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Mediators: the peacemaker in Chinese neighborhoods
2011/09/27

Their marriage becomes shaky after Mr. Chen Yong and Ms. Si have lived together for 15 years.

Disputes over trivial things are now constant visitors.

“She is too controlling, “ Mr. Chen complains. “She allows me have only 300 yuan pocket money a month, and I have present her a detailed bill of expenses at the end month. If a few bucks don’t tally with the bill she’ll be extremely furious and, interrogate me where the money go. “

Ms. Si argues back. “I just don’t want him waste money. A man would likely misbehave when they have enough money.”

To avoid direct confrontation with his wife, Mr. Chen sort of eloped for several times.

Ms. Si takes his leaving-home action as a “cold domestic violence,” and wonders whether Mr. Chen still loves her.

The couple claim they cannot stand each other any more. Yet, they don’t want to a divorce. So, Mr.Chen and Ms. Si from east China’s Jinagxi Province turn to a local mediator instead of court for help.

After hearing both sides, the mediator, Hu Jianyun, convinced Si to her husband more space, and Chen to be more sensitive to his wife’s feelings.

He also told Si “to keep one secret card in your hand. That is to remain a woman’s mystique, which is quite attractive to men.”

“A woman should always cultivating herself by reading. Reading will widen your horizon, thus making yourself like a book to lure your man always wanting to read it. That’s a mystique a woman should acquire.”

“If you were a copy of endless book to him, your marriage would keep moving,” Hu says.

Finally, the couple signed an agreement promising to keep their parts of the bargain and to communicate openly at the first sign of trouble.

Chinese law allows for such agreements to be put to the courts for confirmation. Once the agreements are approved by the court, they will have the force of law.

Rather than resorting to litigations within a formal court system, most disputers in China to this day are settled informally through community mediation.

From resolving conflicts over the division of the property after a divorce to the intrusion of a neighbor’s dog on private property, mediators have played a role in civil disputes for over half a century.

"It would be great news for us if all organizations and groups started taking their performance more seriously," says 71-year-old mediator Feng Jinqiao at a round-table seminar with 60 other mediators in Beijing’s Dongcheng district.

The seminar is held by the district’s Zhonggu community every month, and allows the community’s residents to exchange ideas and share personal experience through the community’s mediators.

Feng has been a mediator in her community for 20 years since retiring from the Shougang Group, a leading iron and steel company.

However, mediation is not always an easy task for Feng. Her diverse community includes elderly citizens, unemployed workers and non-local residents, all of whom have different ideas and beliefs about how the community should be run.

Community mediators must maintain neighborly relations while simultaneously trying to solve disputes between the community’s residents.

Feng says that her community’s residents often ask for help from mediators as they try to solve family disputes and arguments with their neighbors.

There are over 820,000 mediation committees in China’s cities and villages. These committees are established and managed by local judicial institutes.

The practice of mediation dates back to the 1920s and was legalized in 1954. After being abolished during the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the practice was resumed and written into the country’s Constitution in 1982.

Passed in August 2010, China’s law on community mediation states that litigants have the right to employ the services of mediators in trying to solve disputes, and that these litigants are allowed to accept or refuse mediation at any time.

Ran Cuiwei, official of Dongcheng district’s Jingshan community says that over 80 percent of the community’s mediators are chosen by community residents.

"They are all volunteers who merely hope to serve their neighbors," says Ran.

The mediation committee in Ran’s community employs just a small number of full-time mediators.

“However, all of our mediators are expected to demonstrate good virtue and give respect to our residents,” Ran says.

Many of the community’s mediators are retired police officers, factory managers or teachers.

“Most of them are over 50 years old. We typically arrange for older, more experienced mediators to guide our younger mediators,” Ran says.

The judicial bureau of Dongcheng district says that the bureau has received 23,540 dispute cases last year, with 22,801 of those cases successfully solved.

Ran recalls one case in which a community resident added a balcony to the second floor of his home, which infringed upon his neighbor’s privacy.

