Using Law for a Righteous Purpose: The Sun Zhigang Incident and Evolving Forms of Citizen Action in the People’s Republic of China

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The Chinese government’s rule of law campaign has created greater awareness of legal issues and generated bottom-up pressure for legal change. This dynamic was highlighted in April 2003, when Chinese media reports on the death of a young man named Sun Zhigang while in police custody sparked a public outcry. This public pressure, coupled with a groundbreaking citizen legal challenge, eventually prompted China’s State Council to dismantle a controversial form of administrative detention called “custody and repatriation.” The Sun Zhigang incident demonstrated that by leveraging a wave of media coverage and public opinion in a case of mass concern, co-opting laws and official rule of law rhetoric, formulating a technical, well-grounded legal appeal within the system, and focusing on modest legal reform goals that did not challenge fundamental state or Party interests, lawyers could successfully accelerate legal reform without triggering the type of damaging backlash directed against other, more politicized citizen actions. Although reformers failed in their secondary goal of creating a precedent for National People’s Congress annulment of an administrative regulation, their efforts had broad impacts in promoting the development of constitutionalism, generating political pressure for law enforcement reforms, creating an enhanced sense of citizen empowerment, and providing a refined model for law-based citizen rights actions. Legal activists have successfully applied similar moderate legal strategies in some subsequent cases, while more aggressive, politicized tactics have prompted negative state responses. Overall, the citizen action strategies refined in the Sun Zhigang incident have provided legal reformers with one path forward for promoting modest but meaningful legal reform in China. Recent government efforts to control the scope and potential impact of some citizen initiatives will provide a key test of the degree to which this reform model is sustainable in the near-term.

Volume 45, Number 1 45 Colum. J. Transnat'l L. 114