China’s Best Known Public Interest Litigator Awaits Trial

Yaxue Cao, October 31, 2021

In China, Hao Jinsong (郝劲松) is very well-known as a public interest litigator who, for the better part of seven years between 2004 and 2010, sued various authorities such as the Beijing Subway Company, the Ministry of Railways, Shaanxi provincial Forestry Department, and the Shanghai traffic police, and confronted the National Development and Reform Commission, for its practices which, Hao argued, are not right. Hao Jinsong wielded “the legal axe” and was winning one case after another. 

He had a graduate law degree in criminal litigation from China University of Political Science and Law (CUPSL). For several years, he worked at a law firm in Beijing, directing its Public Interest Department. But by choice, he did not become a lawyer because, had he become a lawyer, he would have to place himself under too many constraints of government management, such as the Justice Bureaus. Instead, pursuing administrative lawsuits as a citizen or citizen proxy was his thing.

Sometime around 2009 he moved back to his hometown of Dingxiang in northern Shanxi (山西定襄县) and ran the Jinsong Legal Consultancy Co. (劲松法律咨询公司). He has been less visible in recent years, not appearing in the news or on magazine covers as before. 

On December 17, 2019, Hao Jinsong was given 15 days of administrative detention for “picking quarrels and provoking disturbances” after being repeatedly summoned by local police in Dingxiang, Shanxi. Fifteen days later on January 2, 2020, he was criminally detained on the same charges. On November 15, 2020, he was indicted on three charges: “picking quarrels and provoking disturbances” for retweets and comments on current events on social media; “defamation” for derogatory comments about Chinese leaders; and “fraud” in two cases he had represented. The third charge was not among the initial charges against Hao.

Hao Jinsong is still awaiting trial. It was first scheduled on December 10, 2020, and postponed eventually to October 12 and 13, 2021, and then postponed again. 

I will start with a brief summary of Hao Jinsong’s story and come back to his indictment.

He spearheaded administrative lawsuits in China with flair and a splash

In 2004 when Hao Jinsong was still a graduate student at China University of Political Science and Law, he sued the Beijing Subway for charging customers for using its public restrooms without issuing receipts.

In Beijing, a number of stations didn’t have restrooms. After much complaint from the public, Beijing Subway, the state-owned company that operates Beijing’s extensive subway system, installed mobile restrooms in these stations that charged 50 cents per use. Hao Jinsong asked for a receipt when he paid for his restroom use, from the station manager to the branch office and all the way to the headquarters, and was told they didn’t have it. It was a violation of China’s tax law. He won the lawsuit. He won a similar lawsuit against Beijing Railways for not issuing receipts to customers using its food service.

In 2006, he sued the Ministry of Railways for not holding a public hearing when it raised prices during the Chinese New Year holiday season. It had been raising prices during the busiest season of the year in the name of “driving and spreading passengers to other forms of transportation” for over a decade but had not held a single public hearing since a law was passed requiring it to do so. The practice had not reduced the number of people who travelled by train for the holidays; year after year, that number had been steadily increasing. In addition, the price increase was not 10-20% as the Ministry claimed but was a hike of over 30%.

This time the court ruled against Hao Jinsong. Days later on January 7, 2007, he published an open letter to Liu Zhijun (刘志军), the Minister of Railways at the time, laying out the case against raising prices for an estimated 150 million Chinese who travelled for family reunions or leisure. Two days after the letter was posted, officials told the media that the Ministry would not change its plan to raise the price of railway tickets because of Hao Jinsong’s letter, but on the third day, the Ministry’s spokesperson suddenly announced the abolition of the annual Chinese New Year price hike.

In the fall of 2007, a farmer in the mountainous southeastern region of Shaanxi province neighboring Hubei province and Chongqing of Sichuan province spotted a South China Tiger (华南虎), a species that once lived in China but is believed to be extinct in the wild. He took a number of pictures at close range and the provincial Forestry Department displayed them in a press conference, claiming that “wildlife experts and photo image experts jointly verified the authenticity of these photos.” But the internet wasn’t having it, buzzing with multitudes of questions from netizens and academics. Someone quickly pointed out that the tiger in the photos looked a lot like the one in an old nianhua (年画) — posters published during the Chinese New Year season for auspicious home decoration. 

