party-controlled legal system, the Party was able to use the Case Filing Division to reject cases (or just have them sit there without ever issuing a decision) so as to ensure that certain issues would never have a public airing by reaching a courtroom. While some experts estimate that only 1 to 2% of cases are rejected by the Case Filing Division, in a country the size of China, that amounts to tens of thousands of cases a year. So for a more controversial case to make it through the Case Filing Division, that was a good sign.

Recent Changes to the Case Filing System

Coat of arms for the Supreme People’s Court

But starting in May 2015, that calculus may no longer apply. Likely sensing that denying access to the courts is not the best way to raise the people’s confidence in their court system, in early 2015, the Supreme People’s Court (“SPC”) made reform of the Case Filing Division a major focus of its agenda. On May 1, 2015, new regulations on case filing took effect.

Under the new regulations, the Case Filing Division no longer “reviews” any of the merits of the case. Rather it’s role is just to “register” the complaint after the Division ensures that the complaint is compliant with the technical aspects of the law. Decisions whether to register the complaint are encouraged to be made “on the spot” (SPC Case Filing Regs, Art. 2 & 8). If more time is needed, then the Division must follow the statutory deadlines of responding to the request. If any review demonstrates that the complaint does not meet the technical requirements, the Case Filing Division shall issue a written statement explaining all the deficiencies (so no more piece meal requests for more information from the party that was usually used to needless delay the decision on whether to accept the case), and affording the party the opportunity to amend the complaint so as to meet the case filing standards (SPC Case Filing Regs, Art. 7).

It’s under these new regulations that China’s first gay marriage case was accepted by the Furong district court in the city of Changsha in central China. According to a press release from the Chinese non-profit, Yirenping[1], plaintiff Sun Wenlin (pronounced Swen When-leen) sought to bring a complaint against Furong District’s Civil Affairs Bureau which, in June, denied his and his boyfriend’s application for a marriage certificate. After facing difficulty finding a lawyer to take his case, Sun finally found one, the noted civil rights lawyer Shi Fulong (pronounced Shi Foo-lung). On December 16, 2015 Shi attempted to file his client’s complaint. Although not accepted on the spot, after amending it at the suggestion of the Case Filing Division to add his boyfriend as co-plaintiff, on January 5, 2016, Furong court accepted Sun’s lawsuit. A decision must be rendered within six months.

Case Accepted, But Far From Won – Civil Rights Lawyer Shi Fulong Criticized

Lawyer Shi Fulong

Since Sun’s case was accepted, the Chinese state-run media has openly – and often positively – covered this milestone. Not the usual M.O. for a politically-charged case against a government agency. But does this mean that China is ready to permit gay marriage?

Highly unlikely. For the Chinese state-run press, the positive focus has been the success of the new case filing system; that even a case that seeks to permit gay marriage is now accepted by the courts. And for sure, that is something that should be celebrated.

But more recently, in questioning the ethics of attorney Shi Fulong in taking the case, the Chinese press has signaled that the case will not be won. Given the current climate, namely the wholesale detention, arrest and suppression of China’s civil rights lawyers, the fact that there was still a lawyer to take this politically-charged case is shocking. But Shi Fulong is not one to avoid hard cases. Shi has represented Falun Gong practitioners, people fighting the illegal taking of their land, and in July 2015, during the mass detention and disappearance of hundreds of civil rights lawyers, signed a petition calling for their release.

It’s within this current crackdown that Shi bravely agreed to represent the gay couple. But that has not been without its potential cost. Last week, China’s state-run Legal Daily criticized him for continuing to represent his clients. In an op-ed by Hao Tiechuan, a Party member, former government official and law professor, the Legal Daily cites to various provisions of China’s Constitution and the Marriage Law to argue that, contrary to the complaint’s statements, the law is clear that marriage is only between a man and a woman. But unfortunately for lawyer Shi Fulong, the op-ed does not leave the case alone on its legal merits. Rather, it attacks the professional ethics of Shi in taking the case and continuing to represent the parties. The editorial argues that Shi has disrespected the law and filed a baseless lawsuit, all in violation of China’s Lawyers Law. Violations of the Lawyers Law could lead to a monetary fine and suspension or disbarment.

While alarming, on some level Shi Fulong is lucky that the op-ed does not cite more although he is certainly bordering on the danger zone. Likely in an attempt to contain China’s civil rights lawyers, in the past couple of years, the Chinese’s government has sought to penalize and contain the zealous advocacy that is required of lawyers, especially civil rights lawyers. In the Supreme People’s Court’s (SPC) recent Court Reform Plan, issued in February 2015, the SPC makes it a point to penalize what it considers false lawsuits. Paragraph 58 specifically commands the SPC to “[e]stablish record and discipline systems for good faith litigation. Punish false lawsuits, malicious lawsuits and unreasonably entangling litigation acts in accordance with law. . . .”

