Jongyoon Baik, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for the Study of Contemporary China, University of Pennsylvania
In 1989, China promulgated the Administrative Litigation Law (ALL). The ALL stipulates that Chinese citizens can sue the government (Article 2) and the two have equal legal status (Article 8). However, back then, many Chinese government officials had a hard time understanding the concept of “people suing the government,” because the government had been considered a father figure that takes care of its people. They complained, saying, “People suing their mayor is like a grandson suing his grandpa [which is a moral hazard].”
Now that over 30 years have passed since the legislation, many government officials no longer feel “humiliated (losing face)” for being sued by their people. Instead, they “want to prove through lawsuits that they did nothing wrong,” said one of my interviewees who wanted to remain anonymous, a lawyer in Wuhan who often consults government agencies with their cases. He also told me that government officials appear to fear nothing, as they are being helped by many competent lawyers like himself.
Ordinary Chinese citizens, especially younger and more educated ones, are becoming more and more familiar with their right to sue their government as well. Since 1989, the number of first-level administrative trials has increased 32-fold, from 9,900 cases to 320,000 cases in 2021. Nevertheless, I learned from my interviews that people who file administrative lawsuits do understand that it is difficult for them to win against the government. These people also think that they are likely to face retaliation, including physical threats, from government officials who want them to withdraw from their cases.
Then what motivates Chinese citizens to bring their administrators to the courtroom? I argue in my article, Speaking Up: Why People Dare to Sue the Government in China, published in the Journal of Law and Society (Vol 50, Issue 3, 2023), that litigants want to face their administrators in person during the trials and admonish them for their wrongdoings. Importantly, because they do not trust the court to rule against the government, they believe that they should be the ones who bring forth justice by “teaching” the administrators their misdeeds in the courtroom. Furthermore, because they think that lawyers would side with the government, many of my interviewees were preparing their lawsuits by themselves. Unlike other dispute resolution methods available in an authoritarian state, an administrative tribunal provides such a chance to make their cases because administrators are summoned to sit and listen to litigants.
As such, the ALL has been changing the way the Chinese understand the government-citizen relationship. However, the litigation system is still tilted in favor of the government, and citizens do understand this limitation. Under such a circumstance, citizens are instead leaning on the trial process itself that enables them to meet their administrators, rather than the outcome of it, so that their voices would be heard.
 He, Haibo. 2016. Xingzheng Susongfa [Administrative Litigation Law]. Falv Chubanshe. pp.14-15
 My interview with a local legal expert in Beijing and a civil servant in Dalian.
 Law Yearbook of China; National Bureau of Statistics of China.