Barefoot Lawyers

The riot in Liushugouzi unfolded all too typically. Last May a band of local officials descended upon the village in Shandong province to collect overdue taxes and fees--the bane of China's farmers. The authorities set up a "special court" in the primary school and, in a scene reminiscent of Cultural Revolution-era "struggle sessions," hired roughnecks armed with electric batons to threaten and beat farmers who didn't pay. After farmer Wei Wendong was pummeled senseless, other peasants began fighting back. About 150 of them took up crude farm implements--hoes, shovels, sticks--and went after the abusive officials. The scrum didn't break up until hours later, when an ambulance and additional authorities arrived.

What's happened since then is even more unusual--and more promising for China's beleaguered peasantry. Liushugouzi's outraged residents have turned to the law. "I want to go to court to fight," Wei fumed after picking up a $300 hospital bill recovering from his injuries. "How could a communist cadre beat me like that?" The villagers tracked down two Shandong farmers who had acquired some legal expertise and filed a lawsuit demanding compensation for their injuries; an initial hearing is slated for this week. "We must teach local authorities a lesson so that they won't bully us in the future," says one of the villagers, Liu Fangping.

Cases like theirs mark a sea change. Across Shandong province, in a trend that's gaining steam in other parts of rural China, peasants with few legal qualifications and little advanced schooling have begun to sue their own government--and win. The phenomenon has echoes of the 1960s, when Mao Zedong gave a corps of communist paramedics--so-called barefoot doctors--rudimentary medical training and orders to minister to remote villages. These barefoot lawyers have taught themselves the law, enough to file and argue civil complaints in local courts, and taken on the task of ensuring that China's downtrodden peasants know and assert their rights. Their successes may seem trifling compared with the multimillion-dollar payouts common in U.S. courts. But for the first time in decades, they've given rural Chinese a nonviolent, institutional means of resisting the arbitrary use of power--just the kind of legal reform the West has been pushing Beijing to adopt.

That is becoming all the more critical as farm incomes decline and the burden of taxes, fees and illegal surcharges grows precipitously. The collapse of many government-owned rural enterprises in recent years has left local authorities wallowing in debt--about $72 billion in all, according to one internal report. By law, taxes should not exceed 5 percent of a farm family's income. But that hasn't stopped local officials from trying to make up their shortfall--and, in many cases, line their own pockets--by bleeding farmers dry. Just last month hundreds of peasants in Henan province stoned and overturned official vehicles belonging to tax collectors. The rioters had been ordered to cough up sums amounting to half their annual incomes of just $48 a year, according to the U.S.-based rights group China Labor Watch.

Such tensions will only become more fraught as reforms forced by China's accession to the World Trade Organization begin to bite. In coming years Chinese peasants will face an influx of cheaper, better imported foodstuffs. To compete, millions of tiny family farms will likely have to be consolidated into large-scale agribusinesses; Hong Kong-based labor activist Han Dongfang claims that as many as 300 million farmers may be thrown out of work. Already farmers in northeast China are feeling the pinch: southern markets have not signed some routine contracts this year in anticipation of an import boom. Tariff cuts have made imported potatoes cheaper than the homegrown spuds used to make french fries for Beijing's McDonald's and KFC. Corn costs at least five times as much to grow in parts of China as it does in the United States.

Many Shandong farmers will be hard hit. With a GDP that tops $100 billion and exports that grew more than 20 percent in 2001, the northeastern province is booming. Glittering Qingdao--the mainland's second largest port--boasts more than 3,000 foreign joint ventures with companies like Mitsubishi, Nestle and Lucent Technologies. But just a couple of hours' drive from Qingdao is a rural outback stalked by drought, floods and environmental pollution. The Yellow River has been tapped by so many upstream irrigation schemes and other diversions that its waters don't even reach the Shandong coast two thirds of the year. Several of the agricultural products on which the province depends--peanuts, corn, wheat--have already begun to plummet in price. Unfortunately for local authorities, Shandong residents are also renowned for being hotblooded and fierce in defense of their interests. The 1900 Boxer Rebellion was inspired by a devastating drought in the province.

