Taming China’s Outlaw Police

A falsely
arrested former soldier’s uphill battle to win redress for
three years in prison

(Photo by Derrick Chang)

streetcopIn a
potential landmark case testing a 21-year-old law allowing citizens
to bring lawsuits against the Chinese government, a former PLA
soldier is suing the Chinese police for 13 million yuan for illegal
detention and seizure of his assets

Given the
way recent cases have gone against the government, nobody is holding
his or her breath about a successful outcome. Nonetheless, a leading
public interest legal group in Beijing is supporting the claim of
Chen Xintao, a Fuzhou resident, saying that it should serve as an
example to deter illegal action by the police against innocent
citizens.

In the
background is a fierce debate within the government over how much
power the courts and the legal system should exercise over the police
and other officials. Reformers argue that the rule of law is the best
way to control official excess, but conservatives say that China
would be ungovernable if courts ruled in favour of claimants and
ordered compensation.

Although
China’s parliament as long ago as 1986 passed the General
Principles of Civil Law, whose clause 121 allows citizens to apply
for compensation if state organs and government officials infringe on
their rights, in the 21 years since, court awards of monetary
compensation have been rare. The most famous plaintiff's verdict
involved a Hubei resident named She Xianglin, who won a paltry
500,000 yuan after spending 11 years in prison for murdering his
wife, only to have her turn up alive.

However,
there are signs that things could be changing. In May, Chief Justice
Xiao Yang called for reforms to the system to ensure that individuals
could bring independent lawsuits against government bodies. Still,
Chen may be at the wrong end of history. Few people are optimistic
about the prospects for the former soldier’s case, since a
verdict in his favor could unleash a torrent of similar claims.

Chen’s
story began on the evening of February 20, 2001, when dozens of
policemen, led by officers Xu Chengping, Zheng Jun and Liu Xiong,
arrived at a market for second-hand cars in Fuzhou which Chen
operated jointly with officer Xu. Earlier that month, Xu had
demanded that Chen give up his interest in the car lot and let Xu run
it alone. Chen refused and asked an associate named Bian Lizhong to
act as mediator.

That
evening police beat Bian to death, faked evidence to show that he had
been killed in an attempted robbery of the market and seized the 31
vehicles there as well as 700,000 yuan in cash and other items in the
office.

A week
later police charged Chen and his brother with extortion and
blackmail. The case went through nine court appearances and eight
demands for re-investigation before Chen was finally found innocent
and released in March 2004, after three years in prison.

On June 20
this year, the High Court of Fujian, of which Fuzhou is the capital,
found the three senior officers in the raid on the car market –
Xu, Zheng and Liu – guilty of murder and sentenced them to
death, with Liu’s sentence commuted to two years. When the news
was published in the local newspaper, residents in Fengban village,
where the three were based, celebrated by setting off firecrackers
for 90 minutes outside the office of the local Communist Party
committee.

On April 2
this year, Chen presented his claim to the Fujian High Court,
together with his lawyer Li Fangping, who works for a Beijing firm
and belongs to a public interest group called the Open Constitution
Initiative, which has taken up Chen’s case. In his suit, Chen
is asking for 5.1 million yuan in direct losses – theft of his
cars and money – 7.2 million yuan in indirect losses –
what he would have earned if he had worked since February 2001 –
and one million yuan in psychological damages.

Since his
release, he says, his 17-year-old daughter has not once called him
“father”, a result of the press branding him a gang
leader and her suffering humiliation at school. He has been unable to
find work and the family relies on the 1,400 yuan a month his wife
earns as a hospital accountant.

“This
is a typical case that can push forward the reform of China’s
national compensation mechanism,” the legal team said. It
organized a team of lawyers, led by Li, to represent Chen and invited
specialists to offer legal opinions about how to lodge a complaint.

Chen’s
release from prison without charge and the sentencing of three
policemen on June 20 make clear the facts of the case and who was
right and wrong. However, the key for Chen and his lawyers is to
show that the three were acting on behalf of the police and not as
individuals. If the judge decides that they were acting on their own,
then the police force as an institution is not liable.

The
lawyers, however, are citing reports of the raid in Fuzhou
newspapers on February 22, 2001, describing a police victory over
organized crime, and 2001 public document number 45 of the city’s
politics and law committee commending Liu Xiong – one of the
three officers later sentenced to death for his action in the raid.

Chen’s
lawyers believe that the mastermind behind the raid was Wang
Zhenzhong, then deputy chief of police in Fuzhou, who later fled to
the U.S. with his mistress, also a police officer. After his escape,
investigators found 30 million yuan in cash at his home. Chen’s
lawyers propose that some of this money be used to compensate their
client, who believes that the police auctioned the cars they seized
and kept the money. Wang is the highest ranking former Chinese police
officer on the run abroad.

A
spokesman for the Fujian High Court declined comment.

In July
this year, six leading legal specialists issued a paper in support of
Chen’s claim, saying that it was “of enormous legal
significance” in the bringing of a suit against a public
institution. It will take more than papers and good wishes, however,
to begin dismantling a system that rarely offers redress to citizens,
no matter how just their claims.

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