More Chinese are willing to challenge legal system
By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY
BEIJING The parents of 13-year-old Song Shaoyang never told their son he had AIDS before he died last year.

His parents learned only a few months earlier, after a blood test, that their son was one of thousands of victims of a government-run blood donation program in the 1990s that infected both donors and recipients with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.

"He didn't guess he had AIDS, and we didn't tell him," his father, Song Xintao, says. It "would have brought too much pressure."

The Song family's attempt to find justice and compensation may be difficult since China tightly controls its legal system. Several bold grass-roots efforts were launched recently to pressure the communist government to loosen its grip and give people more freedom and legal rights.

The goal of these far-reaching movements is to help people such as the Songs, whose repeated attempts to file a lawsuit have been rejected by China's courts. The courts are also blocking suits from the parents of infants poisoned last year by melamine-tainted baby formula, and of children killed in the massive May 12 earthquake when poorly built schools collapsed.

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Unlike the U.S. jury system, court cases in China are heard by three judges approved by the Communist Party. Lawsuits deemed politically sensitive are routinely rejected by the courts.

The Sanmenxia Intermediate People?s Court in Henan would not say why it won?t accept cases about contracting AIDS through blood transfusions.

The most daring recent action is a document called Charter 08, signed by 300 prominent Chinese citizens in December. It amounts to a manifesto calling for democracy and genuine rule of law to replace China's often corrupt, one-party system. The petition is snowballing on the Internet it has more than 7,000 signatures despite government efforts to censor the issue.

Lan Zhixue and two other lawyers last month also established the Institute of Democratic Society, a non-profit organization whose website proclaims "fair, reasonable and legal; dare to think, speak and act."

"We don't care about ourselves, our liberty or death," Lan says. "We want to do something for the ordinary people. There are more public interest lawyers like us now, though not as many as we would like."

Another lawyer, Li Fangping, hopes the fear of social unrest will force the government to make changes.

Rejecting court cases about the contaminated blood and tainted formula fuels "growing distrust of the people's court system," Li says.

As the economic crisis spreads through China and more factories close, people "will not use normal legal channels, but choose more extreme methods, and directly attack the party and city authorities," he predicts.

Andrew Nathan, a political science professor at Columbia University and author of several books on China, sees similarities with the pro-democracy protests leading up to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

"What is remarkable about Charter 08 is that it is a direct and very public challenge to the regime," Nathan says.

The father of young Shaoyang knows he's facing an uphill battle. "It is hard for a citizen to get justice in China," he says.

Song says his son was infected with HIV from two transfusions he received as an infant in 1995 at a state-run hospital near Zhengzhou in Henan province.

AIDS activist Wan Yanhai estimates more than 100,000 Chinese were infected with HIV through blood transfusions in the mid- to late 1990s.

"It is time for the government to compensate the blood victims, and it is also time to promote fundamental political change in China," says Wan, who signed Charter 08. "Even until now, the government has refused to inform people who received blood transfusions that they may have been infected."

Lan, one of several lawyers whose lawsuits against the hospitals were rejected, says, "A case like Song Shaoyang should be a typical case for civil compensation. The hospitals that caused the problem have no legal responsibility, and the victims receive no compensation."

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