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Labor Article

Legal Rights


China had no justice system during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and it was only in 1979 that the country began to slowly reopen courts and law schools.[1] Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has moved more aggressively towards strengthening the rule of law in China, although there is little consensus even amongst legal experts as to what exactly this rule of law means in the Chinese context. Supporters of China’s legal reforms tend to point to all the progress that has already been made given that 30 years ago, no justice system existed. Critics tend to focus on the lack of enforcement and execution of the laws.

Greater Protections: In the last two decades, China has passed laws that outlaw the use of torture, provide citizens with the right to defense and greater access to counsel,[2] better protect the rights of the disabled, elderly, women, employees and migrant workers,[3] and also compensate citizens for wrongful government action.[4] None of these laws have existed before. As well, arbitrary detentions still happen, but no longer on the scale it happened in the past.

Criminal Trials: To provide China’s citizens with equal access to justice, more than 3,200 legal aid centers providing free criminal legal aid to the poor have been established by the government throughout the country.[5] However, critics charge that in reality, accused Chinese are still unable to fully realize their rights, with almost 90% having no access to counsel and over 99% of accused facing certain conviction.[6] Political trials tend to be the most sensitive and problematic. In the case of AIDS activist Hu Jia, for example, his trial reportedly lasted only four hours and his lawyer was given only 30 minutes to mount his defense.[7] Hu was under house arrest for two hundred days before being finally jailed for three and a half years in April 2008 for “inciting to subvert state power” through a series of articles and blogs he had written on freedom.[8] Also, human rights lawyers taking political cases often find themselves beaten, harassed, threatened, and sometimes even put in jail or under house arrest.[9] Commonly cited reasons for the failings of China’s criminal justice system include a lack of training, inadequate resources, limited support systems for China’s legal professionals, and a general lack of awareness in the general public of their rights.[10] NGOs like International Bridges for Justice have been helping to provide training and assistance to criminal defenders and setting up model legal aid centers.

Civil Trials: Chinese citizens are also increasingly using the courts to resolve conflicts in civil and commercial matters, and also to sue the government, with some success, for infringing on their rights in regard to issues like land acquisition, relocation programs, and labor rights (See "Labor"). In civil courts, judges are reportedly being more professional and objective, even though some still tend to side with government interests over the average citizen.[11]


Capital Punishment
Though official numbers are secret, foreign experts with contacts in the Chinese judiciary estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 people were given the death penalty in 2007, compared to as many as 15,000 cases a year a decade ago.[12] After 26 years, in one of the most important reforms of China’s judicial system, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) — China’s top court — now reviews all death penalty sentences imposed by lower courts (intermediate courts and provincial high courts) in an attempt to ensure that death sentences are only reserved for those who have committed heinous crimes with serious social consequences. In the first half of 2008, the SPC overturned 15% of death sentences handed down by the lower courts due to lack of sufficient evidence.[13]

1 International Bridges for Justice, “Where We Work: China,” International Bridges for Justice, http://ibj.org/where-we-work/asia/china/2/.

2 International Bridges for Justice, “Where We Work”.

3 Zhou Xin and Jason Subler, “New Chinese labour law give employers the jitters,” Reuters, December 18, 2007, http://www.reuters.com/article/ousiv/idUSPEK37429120071218 (accessed 12/20/08).

4 Jamie P. Horsley, “The Rule of Law in China: Incremental Progress,” China Balance Sheet Background Paper, March 2006, http://chinabalancesheet.org/Papers.html (accessed 7/25/08), 4.

5 International Bridges for Justice, “Where We Work.”

6 International Bridges for Justice, “IBJ: Establishing an International Support Network for China’s Criminal Defenders,” International Bridges for Justice Handout at Committee

7 Amnesty International, “Hu Jia Verdict A 'Blatant Perversion Of Justice,' Charges Amnesty International, Demanding Activist's Release,” Amnesty International Press Release, April 2, 2008, http://www.amnestyusa.org/document.php?id=ENGUSA20080402001&lang=e (accessed 7/25/08).

8 Clifford Coonan, “Hu Jia: China’s enemy within,” The Independent, April 4, 2008, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/hu-jia-chinas-enemy-within-804589.html (accessed 7/25/08).

9 Peter Ford, “Amid human rights protests, a look at China’s record,” The Christian Science Monitor, April 10, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0410/p04s01-woap.html (accessed 7/24/08).

10 International Bridges for Justice, “Establishing A Support Network” handout.

11 Ford, “Amid human rights protests."

12 Ford, “Amid human rights protests."

13 Xie Chuanjiao, “Top court overturns 15% death sentence in 1st half year,” China Daily, June 27, 2008, http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2008-06/27/content_6798854.htm (accessed 6/27/08).