Friday, August 7, 2009

Whither rule by law for China?

The detention of respected Chinese lawyer and member of the Beijing People's Congress Xu Zhiyong has left me deeply concerned about the direction China is moving. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet and spend some time with him. Xu (pictured here in this month's Chinese Esquire magazine) is soft-spoken and modest; it wasn't until someone told me about his ground-breaking work after the Sun Zhigang case to help change the policy on custody and repatriation that I realized just how extraordinary and important a person he is. Here is a man who wants to work through China's own legal system for the benefit of its people. His representation of victims of the Sanlu milk scandal and his efforts to expose black jails testify to his convictions. Much has been written with great eloquence about the tragedy of Xu's detention and its potential significance for China. The detention of someone who was still playing well within the system (or so it would seem) suggests that it will become even more difficult for other lawyers to take on potentially sensitive cases, including, perhaps, labor cases. Is China setting itself up for further social instability? Thanks to excellent promotion of last year's labor laws, Chinese workers know now they can use the courts to redress grievances. Labor-related lawsuits rose 95% last year, the fastest increase of any category. Disputes are up a further 30% this year from last year's high base. If the door to the courts closes, where will workers, newly educated about their rights, turn?

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