Consider two recent defamation cases in Chinese courts. In 2004, Zhang Xide, a former county-level Communist Party boss, sued the authors of a best selling book, An Investigation into China's Peasants. The book exposed official malfeasance on Zhang's watch and the resultant peasant hardships. Zhang demanded an apology from the book's authors and publisher, excision of the offending chapter, 200,000 yuan (approximately U.S.$25,000) for emotional damages, and a share of profits from sales of the book. Zhang sued in a local court on which, not coincidentally, his son sat as a judge.
In 2000, Song Dianwen, a peasant, sued the Heilongiiang Daily, the official paper of the Communist Party, in his home province for defamation after it published an article reporting that, during a village disturbance, Song had lit a fire that killed two people. He won a judgment from a local court, affirmed on appeal, for 3,500 yuan (approximately U.S.$430) in emotional damages.
The cases exemplify two different tracks of defamation litigation in present-day China. Track-one cases, like Zhang's, are brought by local public officials, government and Communist Party entities, or corporations to punish and control the increasingly aggressive Chinese media. In these cases, courts serve as state institutions at the local, as opposed to central, level to restrict and retaliate against the media and to block central oversight. On the second track, persons without power or Party-state ties sue the media, which, despite widespread commercialization, virtually all continue to be linked to the Chinese Party-state. Many such cases are brought by ordinary persons against Communist Party mouthpiece newspapers. Track-two cases thus represent a deployment of the courts by ordinary citizens against state entities. Empirical evidence from 223 defamation cases studied in this Article indicates that the media lose the overwhelming majority of cases on both tracks.
Law | Torts
Hong Yen Chang Center for Chinese Legal Studies
Benjamin L. Liebman,
Innovation through Intimidation: An Empirical Account of Defamation Litigation in China,
Harv. Int'l L. J.
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/554