However basic their skills, barefoot lawyers might help forestall a similar explosion. A loose collection of such lawyer-peasants has developed in southern Shandong: using mobile phones and pagers, they keep in touch with one another, exchange advice about cases and, importantly, recruit other farmers to the cause. Their numbers have grown steadily over the past decade as peasants have gained access to increasingly outspoken media and become more aware of their rights. Greater mobility has helped wronged villagers travel to provincial capitals to air their grievances. And more local officials are seemingly growing sympathetic to their plight. For central authorities, such grass-roots lawsuits represent a relatively painless way of punishing corrupt local officials and allowing farmers to let off steam, rather than taking out their frustrations with violence.

Most of the "lawyers" share a few key traits, including some degree of education and a pivotal experience that pushed them to action. The two men representing the villagers of Liushugouzi--Wang Xuefu, 53, and Li Zhizeng, 40--both finished middle school and are thus considered relatively "wise and cultured" by their rural peers. Wang, a mild-mannered former soldier, served as deputy party secretary in a village called Sangyuan in the 1980s. In 1989 he "was forced to become a rebel," he says. Local officials tried to squeeze more than they were owed from farmers' grain quotas; Wang told the peasants not to pay up. Two days later Wang and his two brothers were arrested and beaten to a pulp. When he complained to provincial authorities, Wang was sent back to the very people who had ordered his arrest--who then stripped him of his party membership. "It was then that I realized we'd have to turn to the law as our weapon," he says.

When he says "law," he means a tool as crude as most farm implements. Wang simply bought himself a copy of the Comprehensive Law of the PRC (People's Republic of China) and started subscribing to newspapers like Legal Daily and Agricultural Masses. Li, after getting embroiled in a tax dispute with his own village leaders, also began seeking out bits of legal knowledge from books and newspapers. Both of them quickly moved beyond their own complaints to advise other farmers of their rights. Li has represented peasants in court dozens of times, mostly over excessive taxation. In 1996 Wang masterminded a surprising legal victory in neighboring Shuanghou township, where officials were demanding that families fork over $18 apiece to help build a new school. With Wang's help, six families refused and sued the township government. At one point the judge tried to persuade Wang to drop the case--concerned about the "negative social effects of suing one's own government," Wang says--but later accepted his argument that such public-works fees could not be levied without residents' agreement. Ultimately the judge ruled that the families "needn't pay a cent."

The Liushugouzi case is typical of how the pair operate. The villagers, who had heard by word of mouth of their previous legal victories, sought out Wang and Li for advice. After listening to their accounts of the riot, Wang reassured the peasants that according to a 1998 central-government directive the authorities could be held responsible for resorting to violence. "I advised them to get forensic evidence and medical experts' evaluations" of the two men wounded in the altercation, he says. Armed with those documents, the pair helped lodge a civil complaint against the township government demanding "administrative compensation"--basically, medical costs. They have not filed suit to complain of the excessive taxation, but the pair insist they are not concerned only with money. (Wang and Li both provide their legal advice free.) "Money is important, but it isn't the only thing," says Li. "We want the authorities to know we're not just country bumpkins who know nothing."

That realization is only just beginning to dawn on the regime. In recent years workers have brought several successful lawsuits against their employers for unsafe working conditions--most often in cities (accompanying story) and usually with the help of professional lawyers. Lodging complaints in the countryside and against local governments remains much more difficult. "Courts are worried about the political consequences of accepting certain cases," says an American lawyer in Beijing who is researching domestic law in China. Traditionally, peasants with grievances have resorted to the process of shangfang--literally, to complain to higher authorities about an injustice and request fair settlement. But the process remains arbitrary and unpredictable. With each case heard in a rural court, on the other hand, the rule of law is extended one step further.

