HONG KONG—Chinese civil rights lawyers have hailed a landmark decision by a court in central China to award the same amount of compensation to a man from a rural community as would be payable to city-dwellers.
Earlier this month, a municipal court in the central city of Zhengzhou ruled that rural resident Da Zhang should be awarded the same level of compensation as urban residents after he was paralyzed in a road accident, highlighting long-running systemic differences in the treatment of Chinese citizens, depending on their place of residence.
The landmark ruling is being hailed as a victory by China's embattled civil rights lawyers, themselves frequently targeted by the authorities for trying to defend the rights of ordinary people as already written into Chinese law.
"I wrote an article on how the value of life should not be depreciated on the basis of household registration [location]," Beijing-based lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan said.
Life should have the same value."
"People with urban household registrations always receive more compensation than those with rural household registrations," Liu said.
He said the issue was brought to public attention when a 2007 court ruling in the western city of Chongqing awarded twice as much compensation to the relatives of an urban-registered accident victim as to the family of his rurally registered counterpart, even though both men were killed in the same car accident.
"In this case, one received 200,000 yuan, while the other only got 100,000 yuan," Liu said. "The issue of equality of value of life sparked the concern of society because of this accident."
In Da Zhang's case, the maximum compensation award for a rural resident paralyzed in an accident would have been 90,000 yuan, while urban residents could receive up to 280,000 yuan for the same injuries.
In the end, Zhang was awarded 220,000 yuan (U.S. $32,000), calculated from the scale for city-dwellers.
The "Interpretations on Several Issues Regarding Applicable Laws in the Hearing of Personal Injury Compensation Cases," used as guidelines for court officials in China since 2004, state explicitly that "the standards of compensation awarded to urban and rural residents are different."
"The stipulated compensation for death should be calculated based on the standards of either the average disposable income of urban residents in the year before or the per capita net income of rural residents in which the court of appeal is located," the document says.
Another Beijing-based lawyer, Cheng Hai, said a groundswell of opinion among legal professionals and the general public now supports a national unified standard for compensation claims, regardless of residency.
"According to reason and provisions in the Constitution, the Civil Law, and other laws, they should be of the same value," Cheng said.
"Life should have the same value."
Liu said differences might be applicable in the case of claims for the death of a family member, based on the person's age and marketable skills, however.
"Of course some people might be working adults, while others might be very young," he said. "The economic loss in this aspect may be different based on their age and skills. This is acceptable."
But the value of a human life should remain the same, regardless of whether the victim was young or old, male or female, Liu said.
Call for unified standards
Delegates to China's parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), recently issued a statement calling for a move towards unification of national standards for compensation in the case of accident, death, or injury.
The NPC called for personal injury compensation laws to be passed that would "lean towards unified compensation standards with applicable principles and appropriately consider differences in personal age, income, and educational level."
Cheng said the NPC's opinion, together with the legal precedent set in Zhengzhou, could now pave the way for fairer compensation awards nationwide.
"Legal workers, attorneys, government officials, and the media—when more and more people understand the issue that people should be equally compensated in this respect, it will definitely accelerate the promulgation of standards, laws, or legal interpretations in this area," he said.
However, the Guangdong provincial Supreme People's Court has said it will continue to assign different values to the lives of urban and rural residents lost in accidents.
Urban registration holders in the province will receive a maximum compensation of 760,000 yuan, while their rurally registered counterparts will get 250,000 yuan.
Cheng said he expects to see new legislation governing compensation in the next three years.
Traffic accidents killed 29,866 people on Chinese roads in the first six months of 2009, and injured a further 130,000, according to government figures.
Total direct economic losses of road accidents fell by 22.9 percent to 410 million yuan (U.S. $60 million).
Original reporting in Mandarin by Wen Jian. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.