Anti-Discrimination NGO Wins Lawsuit Against Hotel in "Stability Maintenance" Case

May 3, 2013

Justice for All, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that works on anti-discrimination legal advocacy, won a legal case in March 2013 against a hotel that had canceled its reservation of hotel facilities for a legal workshop. Local police acknowledged that they had demanded the cancellation because of a "stability maintenance" order. In past years, the Commission has observed similar measures linked to "stability maintenance" taken against civil society organizations, but this appears to be the first case of a lawsuit successfully filed by an NGO for cancellation of an activity with the court decision in its favor.

Hotel Cancels NGO Reservation for Legal Workshop

In a March 18, 2013, decision (via Human Rights in China (HRIC), 1 April 13), a district court in Suzhou ordered Motel 168 in Suzhou municipality, Jiangsu province, to compensate Justice for All (Tianxiagong) for breach of contract (Caixin (CX), 25 March 13). Justice for All is a public interest NGO in Nanjing that works on anti-discrimination advocacy in the areas of disability, gender, and public health rights, and is known for having provided legal counsel to the plaintiff in the first-ever instance of a plaintiff being awarded compensation in an HIV-related employment discrimination case (CX, 25 March 13; Radio Free Asia (RFA), 24 January 13). In November 2012, it filed a civil complaint (via HRIC) against Motel 168 for canceling its reservation of hotel facilities to hold a lawyers' workshop in April 2012 (CX, 25 March 13; RFA, 26 February 13). At the time of the cancellation, the hotel informed Justice for All that local government agencies requisitioned the hotel facilities (RFA, 26 February 13). Court documents indicate, however, that the cancellation was due to "stability maintenance" (weiwen) operations, whereby local police informed the hotel that holding the workshop would pose a "serious political problem" during the Chinese May 1st holiday period and directed the hotel to cancel the reservation (CX, 25 March 13; RFA, 26 February 13).

"Stability Maintenance" as a Means of Harassing Civil Society Organizations

According to Caixin Media, civil society organizations like Justice For All frequently face police interference under the guise of "stability maintenance" when they hold activities (CX, 25 March 13). The record of the court proceedings in Justice for All's case illustrates how authorities implement "stability maintenance" directives. In court testimony, the deputy director from the local police station in Suzhou involved in the cancellation stated, "On April 29, 2012, or thereabouts, our police station received verbal notification from a relevant senior department that during the May 1st period, stability maintenance work required that hotels in our jurisdiction not hold any meetings or gatherings . . . because of this, we verbally requested that the [hotel] terminate the activity"(CX, 25 March 13). In its defense statement (via HRIC), the hotel argued that since the cancellation of Justice for All's contract was in response to the "government and police's request," the urgent "stability maintenance" notification fell within the contract's definition of an unanticipated circumstance ("force majeure"), releasing it from liability. The court did not accept this claim and ordered the hotel to pay damages and return the deposit in the amount of 21,750 RMB (USD $3,463) and 5,000 RMB (USD $796), respectively, based on Articles 97, 107, 114(1), and 116 of the PRC Contract Law. A law professor at University of Hong Kong Law School commented in Caixin media's Century Weekly that the police's verbal notification of "stability maintenance" was particularly problematic because under similar circumstances, "any administrative department official's 'verbal notification'" could become grounds for denying liability in a breach of contract case (CX, Century Weekly, via Justice for All Web site, 8 April 13).

An Atypical Legal Outcome in a "Sensitive" Case

Some commentators have hailed Justice for All's win as a historic development for civil society (Radio Netherlands Worldwide, 26 March 13). A U.S. legal expert on China expressed surprise that the court "not only took the case, but found for the plaintiffs" (Chinese Law Prof Blog, 29 March 13). The court's decision reportedly even surprised the lawyer representing Justice for All in the case, who noted that "[i]n general, public security's place in the system is higher than courts, they have greater power" (Sina Blog Post, 4 April 13). The court, nevertheless, did not order the hotel to publicly apologize, as had been requested by Justice for All in its civil complaint, deeming it to be outside the scope of China's Contract Law. The impact of this ruling on China's practice of "stability maintenance" remains to be seen. Likewise, its impact on the willingness of courts to exercise judicial discretion in so-called "sensitive" cases is unknown. The case, however, well exemplifies litigation-based legal strategies now used by civil society organizations in China to "challenge the state's agents" (Wilson, 2012).

Background on "Stability Maintenance"

For decades "maintaining stability" has been tied to public security and other actions against perceived threats to social "harmony" (Legal Daily, 1 March 11) and more recently to "social management" policies (People's Daily, 25 October 07). Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) has detailed numerous examples of repressive "stability maintenance" actions, particularly during "sensitive" political periods and in relation to groups perceived as "sensitive" (CHRD, Annual Reports for 2011 and 2012).

For more information on civil society developments in China, see the CECC 2012 Annual Report, Part III—Civil Society, pp. 120–124; and for more information on "stability maintenance" and "social management," see the CECC 2012 Annual Report, Part III—Institutions of Democratic Governance, pp. 125–126.