That kind of evolutionary change is critical for the country at large. WTO accession has focused the regime on the need for legal reform, both to handle WTO regulations and to ensure that foreign firms have a means of resolving business disputes. Unlike in the West, only about half of China's 110,000 lawyers actually have law degrees. Judges and attorneys were denounced as "bourgeois" during the Cultural Revolution, and the legal profession was revived only along with Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in 1979. The first law regulating lawyers wasn't passed until 1996. A new nationwide law exam is about to be instituted in late March, and already 360,000 applicants have registered.

Changes in the countryside are less formalized, fueled by social developments more than government fiat. Peasants, emboldened by the liberalization of society as a whole, are less docile than before. Grass-roots activists tend to have a bit more education and often have some experience outside their village--say, by serving in the Army or working as migrant laborers in one of the booming coastal cities. Shandong native Chen Guangcheng, for instance, hails from a flyspeck village 200 kilometers from the provincial capital of Jinan that barely gets a television signal. "If it rains," says the chatty 32-year-old, "no one can watch TV." In 1998 he traveled to Nanjing to study at the Traditional Medicine University; he majored in acupuncture and massage, while picking up a bit of legal knowledge on the side.

Chen is also blind. His first experience with the law came in 1996, when he went to the shangfang office in Beijing to complain that his family was being compelled to pay tax for him, even though his disability exempted him. To his surprise, his parents later received a tax refund. More recently, after returning from Nanjing, he organized farmers from his hometown and 78 surrounding villages to press for the closure of a paper mill that had been polluting a nearby stream since 1988. The black, noxious, untreated wastewater destroyed corn and melon crops, killed fish and turtles, even triggered skin and digestive ailments, say local officials. Chen and village leaders complained to higher-ups and wrote petitions about the toxic stream--and when all else failed, they contacted Western diplomats and journalists. Ultimately the British Embassy agreed to help bankroll a 180-meter-deep motor-pumped well, with irrigation and potable-water pipelines, to bring clean water into the area.

Local authorities are still skittish about activists' having contacts with foreigners: Chen was interrogated after receiving a letter from the embassy. And Beijing is unlikely ever to sanction the creation of independent farmers' unions that would allow peasants to agitate for justice collectively; one of the regime's greatest fears is a unified revolt in the countryside. Even the barefoot lawyers admit that as long as the process remains informal and unorganized, it will be impossible to address the corruption that is at the root of most farmers' complaints. Major corruption cases are still handled internally by the party, and fewer than 4 percent of those investigated ever receive any sort of criminal punishment.

Still, each success breeds more. In Shandong's Yinan county another blind peasant, 61-year-old Liu Naitang, tried to win tax-exempt status for himself in 1997. When the local party secretary learned of his petition, he began denouncing Liu over the village loudspeaker: "Liu Naitang, you stingy blind man," he railed for nearly a month. "You disabled people make no contribution to society, so why should we do you any favors?" Stung, Liu approached Chen's family, who gave him a copy of the Disabled People's Protection Law of the PRC. He asked a teacher in his village to record the relevant sections on an audiocassette. "I played it on my tiny cassette player many, many times, and I can now recite some parts by heart," he says. Armed with this ammunition, he not only won tax-exempt status but sued successfully for a refund of taxes he had already paid. Since then Liu has become a crusader for the rights of the handicapped in Shandong, helping them apply for exemptions, collect evidence for their cases and contact lawyers as far away as Beijing. "We have to fight for our rights ourselves," he says.

Experience elsewhere bears out his words. In Taiwan, for instance, political dissidents won early support by helping citizens take on local authorities over pollution and environmental issues. Once Chinese begin to think of the legal system as something that works for them rather than a mystifying and capricious beast, authorities will have a harder and harder time holding themselves above the law. Officials in Shandong may already be starting to realize this. Five villages around Sangyuan have been nicknamed a "special zone" by local authorities--meaning an area where Wang Xuefu's willingness to take on the government has attracted clients and encouraged officials to handle him with care. They've tried other tactics as well: last year a local commissar from a nearby township offered to make Wang village head and give him $3,600 in compensation for his 1989 injuries--if only he stopped helping farmers fight the government. Wang refused. Like other barefoot lawyers, he realizes he wields more power in the courtroom.