China’s procuratorial public interest litigation plays increasingly important role as ‘guardian’ of public interests

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During the opening ceremony for the 22nd Annual Conference and General Meeting of the International Association of Prosecutors, held Sept 11 to 14, 2017, in Beijing, northern China, Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered congratulatory remarks in a letter addressed to attendees, stating that “as representatives of the public interest, prosecutors shoulder important responsibilities.”

Earlier that year, in a session of the 12th National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the institutional arrangements permitting procuratorial organs to pursue public interest litigation were officially established, with China’s system for procuratorial public interest litigation being put into effect starting from July 1, 2017.

To date, procuratorial organs nationwide have filed more than 670,000 public interest lawsuits, which have expanded continuously into a variety of domains while achieving positive results for the rule of law as well as having a favorable social impact. After enhancing international cooperation and exchanges, China’s procuratorial public interest litigation has advanced progressively, having come to play an important role as the “guardian” of national and public interests.

Liu Jiapu, public prosecutor for the Eighth Prosecutor’s Office (Public Interest Litigation Prosecutor’s Office) under the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), still has a vivid memory of the first public interest litigation case directly handled by the SPP: the Wanfeng Lake Basin Environmental Protection Case.

Wanfeng Lake, one of China’s five largest freshwater lakes, overlaps three districts situated in Guizhou Province, the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and Yunnan Province, and is an important water source for the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, with the state of its water quality directly linked to the livelihoods of several hundreds of thousands of people living along the riverbanks.

For a long time, however, issues like illegal cage aquaculture and unlawful fishing activities were pervasive, resulting in serious damage to the environment of the lake and its drainage basin.

“Governance over Wanfeng Lake is problematic, with challenges arising from its division into multiple administrative districts,” Liu noted. “With administrative entities decentralized into three areas, and each moving at dissimilar speeds and possessing varying strengths, it was very difficult for a common effort to take shape.”

Following up on leads one-by-one, conducting investigations and collecting evidence, issuing procuratorial proposals… once the special investigation team was established, the handling of the case was pushed forward in a systemic way. “We brought about the linking up of three areas and the integration of procuratorial organs at all four levels when handling the case. By simply relying on one area or procuratorial organs at one given level, there was just no way to bring a resolution to the predicament,” Liu recalled.

Owing to the concerted efforts of all concerned parties, the governance of Wanfeng Lake started to improve.

The director of the Eighth Prosecutor’s Office of the SPP, Hu Weilie, commented that “after coming to understand the difficult problems associated with the ‘governance of the commons,’ people will more readily appreciate why public interest litigation came into being.” When public interests are encroached upon and there is no qualified entity to initiate legal action, and when there is a lack of effective means for pursuing remediation, or such means as currently available fail to be effective, public interest litigation can have a motivating effect and make up for deficiencies in institutional mechanisms.

Without a doubt, “public interest litigation” has now become a frequently encountered word between China and other countries in mutual exchanges related to judicial matters.

“China is currently in the process of effectively implementing its concept of ecological civilization, while its exploration of public interest litigation on climate change has been even more heartening, with this kind of determination being worthy of every country’s emulation,” lauded Antonio Herman Benjamin, chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Environmental Law and justice of the National High Court of Brazil.

Apart from the ecological environment, China’s procuratorial organs are also actively exploring public interest litigation regarding the construction of barrier-free environments in addition to many other domains, in this way protecting the lawful rights and interests of disadvantaged social groups.

“Procuratorial public interest litigation possesses distinctive functionality and value when it comes to protecting the ecological environment and protecting human rights, among other areas, and is now on course to manifest its dynamism in a more and more robust way,” Hu remarked.