A few weeks later, Hao Jinsong, on a trip back to his hometown in Dingxiang, Shanxi (山西定襄), went to the local court trying to file a civil lawsuit against the farmer for faking the tiger. A judge read the complaint and broke into laughter. “Let us take a look at this,” he said to Hao. Meanwhile Hao sent a letter to the National Forestry Administration asking it to investigate the authenticity of the tiger and respond to his request by the statutory date. The court didn’t accept the filing of his case. The Forestry Department said, in effect, it’s none of your business. So he sued the National Forestry Administration for administrative omission, but the court declined to take the case.

“Why is it his business to get to the bottom of whether that tiger was real or not?” The Chinese media asked Hao Jinsong. It is my business, he told them, and I, as a member of the public and an animal lover, was deceived. “Don’t you think there are too many lies in China? This is about honesty and trust in the society and of the people.”

As Hao Jinsong moved heaven and earth without success to expose the tiger hoax, the nianhua printer in Yiwu, Zhejiang (浙江义乌), the world’s capital of small commodities, confirmed that that wild tiger was indeed the same tiger in one of their nianhuas. The manager of the company found their print film, the dated first printing of the tiger nianhua, and also the contract to lease the original tiger picture from an image company in Beijing. No, the director of the Forestry Department’s Information and Publicity Center in Shaanxi told the media, the nianhua tiger was photoshopped from the farmer’s photo. The farmers said, “Don’t bully a poor farmer.” Outraged, the printer sued the farmer and the Forestry Department for defamation, and the court in Yiwu took up the printer’s complaint. After the Yiwu court announced the impending trial, all of a sudden the Shaanxi police declared that the farmer’s tiger was indeed fake. The farmer went to jail, and 14 officials were disciplined.

Without Hao Jinsong suing left and right, up and down, as well as giving interviews to media outlets, the tiger hoax probably wouldn’t have had such a long shelf life. He didn’t get to go to court with his complaints, but it was fantastically tried and triumphed in the court of public opinion. What was the hoax all about anyway? Hao had his suspicions, and among his FOIA requests was the Shaanxi provincial Forestry Department’s application to make the region where the tiger was found a national nature reserve….    

One day in Shanghai in September 2009, while business manager Zhang Hui (张晖), a young successful professional who had been living the “China Dream” with a car and a house, was waiting for traffic lights at an intersection. A man knocked on his car window asking to be taken to a hospital for a stomach ache. Zhang Hui saw that he was in so much pain that he couldn’t stand straight and let him in. All of a sudden, the man pulled away the car key, and several uniformed traffic police officers appeared, pulling Zhang Hui out of the car, accusing him of “doing illegal business” by operating an unregistered taxi service and confiscated his car for a 10,000 yuan fine.

One day in October of that year, an 18-year-old young man named Sun Zhongjie (孙中界) had just arrived in Shanghai for three days for a truck driving job that his older brother had found for him at a construction machinery company. As he stopped at an intersection on the outskirts of the city at dusk, a man pulled open his door and jumped into the passenger seat, saying that he had been in the cold for over an hour without a taxi or bus and asking Sun to give him a ride. As the truck proceeded, a van drove close to the truck so Sun stopped. The man in the passenger seat suddenly threw down a 10-yuan bill. Before Sun had time to say, “I won’t charge you,” the man had already reached over for the key. As Sun struggled with him, several people jumped out of the van, pulled Sun out of the truck, and pushed him into a police car to sign a fine slip. Two other men in the car were also “caught” by police for operating “black vehicles” – vehicles that illegally take paying passengers. Later, an enraged Sun Zhongjie chopped off a section of his little finger when his brother scolded him for doing a good deed.  

The two incidents were not unusual – the Shanghai traffic police had been known for “fishing law enforcement” (钓鱼执法) except that most victims quietly cough up the fines and swallow the humiliation. Not Zhang Hui and Sun Zhongjie. Hao Jinsong took up their cases and sued Shanghai Minxing District traffic police department, and the national media outlets reported on it. 

