Li Chen

Lee Foundation Fellow

School of Law: JD, JSD


Cohort 2014


Graduated 2016


Dr. Chen Li received his legal education in China, Singapore, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Belgium. His legal research interests include Legal History, Economic Law, Public International Law, Comparative Law, and Human Rights Law. He is currently an associate professorial fellow at Fudan University Law School. He completed his J.S.D degree under the supervision of Professor David Konig at the School of Law and wrote a dissertation titled: A History of Chinese Law Students in the United States in the Late Qing Dynasty (1878-1911). This monograph aspires to be a path-breaking attempt to meticulously trace the beginnings of Western-style legal education and practice in China through the biographies of early Chinese law students in the United States.

“My goal is to take the gift of my unique legal education home and to help shape a new era of law teaching and research in China.”

Scholar Highlights

Time to Reform the Outdated Petitioning System in China

In China rather than having an independent system of courts that follow due process, we employ an outdated petitioning system for dealing with certain grievances. The Chinese petitioning system is the central administrative system with head offices based in Beijing for hearing complaints and grievances from individuals against government officials and agencies. This infamous system has been denounced by human rights organizations and legal scholars as inefficient, ineffective and even cruel.

Most of the cases brought under this system are not resolved satisfactorily. Often, they are referred back to the local government offices where the grievances originated and then are stalled indefinitely. Petitioners continually flood Beijing in hope of reviving their cases.

I observed this system firsthand when assisting in an overseas Chinese petition for the return of property wrongly confiscated by the municipal government. It was during this experience that I observed the ineptitude of the bureaucracy in handling grievances and recognized the deadening impact of an utter lack of coordination between different agencies.

Rights activists and some prominent Chinese legal scholars have argued for dismantling this system, believing that the correct solution is to promote the rule of law, loosen control of the press and advance large scale political reform.

While I support these ideas, such changes are not likely to happen quickly, leaving thousands of people without a practical way for redress. The strategy I advocate is to:

(1) restructure the petition-handling system so that a department has the needed authority and discretion to enforce disciplinary action, and (2) carefully foster the creation of grassroots public interest organizations to help people resolve their grievances in more
effective ways.

Petition-handling departments should work closely with two powerful Chinese government bodies — the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of the Communist Party of China and the Organization Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee. The former is charged with rooting out corruption and malfeasance among Communist Party of China (CPC) cadres and officials. The latter is responsible for making key staffing decisions within the CCP and has an enormous amount of control over personnel.

Most petitions are about corruption and malfeasance by officials. If handling departments are staffed with officials from the discipline arm of the CPC, it could function as an information collection unit to get leads on serious cases to be probed directly by the discipline arm. The organization department could play a key role by making personnel decisions, such as removing or demoting someone found guilty of corruption, sending a strong message to officials. If these two departments work in tandem with the petition-handling departments, grievances are more likely to be resolved rather than ignored or deferred. It would also serve as a deterrent against corruption. I would also recommend establishing several petitioning hubs throughout China that directly report to the central department. This is crucial to mitigate the logjam in Beijing and eliminate the need for petitioners to converge on the capital.

The second step is to foster civic-minded people who are trained in law, public policy, journalism, politics and related disciplines to form grassroots organizations to help petitioners mount more strategic petitions to get fair and reasonable results. Bringing a petition to fruition demands a number of crucial skills, which ordinary Chinese citizens lack. By fostering and promoting public-interest organizations that provide free services to petitioners, they will have access to the thinking and skills needed to craft the best strategies, including garnering publicity and encouraging social outcry for egregious cases.

Download the PDF