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How one man in China strengthens the rule of law

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But they are achieving prominence in China, and winning plaudits from their peers. "We need someone to stand up and challenge shortcomings of institutions," says Wu Ge, a law professor at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

Hao is best known for lawsuits he has brought against the powerful Ministry of Railroads, challenging its refusal to give tax receipts for goods bought on trains, and its ticket pricing policy.

He won the receipt case, on his third attempt, earning the government $2.7 million a year in tax revenue from the railroads. And though he lost two court battles to stop the railroad management raising ticket prices during the Spring Festival, when 150 million Chinese go home for the holidays, his campaign attracted wide public support. Management bowed to the pressure, and has left holiday ticket prices untouched for the past two years.

That, says Yiyi Lu, a researcher at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London who has written a study of public interest lawsuits in China, is an example of how "you don't need to win the case to win the cause."

Key to such victories has been media coverage and the public debate it provokes. Though Chinese newspapers don't dare report court cases involving political dissidents, many of them – including the Communist Party's mouthpiece the People's Daily – have written approvingly about Hao's cases.

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