But what the SPC aspires to contain, recent amendments to the Criminal Law criminalizes. Effective November 1, 2015, China’s Criminal Law, Article 307(1), now provides up to a three year prison term for “[t]hose raising a civil lawsuit on concocted facts and seriously obstructing judicial order or seriously infringing on the lawful rights and interests of others. . . .”

For both of these admonitions, “false litigation” and “lawsuits on concocted facts” are left undefined. Meaning it will be in the discretion of the court – or more realistically the Chinese government and Communist Party – to determine what these terms mean. Which indicates that there will be a certain political determination involved.

What would Thurgood Marshall say about what is happening in China?

But as a civil rights lawyer, Shi Fulong’s job is to challenge the current law and push it to its limits. It was this type of lawyering that in 2003, caused China to eliminate the archaic and unjust custody and repatriation system. In the words of civil rights attorney and U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights lawyers should “do what you thinks is right and let the law catch up.” Here though, by citing to the Lawyers Law and questioning Shi’s ethics in pursing this case, the state-run media seeks to further squash any hope that China’s civil rights lawyers can independently push Chinese society – or more apt, the Chinese government – forward. But I guess we have to remember that the world in which this was possible in China – namely 2000 to 2005 – has long since died. Fortunately for the Chinese people, there are still lawyers willing to wage this battle. And hopefully for Shi, the Legal Daily op-ed is as bad as it gets.

 

[1] Yirenping’s press release is on file with China Law & Policy.

What is Going on With China’s Constitution?

By , September 17, 2014

China’s Constitution

Qian Gang over at the China Media Project took a hit for the team earlier this month when he read through the recently-published (and likely dull) volume of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s speeches.  As Qian notes, glaringly absent from “A Primer of Important Speeches by General Secretary Xi Jinping” (“the Primer“) is Xi’s ground-breaking 2012 speech that proclaimed the importance of the Chinese Constitution in ruling China.

Bye, Bye, Bye: A Disappearing Constitution

In December 2012 – with less than a year in power – Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin-ping) commemorated the 30th anniversary of China’s 1982 Constitution with a speech extolling the virtues of that Constitution. In that speech, Xi explained that it is the Constitution which must be used to constrain the government and the Chinese Communist Part (“CCP” or “the Party”):  “[n]o organization or individual has the privilege to overstep the Constitution and the law.”  Appearing to upend prior leader’s commitment to the Party as paramount to the Constitution, Xi highlighted that “[r]ule of the nation by law means, first and foremost, ruling the nation in accord with the constitution; the crux in governing by laws is to govern in accord with the constitution” (emphasis added).

But the currently-published Primer excludes this speech.  Was this intentional Qian wonders?  As Qian points out in his post, in China, anything this important is intentional.  In a society long trained to be hyper-sensitive to a leader’s speech, back in December 2012, Xi’s speech seemed like a watershed.  An inspiration.  The editors at the Guangdong-based newspaper, Southern Weekend, sure thought so.  Only a few weeks after Xi’s 2012 speech, the editors sought to follow his lead, titling the paper’s 2013 New Year’s editorial “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism.”

Either the Southern Weekend editors read the tea leaves wrong or, more likely, not everyone in the CCP leadership supported Xi’s call for constitutionalism.  “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism” never saw the light of day.  Instead, Guangdong propaganda officials quickly stepped in, changing the title and watering down the article to one that was effectively a paean to the Party-controlled system of governance.

Hello, Is it Me You’re Looking For? The Constitution Re-emerges

President Xi Jinping of China

Xi Jinping says Hello Again to the Chinese Constiution

With the suppression of the original Southern Weekend New Year’s editorial and the exclusion of Xi’s 2012 speech from the recently-published Primer, constitutionalism would appear to be dead in China, right?  Wrong.  Just last week, in a speech commemorating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the National People’s Congress (“NPC”),  Xi again raised the banner of constitutionalism, stating that the Constitution was China’s most basic document and that ruling the nation must be done in accordance with that Constitution.

Did Xi just not get the hint? Hardly. As Qian Gang, in a new blog post at China Media Project points out, what we are seeing is a rhetorical power play at the highest levels of the CCP.  Xi’s recent pronouncement demonstrates that he wants to continue with this idea that the Constitution is crucial to the CCP’s governance.  But then there are others – others that might have had influence on the final cut of speeches from Xi’s Primer – who are just not that into constitutionalism.   Likely demonstrating the power of this other group, the Global Times, a conservative government-run newspaper, ran an editorial in its English edition noting that “…the popularity of constitutional governance in the public sphere has only brought negative results in recent years. We propose replacing the concept with the rule of law” (the Chinese version of the editorial is slightly different, putting Xi’s concept of constitutionalism in a historical context).

