Call it a new form of civil disobedience in China — the lawsuit.
China's slow shift to the rule of law has unintentionally given dissidents a place to voice their grievances.
As its trade and contact with other countries have increased since the 1990s, China has been formalizing its legal system — and even has incorporated laws dealing with human rights and private property into the Communist Party's constitution.
Dissidents in China have picked up on the implications of these legal changes and now bring their cases to court in an attempt to make the government abide by its own laws.
"People are more willing to see how far they can push these laws," said Jim Geheran, director of Initiatives for China, a grass-roots movement urging a peaceful transition to democracy in China.
Dissidents said they hope their examples will educate the Chinese people in how to stand up for their own rights, and help them understand the law.
"They may scold and shout at me, but I will still confront [the officials] so I can let everyone know," Xu Xiaoqi, a 56-year-old newspaper editor, said during an interview via Skype. She is appealing her forced eviction from her home in Beijing.
Yang Jianli, founder and president of Initiatives for China, cited the trial of Sun Zhigang in Guangzhou as a turning point for the movement — and one of only two cases dissidents have won against the state.
In 2003, three Chinese lawyers challenged a detention policy that allowed police to detain people as vagrants for not carrying identification. Mr. Sun, 27, was sent to a detention center under the policy and was beaten to death by inmates.
Using legal arguments from the Chinese Constitution and citizens rights laws, the lawyers managed to have the detention policy overturned — the first human rights victory since Tiananmen Square in 1989, Mr. Yang said.
He said the movement has been largely successful as an educational effort: Awareness of rights has risen dramatically over the past few years, and dissidents are becoming more vocal.
"We want to mobilize the people to stand up and give them the power," Mr. Yang said.
It has not been an easy fight for political dissidents. China has no independent judiciary, and all courts answer to the communist government.
"China has laws, but the government will either ignore or work around them," Mr. Geheran said, drawing parallels between China's situation and America's civil rights movement.
However, Levi Browde, executive director of the Falun Dafa Information Center in New York, said the Chinese court cases are mere show trials, citing examples of Falun Gong practitioners whose attorneys were not even allowed into the courtroom to defend them. The Chinese government considers Falun Gong a threat to social stability and has banned its practice.
"By the code of law, [the dissidents] should win every time. They present very strong cases," Mr. Browde said. "But they lose every time."
Chinese Embassy spokesman Wang Baodong said the rule of law requires all parties — government agencies, social organizations and individuals — to "conduct business within the framework of the Chinese Constitution and relevant laws."
"Long gone are the days of rule by man, when a particular human being's will would determine the destiny of the whole nation and its people," Mr. Wang said in an e-mail. "China now stresses democratic and scientific decision-making on issues that will affect the daily life of the citizens and their personal interests, with more say and input from the average people.
"There's of course room for improvement, and there's the phenomenon of failure to observe the law and miscarriages of justice," he said, "but China's determination to push forward the process of Chinese characterized democracy and rule of law is unswerving."
Mr. Yang said the movement has had many setbacks, the biggest being that the dissidents have won only two cases.
"People may gradually lose their hope and become skeptical of how far this movement can go," he said.
Mr. Yang said instances of lost cases are rampant. In Fujian, for example, three people have been tried for attempting to reveal the details of a rape case, which was indirectly tied to the police.
According to Mr. Yang, the second ruling had just come down a few days ago: For "seriously affecting the interests of the state," the three have been sentenced to one to three years in prison.
International media also have followed the fates of several Chinese lawyers who took up individual human rights cases, including Gao Zhisheng and Feng Zhenghu. They have been alternately arrested and harassed for their work.
Mr. Feng is under house arrest in Shanghai after returning to China, and Mr. Gao has been missing since April.
"Each who protests runs some kind of risk. We can't say, 'They'll be OK tomorrow,'" Mr. Yang said.
Mr. Yang added that the setbacks and disappointments are accompanied by a breakthrough every day, citing several persistent protesters as examples.
"I'm telling [the leaders] that they need to pay attention to people, and they can't abuse us," said Hu Yan, one of three Chinese citizens who came to the U.S. in April to petition the United Nations every day after being forcibly evicted from their homes.
Forced evictions are a well known in China, most recently demonstrated in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, in which 18,000 families were evicted from their homes, according to Mr. Yang.
The three activists said they hope their petitions will get attention and inspire people to address the issue of human rights and law in China so that they can attain a fair outcome.
"These are brave people walking a fine line," said Mr. Geheran. He added that although signs in China have been mixed, the tide is turning.
"No government can hold a gun to its people forever," he said, quoting Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.
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Michelle Phillips is a student intern with the Washington Times through the National Journalism Center covering international affairs.
After growing up overseas, Ms. Phillips returned to the U.S. to attend Rice University for her bachelor’s degree, and is entering her junior year there. She discovered her love of journalism in college while working for the school newspaper, the Rice Thresher, ...
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