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The Power of Developers (2:01) Excerpt from film "The People's Court", July 2007
A peasant family in China is caught in a land rights dispute with no apparent solution in sight.

Country: China

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Guiding Questions
  1. According to Mrs. Li, how was her family the victim of corruption?

  2. In this example, does it seem as if all parties are being treated as equal under the law? Why might the government back the interests of real estate developers over citizens like Mrs. Li?

  3. Compare the case of Li Mingna in the video clip "Labor Disputes" to the circumstances of Mrs. Li and her family in this segment. What does this comparison suggest about the implementation of the rule of law in China?
Background Essay
Mrs. Li and her family have been forced out of their home in Chengdu, China by developers promising to give them new land to build a home. With no new home in sight, this case underlines some of the obstacles standing in the way of the equal implementation of the rule of law in China. As the country moves away from a history of collective land rights and toward the private ownership of property, the land rights of peasants often remain unclear.

When China's Civil war ended in 1949, Mao Zedong and the Communist Party established the People's Republic of China. They wanted to centralize power, unify the country and develop China's industry and infrastructure. A few of Mao Zedong's nationwide projects were the Great Leap Forward, a 5-year economic and social plan that he initiated in 1958, and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Unfortunately, at the end of the Maoist era, the economy and the education system of China were very weak.

Deng Xiaoping, who became China's leader in 1976, introduced new policies to encourage economic growth. Large segments of the economy were cut loose from direct state control. The private sector boomed, a new class of entrepreneurs prospered and China's formal legal system was re-established. At the same time, however, the Communist Party remained in control of a one-party, authoritarian state and a growing gap between rich and poor emerged. Employers used their newfound market power to exploit workers. Tensions developed. Conflicting claims of property rights came to be a significant problem.

The government of China decided to address these issues by trying to expand and modernize the legal system. Since the 1980s the country has opened almost 400 law schools, training hundreds of thousands of lawyers and judges. The country has also created education campaigns to encourage people to settle their issues in court rather than on the streets.

Before 1995, many judges did not have college degrees or much knowledge about the law. Since 1995, the requirements to become a judge have gotten stricter: now judges need to have a university degree and must pass a national exam. However, the judges are appointed and paid by the one-party government. Their decisions, as well as decisions and actions of lawyers, are often influenced by the Communist Party and local governments. Many Chinese citizens are bothered by the corruption they see as widespread in China.

In 2003, Hu Jintao was elected as the President of the People's Republic of China. His challenges include trying to find solutions to China's economic, social and environmental problems. One of his initiatives, the Socialist Core Value System, encourages honesty and law-abiding and ethical behavior among all Chinese citizens. Whether President Hu's goals lead to real improvements will be a key measure of China's progress toward implementing the rule of law.

Ran Tong took us to the outskirts of his hometown Chengdu. All around are farmlands being turned into concrete and glass. Scenes repeated around China's main cities.

Look at this. It all used to be farm land. All these areas are newly built.

Soon it will be the best part of town. The pride of Chengdu!

But a closer look shows the story is very different. It's riddled with land disputes - a legacy of the collective ownership established under Communism.

Property developers, conspiring with government officials, grab land cheaply from peasants whose land rights are unclear under the law.

Last year, developers kicked Mrs. Li and her family off their land.

Our old house was over there. They promised that after the road was finished, they'd give us land to rebuild our house.

The family had to build themselves a temporary shelter.

We're in a very bad situation. I'm very angry. They don't care about our lives. They didn't listen to us at all.

They want to sell us an apartment at $23 per square foot.

- How can we afford that?

Well, that's what they cost these days!

If we don't agree we'll lose our home and our business. That's why I say the property developers and the government are in this together.

The truth is the rich can have it all their own way. The court just does what the government tells it to.

Our camera team was alerted that local thugs were coming to stop the filming.

We left quickly.

Related Links
The People's Court on PBS.org

CIA World Factbook: China

Chinese Constitution, Criminal Procedure Law, Civil Procedure Law, and others translated into English

World Factbook of Criminal Justice System: China

Foreign Affairs "Don't Break the Engagement" (May/June 2004)

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