Hao Jinsong made FOIA requests for “black vehicle fine” from 18 districts and counties in Shanghai. The court threatened Zhang Hui and wanted him to withdraw the case, but he did not buckle. The Minxing District administrative court eventually ruled in favor of Zhang Hui, while the head of Pudong New District apologized to the public in a press conference regarding Sun Zhongjie’s experience.

Hao Jinsong said he scouted the internet every day for news of current affairs. “I choose my target and see if this battle suits me,” he told Nanfang Renwu Weekly (《南方人物周刊》) in 2009. As he chose a case and steered through legal channels, he publicized his moves on the internet and social media, and also reached out to media outlets, to make the case as widely known as possible. He called his multi-pronged modus operandi “fushi litigation” (复式诉讼). In other words, he understood that while the battle may be fought in front of the court, the battleground is outside the court in the arena of public opinion. This is essential particularly in China because the court, more often than not, yields not to the laws but to the directives of the government and the monopolizing Communist Party.

Indeed, he called the netizens who rallied behind him his “wolf pack” that propelled him forward. “I need netizens to grow and mature in these battles so that they are aware that we have not given up to power, and we can take part in the decision-making process and stand up to turn the tides at crucial moments of fighting for social justice,” he told Nanfang Renwu Weekly.

Hao Jinsong managed to either make his legal engagements hot topics in media such as his lawsuits against the Ministry of Railways and Beijing Subway, or choose the hot topics at the time, such as the South China tiger hoax. Between 2005 and 2010, he was selected by various media outlets as a Top Ten Consumer Rights Defenders (十大消费维权人物), 100 People Who Effected Progress in Contemporary China (影响中国时代进程100人), Rule of Law Newsmakers (法治新闻人物), and Person of the Year (南方人物周刊年度人物).

Was he an opportunist, an attention seeker? Chai Jing (柴静), CCTV’s star reporter at the time, played the devil’s advocate in a 2009 interview with Hao Jinsong.

Chai Jing: An ordinary resident in Beijing travels back and forth to Shanghai to represent this case [the case of Zhang Hui] pro bono, what’s in it for you?

Hao Jinsong: When the dignity of the law is trampled, sometimes we have to stand up and uphold justice.

Chai Jing:  Do you take part in such a high-profile public event to fulfill your desire to be a star, or do you really want to help get a better outcome for this event?

Hao Jinsong: I feel that I need to become a model for citizens.

Chai Jing: What is a quality citizen?

Hao Jinsong: I think first of all, he has to have a sense of responsibility as the masters of this country…The constitution says all the power of the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people, so when you are faced with these unreasonable problems, you should look at them and try to solve them with an attitude befitting the role of the people. I have always thought I am a master, I do these things as a master, and I feel everything happening in China is related to me, because I live in this land, and I have to make sure this land is becoming better and more improved.

Chai Jing: You won’t stop until you hit the bottom of the cup, will you?

Hao Jinsong: I need a result. We all know that, with many things in China, it’s a continuous, patient, and long process. Just like rule of law and democracy in China, you can envision the outcome, but you need to walk one step at a time towards it. Many people don’t have the patience and give it up midway. You don’t have to win each time, correct?

Was he effective? Did he make a difference? He said in 2009, “You cannot just lecture people and expect them to grow. I don’t know if you have noticed, from 2004 to 2009, the number of cases filed at courts around the country has skyrocketed…I chatted with a judge at Beijing Municipal Superior Court, and he told me that they have to work overtime on Sundays because of the exponential increase of cases. The court is adding more human resources but still couldn’t keep up with the caseload. In a way I think this is a good thing. When citizens try to lodge lawsuits at the court, it means that they have the rule of law awareness and have taken actions. I’m very excited when I see that so many people are suing. I know there is part of me in it, and I and my like-minded fellow travelers have contributed to it.” 

Time has changed

While repression has never taken a break, looking back, the first decade of this century felt like a “golden age” for civil society in China. The advent and spread of the internet activated and animated millions and millions of Chinese who had had no way to express themselves in the public arena. Even though censorship followed on the heels of the internet, it was far less porous and immediate as it is today. It took at least several years for the censorship technology and expertise to pick up and keep pace in China.

