Despite more than a quarter century of legal reforms and institution building, China still has holdovers from centuries of its own unique legal tradition. One of these is the practice of petitioning higher authorities to overturn local government decisions.
But China's opening to the outside world — and the influx of foreigners that has followed — seem to have produced an odd first: a petitioning foreigner.
Julie Harms is an American woman who lives in the southern city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. For the past year, she has gone on a Chinese-style quest for justice on behalf of her Chinese fiance.
Harms, a tall, blond, 30-year-old Texan and Harvard graduate, stands out among the petitioners in line at the Police Ministry complaints office, tucked away in a downtown alleyway in Beijing.
Many fellow petitioners praise her fluent Mandarin. Others seek her help, trying to hand her their sheaves of legal documents, but she insists that she is as helpless as they are.
She is appealing the case of her fiance, who was arrested on charges of trespassing on his neighbor's property and faces three years in jail if convicted.
The institution of petitioning has survived into the present day, almost as feudal — and futile — as before.
In ancient China, a petitioner would bang on a drum to signal that he or she sought an audience with a judge or magistrate to protest some injustice. Unfortunately for the petitioners, the process seldom got the desired results. And the judge could interrogate the petitioner using torture.
Harms is trying to use the modern version of the process.
Harms met her fiance, Liu Shiliang, in eastern Anhui province in 1998 while she was majoring in East Asian studies and international relations at Harvard. In 2007, her fiance got into a fight with a neighbor.
"The neighbor was put in jail for beating up the fiance," explains Liu Jiali, the chief of the fiance's village in Anhui. "But the neighbor demanded that the fiance be arrested. The fiance was the victim in this; why should he have been arrested?"
Harms says there were many flaws in the handling of her fiance's case. One was that local authorities demanded a bribe in a message passed to her fiance's lawyer.
The gist of the message, Harms says, was that if Liu would admit guilt and pay a bribe, the courts would give him a three-month sentence and the case would be concluded.
Harms' fiance and his family refused the demand.
Inside The Legal Labyrinth
On a recent afternoon, Harms stands in line at the Police Ministry complaints office, tucked away in a downtown alleyway in Beijing. A policewoman recognizes Harms from previous visits and brings her to the front of the line, despite Harms' polite refusal to cut in.
Harms has to mentally translate from Chinese into English to describe the action. "A female officer who was just here said that if we don't mind waiting for a little while, that there's a lingdao, a leader inside who will officially hear my case," she explains.
Harms goes past guards and beeping metal detectors and into a starkly lit waiting room, where a paramilitary police officer guards a swinging metal gate, and police officers call out the names of petitioners whose turn it is to speak to police case officers.
After filling out some forms, Harms is called into an inner office, where she speaks with a policewoman familiar with her case. The officer points out that the family of Harms' fiance has a long-running feud with the neighbors in which both sides bear some responsibility.
After about 50 minutes, the policewoman concludes with a standard official line: Please trust China's authorities to handle your case fairly. Harms purses her lips and glances down at her Chinese law books with a quiet look of skepticism.
In ancient China, petitioners would try to get officials' attention by intercepting the sedan chairs in which they were carried. Harms tried to get a letter to President Obama on his visit to China in November. But local police detained her as she waited for the president's motorcade outside the American Embassy in Beijing.
"I simply wrote a short, one-page letter to him," Harms recalls, "expressing my support for his concern about universal rights, and then very simply explaining why this issue was important to me."
The Symbolic Value Of Petitioning
Some legal experts say that the petitioning system is incompatible with the rule of law and should be abolished. Petitioners traditionally do not seek procedural justice or the aid of legal institutions. Instead, they hope for the personal intervention of an honest official — a situation characteristic of the rule of man, not the rule of law.
Beijing University of Technology professor Hu Xingdou says that petitioning resolves very few cases. But it still may have a symbolic use, he says.
"It's to show that there's still some place to which you can appeal an injustice. It gives people a glimmer of hope," Hu says.
Harms' stint as a petitioner seems like the ultimate insider's experience in China, even if she has been spared some of the abuses reported by Chinese petitioners at the hands of authorities. It is hard to imagine other foreigners in China with grievances following her example.
Her petitioning also appears to have given her fiance's case a higher profile. But of course that doesn't mean it will get him justice. The case has attracted the attention of China's police minister. But he merely referred the case back to local officials, whose handling of the case launched Harms onto the long, hard road of petitioning in the first place.