PROTECTING CHINA’S VULNERABLE: PUBLIC INTEREST LAWYER GUO JIANMEI

Chinese Graffiti

By Kirstie Yu
Staff Writer

With a surging economy and rapid development in China attracting the most attention, little is being paid to the civil society sector and issues such as the protection of human rights in China. For a country that recently gained a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), China certainly seems to be moving in the right direction toward addressing such concerns. After an early November meeting with top party officials, President Xi Jinping announced plans to ease China’s “one-child” policy, abolish labor camps without trial, grant more property rights to peasants, potentially allow for more online expression and much more in his reform package. However, as critics of the addition of China to the UNHRC contend, China still has a long way to go before it can fully be considered a country that protects human rights.

Jianmei Guo is a Chinese public interest lawyer, human rights activist and founder of the first nonprofit legal aid clinic in China (the Center for Women’s Law & Legal Services of Peking University, which was shut in 2010 and is now the Beijing Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Service Center). She won the Simone de Beauvoir Prize in 2010, an international human rights award for women’s freedom. I had the privilege of interviewing Ms. Guo after attending her roundtable discussion on protecting the rights of women and the underprivileged hosted by UCSD’s 21st Century China Program. She offered great insight into the reasons she became a public interest lawyer, the challenges faced by public interest lawyers and non-governmental organizations (NGO) in China, the issues that are at the forefront of their agenda and the importance of the young generation and international support for these new Chinese NGOs.

Guo Jianmei Accepts Award

Ms. Guo expressed that oftentimes, those who study the law are unwilling to become public interest lawyers especially with the economy taking off and the potential to make a lot of money elsewhere. However, she became a public interest lawyer because “as a person in law, you always want to contribute to push legislation and build the rule of law. In China, we need public interest lawyers to push legislation and democracy… To be a public interest lawyer will help us gain the greatest satisfaction for our career aspirations.” In addition, her personal experience has influenced her career path, as she grew up in a small rural village in Henan province; “most of my family, relatives, and friends are the typical most underprivileged people. I understand those people and their rights. Personally, for me there is some special sentiment for those people. My personality is like a knight, chivalrous. I like to defend against injustice…I don’t like to see bullying. I like this job because of my personality.” Most public interest lawyers in China are like Ms. Guo, possessing a passion to fight for the rights of others despite the odds against them.

Public interest lawyers face many challenges in China, especially under the political and legal system in place. It is difficult for these lawyers, and the NGOs they represent, to receive any type of legal recognition from the government. Ms. Guo explains further, saying that the term “‘Public Interest Lawyer’ can be used privately, but not in public. Under the Chinese legal system, there is no such term as ‘Public Interest Lawyer.’ We have also been told that we cannot mention these four words [in Chinese, public interest lawyer is four characters] in public. About two years ago, I made a commercial. I wanted to push this image of ‘Public Interest Lawyer’ to the public to let them know that if they have hardships, they can find us, public interest lawyers, to help them. The commercial was cut not long after it was on. The government does not recognize this group of lawyers. We cannot officially register as an NGO. There is no incentive system for us, like pension and retirement. We don’t have legal status. We can only register as a business, but then we will face the problem of taxes.”

Second, there are also political risks because the bulk of the work done by these lawyers is essentially challenging the rule of law. Since many of the ideas and missions they have are against the government, the government sees these public interest lawyers as dissidents and human rights lawyers, which is why these lawyers have limited freedoms and are sometimes even sent to jail.

A third major challenge faced by Ms. Guo and other public interest lawyers is the lack of personnel. She notes that “we are critically lacking civil society power but are also lacking the power of public interest lawyers who contribute so much to push legislation that is so valuable.” It is already difficult enough to be the founder of legal aid in China, but to find young lawyers who are willing to fight for and believe in public interest rights for society as a whole in this day and age is just another problem that Ms. Guo and her colleagues face. Young lawyers do not want to carry the torch for the next generation because of the strength of the rule of law, lack of an incentive system, the reality of the task at hand, the high living standard, and political risks involved. She says that “our voices are loud and our influence is huge, but still only a handful of people are willing to do this. More and more contradictions are rising up as China’s economy roars. We need more of this kind of people to help out. People now don’t want to get into trouble; they always have the ‘it has nothing to do with me’ attitude.”

Despite these challenges, the work of Chinese public interest lawyers is vital to advancing rights in many different fields, including “politics rights, education rights, property rights, marriage and family rights, personal rights, and employment rights.” Ms. Guo asserts that the cases she and her colleagues take on “must be valuable for women’s rights, valuable for pushing the rule of law for women, valuable for advocacy, and valuable for research.” As Chinese society develops and the economy takes off, new issues will arise. Ms. Guo believes it is difficult for the Chinese government to establish the rule of law quickly enough to address all of the new issues. Thus, she and other Chinese public interest lawyers must push the government to improve the law for current issues such as “moving population, rural land expropriation, protecting of farmer’s rights and interests, and women’s employment rights.” For rural land expropriation, she explains, “lots of rural women lose their land, their home but do not get the compensation in time. They become homeless and beg on the street.”

