Courts seen as protectors of rights
Mainlanders are increasingly willing to use legal means to protect their rights, according to a legal scholar.
Professor Jiang Shigong of Peking University said the public had generally accepted that the judiciary could play an important role in addressing social problems.
The Shenzhen-based scholar also said more people now viewed the Chinese constitution as a legal document which had a real effect on their daily lives.
These trends were noteworthy because they had developed despite a decision by Chinese leaders to scrap efforts to solve society's problems through legislation.
'In the 1980s, [people] were hoping to push for democracy through legislation,' Professor Jiang said. 'That's why we have drafted laws on village-level elections and public demonstrations, and debated a press law.'
Professor Jiang said this line of thought was abandoned after the 1989 'political incidents' in Beijing, with top leaders emphasising political and social stability above all else.
He said more people now turned to the law or the judiciary when seeking redress outside the political framework.
He cited an example two years ago when the Shandong Higher People's Court sought the legal opinion of the Supreme People's Court in Beijing during a lawsuit involving the infringement of a student's right to an education.
Professor Jiang said the Supreme People's Court told the Shandong court to rule on the case according to the constitution.
'This instruction by the Supreme People's Court caused a big debate in legal circles because under the Chinese constitution, the right to interpret the constitution belongs to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress [NPC],' he said.
'But in the debate, no one - not even officials of the NPC Standing Committee - said it was wrong for the Supreme People's Court to issue such an opinion. Everyone accepted that the court had the authority to do so.
'What this example shows is that there is now popular acceptance that the court and the application of laws can play an important role in solving social problems.'
The professor conceded that the judiciary was far from perfect, as it was plagued by corruption, poorly trained judges, interference from local governments and had a low political status. However, he argued it had greatly improved over the past two decades.
He said a major obstacle facing the judiciary was local protectionism, with judges who were appointed and paid by local governments often unable to rule impartially and in accordance with the law.
He blamed the rapid expansion of the judiciary in the mid-1990s, during which the central government was unable to provide the necessary financial support.
'As a result, many judges have turned to enterprises for sponsorship,' he said. 'This is not because the judges are morally corrupt, but more of a structural problem.'