“The neighbor said that everything that happened in his house could be seen from the balcony,” Ran says.

The construction of the private balcony breaks China’s civil law. So mediators told the expected legal result to the neighbor and persuaded to remove it before the court intervened in the case.

However, there are occasionally cases where mediation does not work.

Before the establishment of the monthly mediation seminars in the Zhonggu community, Feng spoke to a woman who wished to reclaim expenditures that occurred over the course of her marriage, which she was in the process of dissolving.

“I had to admit that my knowledge of property disputes was weak at the time,” says Feng.

Judge Jia Yuhui, who attended the seminars, suggested that the woman would have a hard time reclaiming her money if she couldn’t come up with evidence to support her claims, such as receipts for loans she granted to her ex-husband.

“It couldn’t be confirmed whether the husband spent the loan money before they got married or not,” Jia says. “Post-nuptial property is owned by both sides.”

Feng says that acquiring more legal knowledge is a goal of hers.

“Friendship plays an important role during mediation, but it isn’t always enough,” she says.

“People involved in these kinds of disputes may very well know more about the law than I do. My mediation isn’t always convincing enough,” she says.

Li Liping, director of the judicial bureau of Dongcheng district, says that Chinese communities have employed mediators in one form or another for over 50 years.

“As the first channel through which civil disputes are solved, mediation helps save the country’s judicial resources,” Li says.

Mediation even appears in Chinese TV programs that dramatize the most interesting cases of civil litigation found across the country.

Xu Yiqun, a lawyer from the southern city of Shenzhen in Guangdong Province, says that mediators can save valuable time and money.

“Smaller civil cases ought to be solved through mediation, as it saves us time, labor and money,” Xu says.

“The aim of mediation is to stop small disputes from turning into bigger ones. In this way, it reflects China’s cultural philosophy of preserving harmony,” Xu says.

Xu admits that some people are more likely to accept the suggestions of mediators due to their ties to local communities, but also says that mediators’ lack of legal knowledge can become a handicap.

“However, in comparison to more complicated and time-consuming legal procedures, mediation is still adequate for safeguarding the lawful rights and interests of civil litigants,” Xu says.

Ran says that some disputes in her community have been solved in less than two hours. Civil disputes can and do crop up all the time, and it would be impossible and unnecessary to solve all of these disputes through the traditional judicial process.

“Mediators can defuse problems at any time,” Ran says.

In addition, Ran believes that the mediators and the courts have two distinct functions.

“Mediators aim to defuse resentment and hostility in communities, whereas the courts’ job is to decide who is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and give out penalties,” Ran says.

Mediators have, at times, appealed to municipal inspectors to take more responsibility in solving civil disputes.

“Being more tough, inspectors can help maintain harmonious communities,” Ran says..

She recalls a tough case that a resident in her community built a loft on the top of his house, violating his neighbor’s right of enjoying light.

“The neighbor demanded him to make compensation of 100,000 yuan (15,000 US dollars). But, the demand was refused. We tried to resolve the conflict, but failed.” Ran says,

“The neighbor violently demolished the loft in the midnight with the help of his gangster friends,” Ran says.

This case was too tough for volunteer mediators to handle. Ran, a full-time mediator had to intervene the mediation, and at the same time she called police.

If mediations could not appease the disputes, they would recommend the bipartite litigants to file a civil lawsuit.

And the court can also provide the litigants the services of mediation if necessary.

In fact, China’s mediation is available all the time for either civil conflicts of ” Ran says.

Beijing has begun to distribute subsidies for mediation committees. The mediation committees of every community in Dongcheng district each receive 20,000 yuan (3,100 US dollars) per year in subsidies.

“The money is used to buy small gifts for our mediators at the end of the year,” Ran says. “The gift is just a token of our appreciation of their hard work.”

Feng’s devotion to mediation is not fully understood and supported by her family,

“My daughter is trying to persuade me to move to Australia and live with her,” she says. “But, I just want to stay with my neighbors and help them.”

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