There is discrimination against women when they try to find jobs but also after they get hired, which only adds to the glass ceiling that women face in the workplace. In addition, women’s education rights are an issue “because lots of girls drop out of school due to the poor traditional concept of male dominance and the moving population. Parents move to a different city to work but they don’t have a household register (census register) so their children will not be able to go to school in the city. Getting an education will be a big issue for our new generation in the future.” For women specifically, there are also the issues of “discrimination towards women in education, domestic violence, corporate sexual harassment, and rape of young girls.” Chinese women face all of these current issues, and it is Ms. Guo and her legal aid clinic’s mission to change the way the government recognizes these women’s rights.

Another current issue that Ms. Guo is attempting to tackle is the lack of female representation in the highest levels of Chinese government. She puts it best when she expresses that “basically, [the Chinese government] doesn’t pay attention to training and selecting women to be leaders. They discriminate and exclude women. Also, women become vulnerable because of our culture, traditional concepts, and history. Women themselves think they can’t compete with men. Plus, there is some discrimination in educational and employment aspects that has resulted in women not being able to compete with men. The government has not yet established a platform and channel to help women in this field. This will definitely affect women’s rights and development. A group of people who make up half of the population lacks the voice to fight for their rights and benefits. Our organization is always trying to push this part. It is a long and tough road.”

With all of these issues to tackle, Ms. Guo knows that the Chinese constitution itself is not to blame for the divide between its guarantee of human rights and the actual practices of the state. She believes that from a legal point of view, the constitution actually has “really good rules to protect human rights. The law is comprehensive and the rules are well set.” On the contrary, “the problem is execution. China has not been a juridical society. When people are implementing the law based on the well-written constitution, they don’t enforce it.” Furthermore, “the concept of the law for most people is weak. Not only the public, but also the law enforcement doesn’t know what the law is. For them, the law is not as important as their own rule in their rural village.”

When government officials do not have the right concept of the law, it is more likely that certain basic rights will not be protected. In addition, “when all the factors such as judicial corruption, bureaucracy, local protection, industry protection, and administrative interference come to interfere with the judge, the case might not be sentenced properly.” Identifying the problem as the execution of laws and not the law in general is the first step. Ms. Guo then “uses the law as my tool to fight for justice. If we all follow the law to enforce it, to judge the case, order within the society will be established. But in reality, people don’t follow and carry out the rule of law.” She contends that “if we can implement even half of the rule of law, our legal system will improve dramatically.”

Ms. Guo sees the support of both the young generation in China and international NGOs as the key to expanding pertinent women’s rights in the future. First, she has already noticed a great change in the concept of Chinese culture in the young generation. She notes that a lot of young women are standing up to fight for their rights where there is sexual discrimination against women. An example of this is that in China, female students are held to a higher points requirement than male students for the national university entrance exam. This was widely protested in the past few years, and the government has since changed the requirements to be equal for both male and female students. She believes that the Chinese public has already become more aware of the “importance of their rights, the concept of law, human rights, and the concept of democracy” in the last 20 to 30 years. This will only be furthered with the return of Chinese students who went to America or Europe to get a western education back to China, where they will bring with them what they have learned about democracy, freedom, and the law. She contends that many people feel disappointed in young people for not caring about politics, but she believes that “they will still influence people with their thoughts, ideals, concepts and culture in their fields,” and thus, will still have a substantial impact on Chinese society.

Next, Ms. Guo believes collaboration with international NGOs to be key to spreading the message of Chinese public interest lawyers and showing the world the work that they are doing. This past summer, she held a seminar with the International Labour Organization (ILO) on corporate sexual harassment prevention in Beijing, China. She wants to be able to introduce global concepts from organizations such as the ILO to China. There are more “globally advanced concepts, new strategies, and more effective techniques” brought up around the world that could benefit China as a whole. Furthermore, having support from the international community not only helps with the financial assistance that Chinese public interest lawyers need, but also helps Chinese NGOs keep up to date with the latest information. Furthering collaboration with international organizations is one of the vital missions Ms. Guo and her legal aid organization are currently working on.

Ms. Guo’s dedication to her work is truly inspiring. To be so willing to fight for others despite contention from the government is a difficult task indeed. Ms. Guo best summarizes her feelings towards her work when she said, “There is no way back. The more I am doing the job, the more I love this job. There is no return. For those people who have only worked for a short term like half a year or a year, it is easy for them to go back to their regular job. For me, it has been almost 20 years. It is very hard for me to give it up. In the process of doing this public interest in the long term, your emotions (affection), spirit and thoughts (cognition) have already solidified. You cannot change.”

With the aid of international organizations and a new generation of young lawyers willing to take up the fight for civil rights, China is already changing both socially and legally, in addition to the constantly growing economy. If Ms. Guo and her colleagues continue to make the public aware of their rights, the inequalities in their society, and the potential to change the country for the better, China will earn the respect of its peers for recognizing human rights while dominating as a world power.

Images by iamsheep and Medill DC

Special thanks to Cathy Yu for translating, Logan Ma for interpreting, and 21st Century China for hosting the event and allowing me to interview Ms. Guo.

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