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Upstart Chinese Lawyer Asks Court: For Whom the Bridge Tolls?

Asia: Lawsuit seeking 60 cents alleges that government illegally collected fees. Case shows how citizen involvement in civic issues is growing.

April 22, 2002|ANTHONY KUHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — When Wesley Pan sued his local government for the equivalent of 60 cents, it was clearly not just for the money.

The five yuan toll allows Pan to drive from his home in the Panyu district over the Luoxi Bridge spanning a tributary of the Pearl River to his job as a lawyer in the bustling city of Guangzhou. Most other bridges into Guangzhou have paid off their loans and stopped collecting tolls long ago, so he wondered why there was still a charge for the Luoxi. He filed suit.

"In the past, Chinese people were inured to arbitrary collection of tolls. Now they're standing up to exercise their right of oversight over the government," said Zhang Shuyi, a China University of Politics and Law professor who later volunteered to represent Pan in court.

Pan's legal battle to recoup his toll from the Luoxi Bridge in southern China's Guangdong province is something new to the country's evolving legal system: a public interest lawsuit. Based on a 1989 law that allows citizens to take the government to court for illegal administrative actions, the suit represents the stirrings of citizen involvement in civic issues. The government has won about two-thirds of such lawsuits.

Guangdong was the first province in China to build bridges with private investment and bank loans instead of government allocations. Pan learned that the Luoxi Bridge was built in 1988 with an $8.5 million donation from Panyu native and Hong Kong real estate magnate Henry Fok. A vice chairman of China's legislature and one of Beijing's most trusted advisors in Hong Kong, Fok has parlayed his connections into numerous mainland business ventures. Fok has publicly criticized Panyu's failure to mention his donation.

The bridge authorities, it seemed to Pan, were taking advantage of Fok's largess to reap illegal profits. The collection of fees over much of the last 14 years, Pan argued, violated provincial laws, which stipulate that road tolls can be collected only to pay off construction loans.

Last May, he sued the Panyu district government to force it to stop collecting the tolls and give him his 60 cents back as a symbolic gesture.

"We're not trying to make things hard for the government," Pan, 31, said in an interview. "We just want them to earn their revenues legally."

Panyu district officials refused to comment.

Pan's lawsuit cited a 1999 provincial government audit of the bridge that made no mention of Fok's contribution but showed that the project cost $18 million, which included some bank loans. The audit also showed that since 1988, the bridge had raked in $111 million in tolls, many times the amount that needed to be repaid.

"The bridge must not become a cash cow!" declared a headline in Guangzhou's Southern Metropolitan Daily, which, along with other local media, reported on the case, defying a gag order from provincial propaganda officials.

Local residents complained about the tolls to the Guangdong provincial legislature, which formally requested an explanation of the incident from the Panyu district government.

The government explained that it would take until 2008 to pay off the bank loans on the bridge. It attributed confusion over Fok's donation to incomplete government records.

So far, the involvement of courts, the media, auditors and the local legislature--institutions that are beginning to curb government officials' power in China--have yet to prove decisive in the dispute.

In January, an intermediate municipal court ruled that Pan had to have an administrative hearing on his dispute before the lawsuit can be heard. Pan appealed the ruling to a higher court, which heard both sides' arguments last month and is now deliberating.

The government "may try to throw up procedural obstacles, but that will only draw the suit out," Pan said. "If I didn't think I could win, I wouldn't have sued."

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