What if Someone Cut my Tree?

I was asked the question in a family gather in the States on July 4 about “what happens if your neighbor gets to your garden and cut your tree?” I answered: “I will jump to their garden and cut their trees, and if I can break their window, that is even better”.

I was kidding, but the bitter reality in China today is, that is maybe the only solution left.

Legal System

Legal system is designed to protect the common people, but not so true in practice. As I said, I never sued someone in my life, and wasn’t sued, because suing is not that useful, in practice. People solve problems by themselves (some times violently).

My colleague A encountered something similar. Two guys got into our company violently on one weekend. They threatened to destroy the computers, and office equipment. At the emergency, my colleague had to defense and pushed them out of the office by violence – someone got hurt. My colleague then immediately called 110 and the police came.

The police educated A that he should not have done it. When asked what he should do when two strangers get into the office and when there is only one person inside, this is what the police suggested:

You should not force them to leave, even when they are in your office. If they threaten to destroy something, you should let them destroy it. This way they break the law, and then you can call us. But before they destroy anything or beat you, you should NOT do anything.

Although we have all the CCAV record of what happened (how they broke in, and what happened), the police insisted that A pay 500 RMB for the damage he made to the two strangers. After several hours of wasting time, A finally paid the money and get the thing settled.

This is very common. I personally encounter stuff like this many time. The typical thing policemen will tell you is: “Do you want to spend endless time and effort to sue them? The court cannot solve the problem.” or “for small things like this, no court will handle it. Take it easy and let it be.” I recorded one of the even 5 years ago: Goudaner Scratched by Drunk Driver. My car was scratched badly by a drunk driver, and police came, and the driver/passengers left the car. The policeman came and said he could do nothing. I called to complain and I was told that if I insist, I can bring witness to their office to record it. Well. There is no chance for a file to the court without their written confirmation…

So, many years of social experience tend to teach people to protect themselves by themselves. That is maybe the reason many people (I mean my friends!) believed that violence is always a better choice.

BTW, any reader has any experience to sue someone on the court when the damage is less than 100K USD? What was the experience and how it worked out? (Well. Even if the court find the other party is guilty, there is few ways to enforce it.)

Legally Speaking…

When I encounter with the security guard in my residential area, I felt more confident than having the same conflict with the security guard in my office building. Why? Because I know in the first case, I am the owner of the property, but in the second case, I am just a leaser, not an owner. You see the difference? As a leaser, I only have the option to complain to the owner of the building, and if they refuse to take their right to do something with the property management company, my only choice is economical – move out. But if I own something, the right is more political – I have the *right*.

However, to think it deeper, even my own house, I don’t own it. I LEASED it from the country. I am a leaser of my own house. For many people who don’t have their residence permit (several million people live in Shanghai without that resident permit), they can only get a TEMP permit for living in Shanghai. In this case, they don’t have the right too – they are just visitors to this city, no matter how long they live here – 10 years? 20 years? and their children don’t have the residence status of this city. (Refer to this Hukou article).

In both situation, legally speaking, you don’t have any right. You have the right to complain to the landlord of your house, or complain to the city that you are visiting, but that is suggestion based right, not a legal binding right.

In that sense, we are all *leasers* or guest in this country, even after paying one million USD to get an apartment in Shanghai – the apartment still belongs to the government, and you just get a lease contract of 60 years.

The Hope

There is still hope though. Now we do have a legal system. Although it does not work as well as it was designed, but it is improving. More and more people turn to the legal system for justice, instead of violence.

Zhiyong is one typical example of it, although he himself was officially arrested the other day. He was accused for tax evasion. According to tax law, he is free of penalty if the company pays the tax and fine in full (the tax evasion is about a pending charity donation from Yale University for doing research.)

Many people from around the country donated to pay the 1.42 million RMB fine ticket (well. Think about it. People donate to pay the fine by government!), but the tax department rejected the money because the Legal Representitive of the company, Zhiyong, is not able to go to their office to sign the document. Zhiyong cannot go because he is arrested. He is arrested because he wouldn’t pay the fine. He wouldn’t pay the fine because he is arrested… the loop is intentionally kept there. In that logic, the only way for Zhiyong to solve the infinite loop is to complete his 7 years in jail, and then go to the tax office to pay the fine. At that time, I believe the penalty of delaying the fine (3% per day) would be 100 million.

However, I still keep the hope that as long as there is still a place to talk about the legal system. Just like the dead loop here – it is still legal term and legal process any way. There must be a way out as long as it is still legal talk. In this sense, the country has improved.

Keep the hope.

11 thoughts on “What if Someone Cut my Tree?

  1. Actually, we have a system here in which an ordinary person can take steps to “sue” another person or business establishment in “Small Claims Court”. Neither party is required (or even allowed) to have lawyers to represent them, only to present, under oath of honesty, their side of a disagreement along with any supporting evidence (documents, photographs, contracts, etc.) to a judge who will then decide the issue and make a ruling as to whether compensation is required.

    Years ago we filed a claim in Small Claims Court against a dry cleaning establishment which had ruined the slipcovers from a sofa which we had taken to them to be cleaned. They did not verbally tell us about any risk to the fabric, nor was there any such warning printed on the claim check we were given at the time we dropped them off. I believe there may have been a small sign on the back wall behind the counter, but both we and the owner agreed that it had been almost completely obscured by a calendar that had been hung in front of it, and in any case, was not visible from the front of the counter where customers could reasonably have been expected to see and read it.

    We had photographs of the sofa before the cleaning, and presented as evidence the ruined material.

    The judge ruled in our favor, and the dry cleaner was required to pay for a completely new set of custom-made slipcovers.

    We felt the process was very fair (of course, since we won the case :-) and easy for a person from any walk of life to seek justice for small, but still financially important issues.

