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Constitution no longer empty word for Chinese

2014-12-05 09:11 Xinhua Web Editor: Gu Liping

He Boting, 70, a retired factory worker from central China's Henan Province, may be among the oldest law students in China.

He began studying law in August last year. Together with other 360 plus households, he pursued a class action against Laocheng district government in Luoyang city for infringing their property rights.

In 2013, Laocheng district government initiated an urban renovation project on a 66.7-hectare state-owned land, where nearly 400 households would be displaced. But most residents strongly opposed the project because the government made the decision without public hearings or proper compensation.

The case was heard in Luoyang Intermediate People's Court earlier this year. He and his fellows won.

"It is written in the Constitution that property rights of citizens should be protected," he said. "We were empowered by the Constitution."

It has been 60 years since approval of the first Constitution of the People's Republic of China in 1954. On Dec. 4, 1982, a fourth version of Constitution was adopted and it is still in use today. Ordinary people like He, without any prior legal knowledge, are gradually learning how to use the Constitution to their advantage.

In 2001, the Higher People's Court of Shandong ruled in favor of Qi Yuling, citing the basic right of a citizen to education. Qi sued a former classmate Chen Xiaoqi for illegally using her name to acquire higher education.

Qi and Chen took a college entrance exam together in 1990. Qi passed. Chen failed, but intercepted Qi's admission letter and forged documents to pretend that she was Qi and went to school in her place. After graduation Chen landed a good job in a local bank while Qi led a bumpy life, due to lack of higher education. The court ruled that Chen should pay Qi 100,000 yuan (about 16,100 U.S. dollars).

It was the first time in China the Constitution had been used as the direct legal basis of a trial.

In 2003, Sun Zhigang was stopped by police in the street for a random check. He had no ID card, so police took him to be a beggar and sent him to an asylum, where he was beaten to death. The tragedy triggered nationwide debate over the asylum system as sending those without ID cards to asylums against their will was unconstitutional and a violation of citizens' rights to personal liberty.

Though law experts' call for a constitutional review did not happen, the government did respond positively by replacing the old asylum system with a more assistance-oriented one.

In 2007, Wang Denghui, a migrant worker in Guangzhou was injured in a traffic accident on the way home from work. His company refused to compensate him on the basis that employees were banned from living outside the company's dormitory. After many twists and turns, a court in Huangpu District finally ruled in favor of Wang based on his Constitutional rights to personal liberty and free choice of living space.

The three cases are deemed remarkable on China's long way of building a society of rule of law. But for many, the Constitution still remains a vague concept.

"Constitution is the basic law of a country, with paramount authority," reads the textbook in China. However, Ma Huaide, vice president of China University of Political Science and Law (CUPSL), blames poor education for people's ignorance.

"Textbook are dull and vague, without explanations or examples," he said.

Hoping that inaugural Constitution Day on Dec. 4 this year will help Chinese people better understand the law, Ma wants the Constitution be given "more exposure in front of ordinary people".

"For instance, we could have judges put their hands on a copy of Constitution and swear, before a trial starts," he said. "And leaders at all levels should quote the Constitution more often in their speeches."

Wang Renbo, now with the CUPSL, has been teaching Constitutional Law for decades and remembers skipping Constitution class in college because he thought the Constitution was irrelevant to his own life.

Wang once chatted with a security guard in his apartment building and asked the latter if he knew anything about the Constitution. "No," the young man replied. "How do I write the characters?"

"I told him that the Chinese character Xian in Xianfa, or Constitution, has a character First inside," he said. "Because Constitution is No.1. It concerns all aspects of our life, stipulating that our houses shouldn't be pulled down by force, nor our land taken away by violence."

Wang has a famous remark which his students like to copy: "The Constitution is like a graduation certificate...If Chinese people feel it in their hands, the nation has graduated."

He, the old man in Henan, is now teaching his neighbors and friends basic laws.

"Our Constitution is the foundation of other laws," he said. "You cannot study law without the Constitution, and you cannot protect your rights without legal knowledge."

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