Taming China’s Outlaw Police

(Photo by Derrick Chang)

In 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.