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How one man in China strengthens the rule of law

Hao Jinsong, a Beijing lawyer, defies authorities with small lawsuits.

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Legal eagle: Lawyer Hao Jinsong files lawsuits to establish the rule of law in China.

Peter Ford

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To most Beijingers, the receipt the attendant gives them for the six cents paid to use the public toilets in the subway is a worthless piece of scrap, quickly crumpled up and thrown away.

To Hao Jinsong, that piece of paper is a seed of Chinese democracy.

It took the 35-year-old law scholar a court battle to force the subway authorities to issue the legally required receipt, and he still treasures the one he sued for. But the chit itself, he says, is not important.

"Behind this receipt is a law that gives people the right to ask for one," he explains. "If nobody respects the dignity of the law, everybody loses his own dignity. If today you lose your right to a receipt, tomorrow you may lose your right to your land, your house, your freedom, and even your life."

Hyperbole? In a country where the rule of law is very much a work in progress, and where the ruling Communist Party routinely dictates judges' verdicts in sensitive cases, Mr. Hao's passionate faith in the law might seem naive.

But it is the very weakness of the rule of law in China that inspires his crusade, he says. If "people don't use legal recourse to defend themselves because they think it's useless ... the law grows even weaker," he argues.

"When ... people use the law as naturally as they use chopsticks, China will be close to democracy," he adds.

Hao is a pioneer of public interest lawsuits, a growing trend in a country where they were unknown, or dismissed by judges out of hand, only a few years ago.

He and a swelling band of lawyers like him have attracted less international attention than legal activists whose efforts to defend human rights have earned them beatings, house arrest or jail terms.

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