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China's Lack of Legal Reform Fuels Unrest

China's government is concerned that rising anger among peasants might spell the beginning of the end of Communist rule in the country. Outside experts attribute much of the unrest to the fact that many Chinese feel they cannot trust the country's underdeveloped court system to solve their disputes, especially their grievances against the government. VOA Beijing correspondent Luis Ramirez has looked closely at the problems causing China's unrest. In the last of his series, he reports the government has acknowledged the problem, but observers say there are no signs of a plan to fix China's courts.

Premier Wen Jiabao has laid out a long list of things China's leadership needs to do to combat corruption, land grabs, rural poverty and other factors that have fueled unrest in the country.

He closed China's National People's Congress in March with a call for order.

"We need to safeguard the lawful rights and interests of our people according to law," he said. "We also need to educate and properly guide the general public so that they can realize more that their legitimate concerns need to be expressed through lawful and legal channels and in lawful formats."

These issues are not just lofty goals. Across China there are nearly daily reports of farmers losing their land because village officials have sold it to a factory owner. Or miners who have died in unsafe coal mines that stayed open because of bribes paid to provincial bureaucrats. Or families who suffered illness because of industrial pollution that Communist Party members ignored in the pursuit of economic growth.

Professor Jerome Cohen is a legal scholar at New York University and an expert on China's legal system.

"We say 'heaven is wonderful, the problem is how to get there.' And when people in China try to follow the premier's advice and go to legal institutions instead of going into the streets, they're very often highly frustrated by a legal system that fails to respond to their needs," he explained.

That frustration has pushed tens of thousands to demonstrate, only to be swiftly quieted when local governments used force and intimidation.

Chinese government officials have said the number of public disturbances - 87,000 last year - has risen largely because people increasingly know their rights. Spreading this awareness is a new breed of what legal scholars describe as "barefoot lawyers," or self-trained experts who teach people about basic laws.

Li Baiguang of Beijing is one of those legal experts. He travels to distant provinces to train peasants how to make legal demands. He discourages people from resorting to violence.

"Everywhere I go, I tell farmers that it is a very foolish thing to try to oust the government with violence," he said. "In that way, the new government to be set up will be the same as the government you have ousted."

The Communist government views the barefoot lawyers as a threat. Some have been imprisoned, accused of instigating public disorder. Authorities have thrown others into mental institutions, where government psychiatrists diagnose them as having what they call "litigation mania."

Li and others acknowledge that the legal reforms needed to protect people's rights will take years, especially since China's government has never made such reform a high priority.

Professor Cohen, who spends six months a year at Beijing's Tsinghua University teaching Chinese judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and scholars, says one major problem is that the courts are not independent of the local governments that victimize peasants. He says the Communist leadership has not been interested in making courts independent because, implicitly, that would mean giving up party control. He says Beijing is already struggling to have local governments implement its mandates in other areas.

"The central government's reach, its control over local officials is much more limited than people who talk about China as a totalitarian state realize," he said. "It's really more like a series of feudal baronies."

Cohen says that means the central government concentrates on enforcing its will nationwide only in key issues, such as national security or party control. In other areas, he says, such as protecting farmers' land rights or enforcing anti-pollution laws, Beijing officials exercise far less enforcement power in the provinces.

He says a small glimmer of hope lies in a recent document released by China's supreme court. The document lays out 50 goals to make the courts more professional and independent, and suggests reducing the role local governments have in selecting judges.

However, he notes, it is not clear China's top leaders have the political will to help the courts reach those goals.

And that, say many experts, is likely to mean that unrest in rural areas will only grow.