If you are dying to know what happens to the Constitution in current Party rhetoric – does it stay or does it go – you only have to sit tight for a

Another CCP Plenary is to Occur in October with Rule of Law as the Topic of Conversation

month.  In October, the CCP will hold the fourth plenary session of the CCP’s 18th Central Committee and the central agenda item is rule of law.  As the CCP recognized in its announcement, the rule of law is “vital for the Party’s governance, people’s happiness and the nation’s stability.”    Expect the Xi camp to call on that rule of law through the Constitution; expect there to be opposition.  How public this battle will be is anyone’s guess.  Evidently the rhetorical use of the Constitution is causing divisions within the leadership.

But Does the Constitution Make A Difference in China’s Political-Legal System?

But Xi is far from a constitutional convert, at least not in the Western sense.  Even with this rhetorical debate at the upper echelons of the CCP, Xi’s constitutional dream is far from a free society that promotes individual’s civil rights.  Rogier Creemers, a post-doctoral research officer at Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy, explained this to China Law & Policy.  The State is merely a reflection of the society which it governs and according to Creemers, “the [Chinese] State is there to restore the Chinese nation back to its collective greatness.  One of the key ways in which the CCP justifies its rule is that it knows best how to generate [that] development.  In that sense, law should not be used to constrain the State in its search for national rejuvenation, but to consolidate the progress that has been made on the road towards it. In the economic realm, that means law very often is the outcome of years of policy experimentation, while in the criminal realm, it means vast powers for the State to deal with those who would oppose it, where necessary.”

What is Rule of Law in China?

Thus, even for Xi, use of the Constitution is very top down and is not necessarily that divergent from the official concept of “rule of law.”  The Global Times, in its Chinese version of the editorial makes that clear.  To the Global Times, constitutionalism should be constructed as a neutral term, more in line with what the CCP has determined is the rule of law (“宪政本来是个中性词,与依法治国混用未尝不可”).  China-watcher Shannon Tiezzi, in the Diplomat, perfectly put her finger on what this rule of law is:  “the rule of the CCP through the law. The CCP still controls the legal system, but uses it as one of many available tools to enforce edicts from the center.”

Xi, even with his rhetoric of the Constitution, follows that Party line.  Hence his focus on the idea that the Constitution guarantees that no Party member can act outside of the confines of that document (think Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, both powerful party members that have been taken down by Xi).  But that enforcement still emanates from the center; there is no place for grassroots to help with Xi’s crackdown on government corruption.  Activists Xu Zhiyong (pronounced Sue Zher-young), Liu Ping (pronounced Leo Ping), Wei Zhongping (pronounced Way Jung-ping), and Li Shen (pronounced Lee Shen) know this first hand.  In attempt to fight corruption, all publicly demanded that government officials disclose their assets.  All four have been sentenced to prison terms from three to six years under Xi’s rule.

For Xi, the elements of the Constitution that call for individual rights are to be ignored, which fits with Creemer’s  contention of the purpose

Chinese Rights Activist Liu Ping

Activist Liu Ping in a photo before she was sentenced to six and a half years in prison

of the State in China.  In fact, Xi’s reign has witnessed one of the largest crackdowns on human rights activists since likely 1989.  As the non-profit Chinese Human Rights Defender‘s has noted, since March 2013 – just three months after Xi’s Constitution speech – in addition to the four mentioned above, over 70 rights activists, lawyers and citizens have been detained, arrested, imprisoned or just “disappeared.”  Their crimes? Usually the minor charge of “gathering a crowd to disrupt order in a public place” or “provocation and causing a disturbance,”  charges distorted by public security forces beyond their original meaning.  The real issue?  These activists often call upon the government to protect their constitutional rights.

Rule of law in China “is about delivering economic outcomes and a certain ideal of virtuous behavior by agents of the State” Creemer  stated.  Nothing in Xi’s rhetorical use of the Constitution diverges from that concept.

U.S. Constitutional Convention

Does use of the Word Constitution Mean this Type of a Government?

But the Party is nervous about Xi’s continued use of the word, hence the Global Times editorial which criticizes the “liberals -自由派” (likely the rights activists who have been thrown in jail) who seek to “distort” this Party-mandated perception of the rule of law and putting others on guard to avoid such “traps.”  But can the idea of constitutionalism be raised without giving life to those provisions of the document Xi and the Party would rather ignore – freedom of speech, of association, of religion?  Is Xi’s conception of the Constitution – which would limit official corruption and provide for greater economic development – enough to satisfy the masses?  Or will the Chinese people continue to demand that the Chinese dream be a Western-style constitutional one?

 

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