Twenty-five years after the ruling Chinese Communist Party passed a law allowing people to sue the government, the hopes of that era of a judicial check on government power have largely been dashed, legal experts and activists said.
China's Administrative Procedure Law was passed during an era of relative political openness, the late 1980s, and commanded wide support among intellectuals who believed it could help hold an increasingly corrupt government to account.
But in today's China, anyone seeking to file a lawsuit, the majority of which involve eviction or land disputes, will find the country's courts highly unwilling to accept the case, campaigners said.
"Only a small minority ever get to sue the government," said Zhejiang-based rights lawyer Yuan Gulai, adding that recent government attempts to boost the rate of acceptance of lawsuits amount to little more than "propaganda."
"They think that this is progress, because you are allowed to sue, and they think you could get a result," Yuan said. "But they won't; that's not likely."
"The government and the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party are the same thing, so if you sue the government it's like suing the father on the son's territory," he said.
The idea of a regular person of limited means and little education taking an official or party cadre to court caught the popular imagination in television shows and movies like Zhang Yimou's "The Story of Qiu Ju."
In the movie, the heavily pregnant wife of a farmer from rural China sues a local official for beating her husband, taking the case all the way to the Supreme People's Court in Beijing, where she wins.
Flood of complaints
But China's army of real-life petitioners say they are increasingly stonewalled by the courts, and instead flood the government's "letters and visits" petitioning system with more than 20,000 new complaints a day.
Yuan said that while some regions of China were more likely to accept lawsuits in the past, even courts in those jurisdictions are now refusing to take new cases.
"There has been a huge step backwards in recent years," he said.
Shanghai rights activist Feng Zhenghu, who is himself pursuing a complaint over wrongful detention, said recent attempts to reform the system had resulted in little change in the rate of acceptance of new cases under the law.
"At the end of last year, they brought in judicial reforms in Shanghai...to address the problem of non-acceptance of cases," Feng said.
"But a number of district-level courts in Shanghai are boycotting it, and they still won't take lawsuits from members of the public," he said.
"It will be impossible to build a society ruled by law if the most basic right of the citizens to sue to protect their rights isn't there," Feng told RFA.
Call for political reform
According to U.S.-based legal expert Cheng Ganyuan, the Administrative Procedure Law came out after a wave of student-led demonstrations rocked the party leadership amid widespread calls for political reform throughout the late 1980s.
"The leadership perhaps felt unconsciously that in an atmosphere of rising social tensions and a growing momentum for political reform, that giving people a channel for dissatisfaction with the government would go some way towards easing those tensions," Cheng wrote in a recent online article.
"The Administrative Procedure Law was produced unusually fast amid this overall political situation."
Cheng said the entire law had been scuppered from the outset by late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping's dictum forbidding the separation of judicial, executive and legislative powers, however.
"Deng Xiaoping said...there was to be no separation of power, and so he drew a line to box everyone in, a line that it would be risky to cross," he told a recent discussion forum in Los Angeles.
"In the past 25 years, people have had trouble filing lawsuits, getting decisions on lawsuits, and getting decisions implemented," Cheng said.
Cheng estimates that some 95 percent of cases of people suing the government end in failure.
"Not only does the Administrative Procedure Law not protect people's legal rights; it has become a tool with which the government bamboozles the people," he said.
Reported by Yang Fan and C.K. for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.