“I’ve always believed the three ultimate means to protect individual rights and eliminate injustice in a modern civilisation are litigation, litigation and litigation.”
It may sound like John Adams (an American ‘Founding Father’) but the man quoted by the People’s Daily is Hao Jinsong, a bespectacled man in his mid-thirties with a GI haircut. Hao’s belief is that China is ready to emulate America and its sacrosanct twin principles of blind justice and the rights of the individual.
A few years ago, Hao formed the Hao Jinsong Public Interest Research Centre with a team of like-minded legal professionals. They take civil, consumer and non-political issues to court.
More often than not, they work pro bono. They aim to challenge examples of unchecked power in government agencies, their monopoly of public resources, and the country’s general lack of transparency.
Hailing from Xinzhou in Shanxi province – a city known throughout China for producing very obstinate people – Hao is best known for the lawsuits he brought against the powerful National Railway Bureau, challenging its refusal to give tax receipts for goods bought on trains, and its ticket pricing policy.
His first case was small – and seemingly not that significant. Several years ago, when Beijing’s subway system first installed public toilets, a fee of five mao was charged for use. But the subway operators didn’t give users a receipt, as required by law.
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.
“A receipt slip, small as it may be, embodies your rights. You could chuck it, but it encapsulates the power of law and democracy. If you lose the right to a receipt today, you could lose something else tomorrow, and one day it could well be your house or your land. The losses will come as a result of your failure to protect the law from disdain,” Hao responded when it was suggested in an interview with Southern People Weekly that his appeal for a receipt was frivolous.
He next took on the National Railway Bureau and won that receipt case too, on his third attempt. His success earned the government millions of renminbi a year in tax revenue from the railroads.
The following year, he was back in court, questioning the railroad management’s decision to hike ticket prices during the Chinese New Year holidays, when tens of millions of migrant workers head home.
His campaign attracted wide public support. He lost in two consecutive proceedings, but the railway management eventually bowed to pressure after Hao wrote an open letter to the head of the railway department, on behalf of “long suffering workers and students from rural families”. Holiday ticket prices have not moved since 2007.
“The open letter was the best composition I’ve written. Even I myself was deeply touched,” Hao recalled.
After graduating as a chemistry major, Hao spent the first eight years of his career in a monotonous bank job. During this period, he began reading up on law, and this convinced him to make a career change. In 2003, he moved to Beijing, where he studied law at the China University of Political Science and Law, graduating in 2007.
Hao is an advocate of multiple litigation, whereby one person repeatedly or several people simultaneously, go to court over a particular issue. He believes this exerts tremendous pressure on the authorities, which can result in change, even if only gradually.
“This is the way dripping water wears through rock,” Hao told Beijing Review. “I have shown people that they have to land successive blows on an unfair system before it collapses.”
Hao’s most recent success involved helping two men who fell victim to illegal law enforcement practices in Shanghai.
He represented Sun Zhongjie and Zhang Hui, who in two separate incidents offered a lift out of kindness to a man who turned out to be entrapping them.
Take Sun’s case. He was a new driver employed by a construction company in Shanghai. One night, on a work-related trip, his car was stopped by a man standing in the middle of the street. The stranger, shivering in the cold weather, climbed into Sun’s car uninvited and told Sun that he had something urgent to deal with but couldn’t find a taxi or bus.
Sun was sympathetic. Considering that the man’s stated destination wasn’t too far out of his way, he gave him the requested short ride of 1.5km. The man threw across a Rmb10 bill, which Sun hadn’t asked for. But instead of getting out, the man stepped on the brake pedal and then grabbed Sun’s car keys.
The man turned out to be a ‘hook’. A hook’s task is to entice a non-taxi driver to provide a ride, so that he’ll be able to accuse him of operating a “black taxi” without a license. In each successful hook case, the hook gets paid a few hundred yuan, while the driver is fined Rmb10,000 or more, by the local government’s Traffic Management Bureau.
Hao argued against this method of entrapment, and the two men were later declared innocent.
“Since the two incidents in Shanghai were reported, I have been receiving letters and calls from across the country from people telling me they were also trapped,” Hao told the China Daily. He estimated that several thousand drivers in Shanghai are trapped every year during police crackdowns against ‘black taxis’. It is a practice that has enraged public opinion, with most suspecting that elements of the police force are merely enriching themselves.
Shanghai’s municipal government has since set up a new operation led by a vice mayor to regulate public transportation and counterillegal traffic law enforcement operations i.e. hooking.
Hao’s next target is the Chinese Football Association, which in recent years has been mired in scandals like match-fixing and bribery. Hao plans to charge the governing body with ‘negligence of duty’ and wants a public apology.
“As a body of authority, the Football Association is answerable to the public; it needs to be responsible toward China’s football fans and for the development of football as a sport in the country. Failing that, it is guilty of illegal conduct and negligence of duty,” Hao told the Shanghai Evening News.
Hao is still in the process of gathering evidence and building his case, which he admits will be far from straightforward.
“I am an attacker. The harder the resistance, the stronger the desire to tear it down,” he warns.
Hao represents a new breed of activist in China who resort to bringing about gradual institutional changes through exercising their rights within the realm of law.
So they are careful to remain within strictly legal means to advance their causes, as well as to avoid actions that might imply an excessively political stance.
Hao is clear on the point too: “When you want to push the government, you need to ensure that it is feeling a force that it can forbear, a force that is safe, aimed at nudging everyone forward. Under those circumstances, your own safety is then safeguarded.”
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