    More recently, a tree service, which had been hired by our neighbors to clean up their property, cut all the low branches off several of the trees that lie between our homes, but are actually on our property. They had provided visual protection to a part of our yard from the road, not to mention homes for birds which we love, etc. We were shocked and very sad to come home one day to discover that this had happened. Fortunately, we are on good terms with the neighbor, and it was obviously an unintentional mistake, but still, not one which could easily be fixed by simply returning the branches. The solution was that our neighbors paid for and planted a number of new young trees in the area which will hopefully someday grow thick enough to protect the back portion of our yard. Not a perfect solution for quite a few years, but still better than having a big fight with an apologetic and well-intentioned good neighbor.

    “Keep the hope” is a good attitude for human relations at every level, Jian Shuo!


  2. Can I add something that explains why the legal system is not working?

    In China, judges rule the court, that will sometimes create unfair judgements, such as allow one party to provide some evidence, but not give equal opportunities for the other party to question and defend it, or sometimes adopt evidence not commonly accepted. Apart from that, even the court is fair enough, the judge sentenced correctly as common accepted, but may still make no good for the winner party. i.e. If someone owe some other’s money, and they have been brought to the court, then the court sentenced the borrower to return the money, sounds fair. OK, but the owner may not have chance to have the money back. Why? If the defendant refuse to return the money, then bailiff should be involved to execute the sentence. That is what everyone expected. However, there are 2 things in China to get bailiff do the job for you:

    1. you will have to pay the execution fee

    2. you will tell the bailiff where the the defendant is and what goods or bank account to be executed.

    So, if the case is small amount of money, after paying the execution fee, that may left you almostly nothing.

    And if the defendant escaped and moving to somewhere else, and you as the plaintiff is responsible of finding out the location where the defendant hide, the bailiff is not responsible of this.

    For the bad defendant guy, if he/she refused to pay the money as the court sentenced, and not found by the plaintiff, and he will have nothing inconvenient in life, that will make the sufferer feel desperate even win the lawsuit.

  3. “Zhiyong, is not able to go to their office to sign the document. Zhiyong cannot go because he is arrested. He is arrested because he wouldn’t pay the fine. He wouldn’t pay the fine because he is arrested… the loop is intentionally kept there.”

    An example of rule by law, quite opposite to rule of law.

    The law is instrumentalized, for a given objective, that has little to do with justice whatsoever.

    I think nevertheless that this “legal” issue will solve itself after the CCP anniversary celebration.

  4. We too went to Small Claims Court in the US. The magistrate ruled in our favor but the other guy wouldn’t pay. The magistrate (after four court appearances and $250 in court costs that we paid but the bad guy was supposed to pay back because he lost) asked us “Do you want him to go to jail?” We said we only wanted our money back. Then the bad guy’s lawyer immediately announced that the bad guy was declaring bankruptcy so he didn’t have to pay us. So we paid $250 and a lot of wasted time for an “education”.

    There is psychological evidence that when someone is wronged, they will want to retaliate with more harm to the wronger. So if he cuts one tree, you want to cut down all his trees and break his window.

    That’s how wars start. And get worse.

  5. Legal system is way from satisfaction in China, neither is in the West. So we have the popular comics/TV play/movie – “Dark Justice”.

    I think it’s a mission impossible to have a perfect legal system. Laws, similar to anti-virus softwares, are always in the passively defensive position. Human is so cunning to find bypass, or to make fully use of leaks in laws. As the idiom goes: While the priest climb a post, the devil climbs ten (道高一尺,魔高一丈). Unfortunately, legal system is something unlike anti-virus software, which we can have an easy update everyday. So, I’m guessing, does the case law system has its advantage over the statute law system, as it’s more flexible & practical?

  6. If I was in your friend’s position I will seriously consider paying protection money to the neighbourhood thugs. If the police are not interested, I will have no alternative but to find my own way.

    This is the reality of China today. It is going to take a long long time before a reasonable level of law and order returns to the masses. Until then, the best protection is to carry a big stick.

  7. The right to own, private property(house, land etc.), is fundamental to American kind of system/thinking. Otherwise the country/party is always your master.

    “Small Claims Courts” deal with anything that’s under $2000… though I am not sure if all states are the same. We had a good experience with Small Claims Court (LA) for a long delayed payment. But I have no doubt there are bad ones out there. In our case, the other side was a well known organization… what was done wrong was by people, a lower level manager, who worked there. So I believe that the head officer didn’t know there was problems till he saw the paper from the court. We got the money… the judge did ask us if we’d take their van if they didn’t have money. In our case, the “Small Claims Court” is great because it gave us a chance to by pass the “bad guy”.

    I have to say that although I think the law system seems working fairly well in US… it’s not perfect, don’t think it is possible to be perfect, and it has a lot of “side effects”… I just heard on the radio a couple of days ago that a women who just graduated from a college and couldn’t find a job in the past 3 months was suing the college for about $70000… the tuition she paid. It can be pretty crazy.

    In the case of police actions on car accidents… my own experience is that most of the time police won’t show up for minor car accident… unless somebody is really hurt. However they do arrest drunk drivers… DUI is pretty big deal. Without bad personal injury most people I know didn’t need to call police when involved in accident. You need to get the other driver’s info (best with some eyewitnesses, people normally are willing to help), and have to deal with the damage through your insurance company. If the other driver (drunk or not drunk) doesn’t have insurance… your insurance would pay for repairing your car and they will decide if they want to sue the other driver or not… you don’t have get involved too much.

    The break-in case was very strange… unless break-in is legal in China. I think even if they didn’t take anything yet when the police got there, they would have been arrested if it happens in US. Don’t have personal experience on this.

  8. 3% per day? That’s ridiculous. In much of the world, that’s a reasonable return on capital for one year.

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