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The People’s Verdict: Going to Court in China Pays Off

Times Staff Writer

Zhao Jin’s bright and sleepless nights began shortly after he moved into his home less than a year ago.

Outside the front balcony of his second-floor apartment, four lights from a storefront sign beamed into his bedroom, through the thick curtains and into his weary eyes. When he complained to storeowners, they got angry and told him to get lost.

But the 26-year-old industrial equipment salesman retained a lawyer and filed suit. Two months later, Zhao got even. The People’s Court of Shanghai ordered the decorations store to kill its sign lights.

“They violated my living space,” Zhao said recently in his bedroom, where, with a look of satisfaction, he drew open the curtains to show the blackness of the night.

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Zhao didn’t have much confidence in China’s legal system, but he said of his court experience: “I’m very satisfied. It was quick and efficient.”

Not that long ago, people like Zhao would have bottled up their anger and endured the suffering. Or they might have taken their grievances to “residents’ committees,” neighborhood support groups formed in the early days of Communist China to settle disputes and look out for thieves and spies, among other things.

But with a newfound sense of their rights and more lawyers to back them up, a growing number of Chinese are bypassing these committees and taking their cases to court.

Reports of all manner of cases appear in newspapers: A Guangzhou man sues a restaurant after three mice fall in his meal. Disgruntled movie fans in Hangzhou take a theater to court for a 10-minute delay. A Chongqing woman asks a judge to punish her neighbor for naming a dog after her and then scolding the pet in public.

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Nationwide, more than 781,000 civil lawsuits were filed in China last year, according to government figures. That’s 115,000 more than two years earlier.

“It’s a good thing that we see the increase,” said Sun Dongdong, professor in the law school at Peking University and a consultant to the Chinese Consumer Assn. “It indicates that people’s awareness of law has been greatly improved.”

The rise in lawsuits has come hand in hand with China’s dazzling economic success and the burgeoning ranks of attorneys. Shanghai, China’s showcase business center, now has about 6,200 lawyers, a nearly 50% increase from early 2000.

Bai Xing Chun, one of 30 lawyers at the Shanghai-based firm Siway & Seaway, works out of a small office at a legal center in the Yangpu District, a gritty, industrial area in the north end of this city of 17 million. Over the last decade, China’s central government has helped establish hundreds of such legal aid offices in the country to help consumers file lawsuits.

Bai, who came to Shanghai four years ago, says he’s never been busier.

“I get more than 10 customers each day,” he said as clients popped in and out of his unadorned office on a recent morning.

About a third of the complaints he hears are related to marriage problems, he said. The rest are financial disputes, mainly involving real estate.

“It matches the social-economic development and the market economy,” he said. “In the past, people used to seek help from the government and hope it would intervene to solve their problems, but now society has changed and the government prefers to direct people to solve disputes through legal means.”

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Also helping to crowd the courts are foreigners, who generally have a lower tolerance for perceived wrongs in China and don’t regard going to court as “losing face,” as many Chinese still do.

Fu Liangzhi, a 44-year-old Chinese American, left Shanghai for the United States when he was 17 but has been coming back for business. Last spring, Fu had his day in Chinese court after he and his housekeeper got into a bitter argument.

Fu said the police were summoned, and three officers entered his house when he briefly stepped out. One officer used the house phone to call Fu, demanding that he return home at once to deal with the housekeeper’s complaint.

Fu was appalled -- and the next day he sued the chief of the local police station.

In his lawsuit, Fu demanded an apology and reimbursement for the phone call -- about 16 cents. “I felt hurt and humiliated,” he said. “I wanted to put them in trouble.”

Fu lost but has no regrets. “Although I failed, I’m glad that I took the police head to court,” he said. “I’m just an ordinary person, but in court I had equal stage with the head of police and argued with him.”

It isn’t very expensive in China to take someone to court. The initial filing fee is usually no more than $6. In some real estate lawsuits, the plaintiff may be required to pay 2% of the amount in dispute.

But lawyers say there are loopholes to get around such costs. Fees for attorneys vary, but there also are government-imposed guidelines restricting lawyers from overbilling.

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People who sue can’t expect hefty damage awards, which are rare. And first-time court users run into other frustrations.

Gong Lanfang, 64, recently walked into the imposing People’s Court building in north Shanghai for a hearing in a real estate dispute with her stepsons. She waited and waited. When the defendants didn’t show up, Gong could no longer contain her emotions. She flailed her arms in anger as she recounted her grievances in a small hearing room.

The hearing administrator, a young woman dressed in a white shirt and black tie and jacket, listened for a while and then told the woman there was nothing she could do.

Many Chinese won’t go to court because they distrust the system and its ability to mete out justice. They know corrupt officials continue to avoid punishment. High-profile cases from time to time reinforce the belief that the courts can be easily swayed by political influence or payoffs.

This summer, people in and outside China criticized the three-year jail term given to Zhou Zhengyi, a well-connected real estate tycoon who was arrested for fraud and stock manipulation involving millions of dollars. One human rights group said others who committed similar offenses had received the death penalty.

Still, as more people become familiar with the courts and find satisfactory results, opinions of China’s legal system are likely to improve.

For Shanghai resident Lu Yao Dong, it already has.

Like Zhao, Lu’s problems involved blinding lights. A car dealership across the street from Lu’s home installed three yellow lamps, which brightened its showroom but glared into his bedroom.

Lu, a 36-year-old editor at a Chinese health publication company, said the lights kept him awake. So in early September, he filed a lawsuit under the city’s new “light pollution” law. After a two-hour hearing later that month, Judge Cao Kerui ordered the car dealership to remove the lamps, although he rejected Lu’s demand for an apology.

Still, Lu was pleased.

“I think the Chinese legal system has hope,” Lu said. “Before, I felt you had to have some special relationship with the court to win.”

Zhang Xiuying of The Times’ Shanghai Bureau contributed to this report.


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