Meanwhile China had been vigorously implementing wide-ranging reforms and its economy grew close to 10% each year. The societal consensus seemed to be that China was moving towards a level of integration with the rest of the world, and adopting its liberal values.

During those years, Beijing and other metropolitan centers were abuzz with actual lectures and internet forums discussing the idea of constitutional democracy, the rule of law, China’s future, as well as cultural trends and schools of thoughts from the west that were new to China. Personal blogs flourished, new authors emerged, and tens of thousands of people were inspired.

Lawyers began to defend cases involving journalists, believers, entrepreneurs, farmers, or anyone who was wrongfully punished by the government-controlled legal system. These cases quickly trended on the internet, generating heated discussions among the public.

This was the period when Hao Jinsong came to the scene and really thrived. But times have changed since then. The bustling civil society, considered a grave threat to the security of the regime, has been raided and razed over and over again. People like Hao Jinsong are not dissidents, and work well inside the “safe” boundaries. Nor has he rocked boats and made headlines as he used to. But it seems to me that, when the bigger threats are mowed off, those who were once “safe” become the next targets.  

From Hao Jinsong’s lawsuits, we can see that the Chinese government is not necessarily against making improvements; what it does reject, as has become abundantly clear under Xi Jinping’s reign, is the kind of “model of citizen” that Hao Jinsong personifies.  

Lawyer Li Xiongbing and Lin Qilei (right) visiting detention center in Nov. 2020.

The charges against Hao Jinsong

Lawyer Lin Qilei (蔺其磊) is a friend of Hao Jinsong, and represented him in the first months of his arrest. I asked him to weigh in on Hao’s Indictment.

“Hao Jinsong was first given a 15-day administrative detention for refusing to delete some of his social media posts. Like everyone else, he posted or reposted others’ posts on WeChat and also on Twitter. The Public Security, acting on reports by internet police, demanded that he delete certain posts. Most people would submit themselves to such demands, but not Hao Jinsong. He told them ‘there is nothing inappropriate or illegal, and I will not delete them.’ At the end of the 15-day administrative detention, they switched to criminal detention. He was initially charged with ‘picking quarrels and provoking disturbances’ (寻衅滋事) and ‘defamation’ (诽谤)”, and prevented from seeing his lawyers during the first months of detention. And several months later, the police added a new investigation on ‘fraud’ (诈骗).”

From the indictment, which is a flimsy 5-page document, the first two charges are presented in a mere two sentences: “Since 2010, defendant Hao Jinsong has used the aforementioned social media accounts to repost [others’ posts] and comment on hot topics, and some of which are false information that were widely read, reposted, commented, causing confusion.” “From November 2018 to February 2019, defendant Hao Jinsong retweeted and commented on expressions that insult and defame national leaders on Twitter.”

Lawyer Lin gave an example of Hao Jinsong’s alleged defamation of national leaders. In the case file he read, “a comment Hao Jinsong made about the price of pork is included as evidence of insulting national leaders: ‘If you can’t even manage the pork price, how can you govern a country?’”

As for fraud, lawyer Lin said that Hao Jinsong provides legal services through the legal consultancy he had founded. It’s legal and appropriate. With certain cases, he teamed up with licensed lawyers. “The authorities added this charge in order to levy more severe punishment against Hao Jinsong, and at the same time denigrate him.”

The indictment cited two “unfulfilled” frauds in 2013 and in 2017 respectively.  

“This is a government that has no check and balance,” said Lin Qilei. “Since they can interpret the law however they need to, they of course can enforce the law however they want. They have been cracking down on citizens, human rights lawyers, and journalists arbitrarily and wantonly. That’s the situation we are facing now.”

An investigative journalist named Luo Changping (罗昌平) was criminally detained recently for mocking a propaganda movie about the Korean War.

In prison Hao Jinsong has remained unyielded and exacting, according to reports from his lawyers, who agrees with their client that the case against him is a farce.

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