Suing the Chinese Government

[Update: the suit was rejected, as a commenter points out.]

This blog was home to a spirited argument some months ago regarding the government’s efforts to bribe and/or silence parents of the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake who were demanding accountability. Now 57 of those parents are trying to have their day in court, but it is not at all clear whether the court will hear them.

A group of parents whose children were among the 127 killed in the collapse of an elementary school during the May earthquake that devastated western China have confirmed that they filed a lawsuit against government officials and a construction contractor. The lawsuit is the first filed by grieving and angry parents who say shoddy construction cost the children their lives.

Radio Free Asia reported the lawsuit in early December, but China’s official news media have not mentioned it. This weekend, the parents confirmed the filing in telephone interviews. They said the court has yet to tell them whether it will hear the case.

The lawsuit was filed on Dec. 1 in a court here in the city of Deyang, in Sichuan Province, the region hit hardest by the May 12 earthquake, which left 88,000 people dead or missing. Up to 10,000 schoolchildren were killed as some 7,000 classrooms and dormitory rooms collapsed across the quake zone, according to government estimates.

That they have gotten this far is pretty remarkable, though I doubt they will get much farther. Possibly all of them have signed an agreement with the government not to speak about the issue. The only bright side of the story is that the Chinese people are far more willing to speak out than they were just a few years ago, and they are beginning to see their right to protest and complain as a given.

In similar legal action, parents in three provinces filed lawsuits this fall against dairy companies after tens of thousands of children across China fell ill and at least four died from drinking milk and baby formula tainted with a toxic chemical called melamine. Local officials had been involved in covering up the poisonings, and judges have so far declined to hear any lawsuits.

After the earthquake, the central government assigned a committee of experts to look into the school collapses, but the committee has yet to issue a final report. In September, an official from the committee, Ma Zongjin, said at a news conference in Beijing that a rush to build schools during the Chinese economic boom might have led to shoddy construction that resulted in the student deaths. He said more than 1,000 schools had one of two major flaws — they were built on the earthquake fault line or they were poorly constructed.

Government officials at all levels have tried to suppress discussion of the school collapses.

So it’s a maddening situation, where you can protest, but only so much. Rule of law and accountability are still abstractions. You can complain and sue and speak up on the Internet and even in the media, and the government may actually investigate (which is why I bolded the text above – in the earlier thread there was a lot of skepticism of whether there would be any investigation at all). But when it comes to demanding accountability, don’t get your hopes too high. It’s great that these parents can sue the government. Until the courts start to act and hold officials accountable for their actions, however, it’s little more than a gesture.

Note: If you want to be reminded of the very human nature of the school tragedy in Sichuan, please revisit this famous post. I still get chills when I look at those faces.

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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.

The Discussion: 4 Comments

Good for them. People should always hope they can make a difference.

December 23, 2008 @ 8:00 pm | Comment

Agreed. Let’s see how far they get. Could help that the whole world is watching. Of course, that’s what we said on June 3rd.

December 23, 2008 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

“Let’s see how far they get.”

Well, according to this article from today I would say… A couple of hours?

http://tinyurl.com/73jy6s

December 23, 2008 @ 10:55 pm | Comment

CALLING FOR ATTENTION TO THE SOCIAL PROBLEMS THAT ARISES FROM THE CASES OF THE “FAKE TIGER PICTURE” IN SHANXI PROVINCE AND THE “CHESTNUTS EPIDEMIC DISEASE” IN SICHUAN PROVINCE!

The case of Mr. Zhou’s “Fake Tiger Picture” in Shanxi province was considered to be small and harmless as nobody was affected. Though small, he was arrested and severely punished.

In comparison, the case of the loss of over 600,000 chestnut trees (valued at tens of millions of Yuan) in Gulin County, Sichuan province was left unattended by the County’s Forestry Administration. Giving neither explanations nor answers to the farmers who are the victims to the big loss.

From 1994 to 1999, the Forestry Administration in Gulin County, Sichuan province has illegally introduced hundreds of thousands of Chinese chestnut trees, which were not checked formally.

Though the epidemic disease of chestnut trees in Gulin County, Sichuan province broke out in May 2002, the relative Government departments (County Government and the Forestry Administration in Gulin County) was slow to solve the problem. They didn’t take any effective actions to control the disease until January 2004 when they finally started to destroy the infected chestnut trees by burning and burying them.

The overall loss comes to 600,000 chestnut trees. The farmers/victims of 284 families, including Yang Zhengde’s family lost their 287,214 trees on their 3608.7 mu of land.

Under normal circumstances, they should be compensated for their losses from the relevant authorities. However to their disappointment they never did. In hoping for a better solution, they brought the problem to the higher government departments and again to their greater disappointment, they were rejected!
Out of frustrations or rather helpless, the victims brought the County Government and the Forestry Administration in Gulin County to court in June 2004. Taking the government to court was never easy as there were so many obstructions from different people and authorities. Eventually, the case could not be officially filed. The justice of the law was spurned and ruined!

For the sake of the conscience and dignity of our law, we hope to see justice! We need help! Will anyone hear us?

January 29, 2009 @ 1:20 pm | Comment

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