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Labor Disputes (2:56) Excerpt from film "The People's Court", July 2007
Case study of the mediation of a disagreement between an employee and his former employer in China's courts.

Country: China

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Guiding Questions
  1. Summarize this case. How does the worker, Li Mingna, use the legal system to settle his disagreement with his employer?

  2. How might the decision in plaintiff Li's favor turn out to be a "hollow victory"?

  3. 3. Why might the government of China like to see court proceedings such as this one publicized to audiences outside China?
Background Essay
In courthouses across China, the volume of labor disputes is on the rise. Li Mingna is a young worker who is taking on his former employers in a fight over his severance package. Though he is young and only has a high school education, Li Mingna represents himself in court against his employer's contract lawyer. This case is an example of the court mediation of disputes that emerge in China's new economy.

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.

In courthouses across China, the volume of disputes is on the rise.

The law is a growth industry.

The more the economy grows, the more we see problems that need legal action. Labor disputes are an important part of it all. Many migrant workers have no knowledge of their rights under the labor laws, or why they're taken advantage of.

Be seated.

Judge Yu Hong's first case for the day is a labor dispute.

The case concerns Li Mingna, a young car salesman who's taking on his former employers.

They're refusing to pay his severance.

And though he only has a high school degree, Li is fighting the case himself.

The company has sent its contract lawyer.

We asked the plaintiff to come back to work.

I want my salary and compensation: $433. It's impossible for me to go back to the company.

Would you like the court to mediate?

Yes, I'd like that.

What about you?


Supervised mediation is often chosen. It allows both parties to reach a compromise while saving face - a key Chinese value.

Defendant, why haven't you paid the compensation?

He was fired by the department, not the company. We want him to come back to work.

From Li's point of view, the signed document constituted a dismissal notice. Li Mingna stopped going to work. It meant the end of his contract. The court rules in favor of Li Mingna's claim. Please tell your company executives about our suggestion to pay him the compensation.

Judge Yu has managed to get both parties to agree to a settlement. It's a binding agreement that can't be overturned or appealed by either party.

I was really nervous, but I was confident about winning the case. It goes without saying, I'm very happy with the result.

But there are no guarantees Li will get the severance he's owed - up to half of court rulings in China go un-enforced.

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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