BEIJING // The importance of obtaining a receipt after buying a meal on a train, in the greater scheme of legal issues in China, may be difficult for most people to comprehend. But for Hao Jinsong, a public interest legal activist, this small piece of paper can have a major effect on the promotion of the rule of law in China. When Mr Hao forced China's ministry of railways to provide train passengers with receipts for purchases of food and other items while riding China's rails - often worth less than US$1 (Dh3.67) - the effect was big. By challenging government branches in the courts - he is the first to succeed - Mr Hao is proving to the Chinese people that they can have their day in court.
"The ministry of railways is a huge bureaucracy, and so if you can beat it in court, then it will give the public tremendous confidence in the law," said the 35-year-old lawyer. "People saw this and said, 'Hao Jinsong is just one person, but he defeated a huge bureaucracy'. They gained a new understanding of the law, which they previously thought was useless." The cases being brought by Hao Jinsong and others like him "are important not because they give the public more faith in the legal system, but because they create an opportunity to educate the public on what the legal system should be doing, and how it can - and, sometimes, does - respond in ways to better protect individual rights", said Thomas Kellogg, an expert on the Chinese legal system at the Open Society Institute.
"These lawsuits are a big deal in that they illustrate what we all hope is the future of litigation in China, in which the courts are seen not just as a mechanism for resolving economic disputes, but also as a place to enforce limits on state power and make sure that everyone, including the most powerful government bureaucrats, is playing by the same set of rules." After graduating as a chemistry major, Mr Hao spent the first eight years of his career in a monotonous bank job. But as he began to look at the people around him, he noticed something was wrong.
"I saw a lot of unfair things in society," he said. "The judicial system lacked independence and was corrupt and the government was corrupt." Mr Hao said a lot of people were facing difficulties and did not know where to turn. "I wanted to change society," he said, "but my background was in chemistry and working in a bank, I couldn't help anyone." He began reading up on the law, which convinced him to make a career change. In 2003, he moved to Beijing, where he studied law at the China University of Politic Science and Law, graduating in 2007.
As soon as he arrived in the Chinese capital to begin his studies, however, Mr Hao realised the judicial system had few teeth. "The law was strong, but implementation was weak," he said. "No one wanted to use it." Without implementation of the law, he reasoned, chaos would reign. He grouped together with other like-minded lawyers in China to establish the Public Interest Law Centre. They decided they would not get far by challenging the government on sensitive issues, and that they could have the biggest effect by starting with less-sensitive cases. If they could win a few cases they could then show the Chinese people they actually could receive justice in a court, despite the inadequacies of the legal system.
His first case was seemingly minor. Beijing's subway system had recently installed public toilets, which charged people five mao (Dh0.25) to use, but it refused to give users a receipt, as required by law. Mr Hao saw the case as being important for two reasons. Firstly, the subway system was likely evading taxes, and secondly, receipts can be a valuable document if there is a problem with products or services.
The case dragged on for more than a year, changing judges twice in that time. Finally, the case was lost. But Mr Hao was not discouraged. "We knew that the Chinese legal system wasn't perfect," he said. "After we lost, we continued to pursue the case." In a subsequent hearing, Mr Hao and his fellow lawyers won, forcing the subway authorities to start providing receipts. Mr Hao next set his sights on a bigger target: China's sprawling and powerful ministry of railways, which was not providing receipts either. He won the receipt case, after first losing twice, and trains throughout China began to issue receipts.
A more high-profile case came in 2006 when he challenged the ministry of railways again, this time for raising train ticket prices each year during Chinese New Year, a time when tens of millions of migrant workers crowd on to trains for their annual trip home. Mr Hao lost the case in the Beijing No 1 Intermediate Court, and immediately appealed to a higher court, where he lost again. The Public Interest Law Centre then daringly wrote an open letter to Liu Zhijun, the minister of railways, which was published in the Procuratorate Daily. Three days later, the ministry bowed to pressure and announced there would be no further increases on the price of holiday tickets. Although the ministry later denied the move was related to Mr Hao's efforts, the public saw an obvious connection.
Mr Hao is unfazed by legal setbacks, saying that by pressing a case he succeeds in putting pressure on the bureaucracy and at the same time educating the public about the law. "The law is just characters on a piece of paper," Mr Hao said. "You have to go to court to give it strength." He likened the law to a precious sword that will rust if not used. "If you don't go to the court to protect your rights today, then tomorrow the law could disappear," he said. "You could lose your house, your land and your personal liberty."
Jeffrey Prescott, deputy director of the China Law Center at Yale University, says there has been a top-down effort to improve China's legal system, which includes improving the competence of judges, establishing procedures that allow civil suits, and other recent structural changes. "Though still far from perfect, the basic system is now in place," he said. Mr Prescott praised Mr Hao's effort to push from the bottom.
"Lawyers like Mr Hao are trying to take the system seriously and to use it to promote the public interest," he said. "This is part of a bottom-up effort by citizens and lawyers to stand up for their own interests and for the public interest. It is an important part of the development of any legal system, and one that China should encourage." firstname.lastname@example.org