A huge artice in today’s Times tells how a judge’s seemingly minor decision has rocked China’s judicial system, upsetting tradional norms (i.e., that the government has the final say in the courts) and becoming a lightning rod for judicial reform.
Judge Li Huijuan happened to be in the courthouse file room when clerks, acting on urgent orders, began searching for a ruling on a mundane case about seed prices. “I handled that case,” Judge Li told the clerks, surprised that anyone would be interested.
A dispute between two local companies over the price of seeds, like those sold at a seed store in Luoyang, turned into a conflict between the law of Henan Province and the national law of China.
Li Huijuan, then an idealistic student, received a master’s from the University of Politics and Law in Beijing in 2001.
But within days, the Luoyang Middle Court’s discipline committee contacted her. Provincial officials had angrily complained that the ruling contained a serious political error. Faced with a conflict between national and provincial law, Judge Li had declared the provincial law invalid. In doing so, she unwittingly made legal history, setting in motion a national debate about judicial independence in China’s closed political system.
In many countries, including the United States, a judge tossing out a lower-level law would scarcely merit attention. But in China, the government, not a court, is the final arbiter of law. What Judge Li had considered judicial common sense, provincial legislators considered a judicial revolt. Their initial response was to try to crush it. Judge Li, who had on the bench less than three years, feared her career might be finished.
“An order by those in power has forced local leaders, none of whom dared to stand on principle, to sacrifice me,” she wrote in rebuttal. “I’m just an ordinary person, a female judge who tried to protect the law. Who is going to protect my rights?”
Faced with the complex demands of governing a chaotic, modernizing country, China’s leaders have embraced the rule of law as the most efficient means of regulating society. But a central requirement in fulfilling that promise lies unresolved – whether the governing Communist Party intends to allow an independent judiciary.
There’s no fairy tale ending. The system remains intact and Judge Li was persected and nearly had her career destroyed. The positive side is that the story received so much attention from the Chinese media and legal scholars, who brought the issue into the forefront. It says there’s a lot of dissatisfaction with the Party’s version of rule of law. A lot of people are mad as hell and don’t want to take it anymore.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.