Chinese protesters have long petitioned the central government for help and to address wrongs committed by local officials in their home communities. But a recent case of a woman who sued the government instead of petitioning for help could mark the beginning of a new trend.
Xia Runying, who lives in rural Jiangxi Province, filed a lawsuit against the Chinese government over her forced sterilization.
While a Chinese court declined to hear her suit this month, analysts note it's the first case of a Chinese citizen attempting to sue the government on this particular issue.
Legal experts say reforms that go into effect this spring will likely make this case the first of many brought by Chinese citizens against the government.
"That happens to a lot of rural women in China. Xia is not the only case," explained Xiong Jing an activist for Feminist Voice, a women's rights organization in Beijing.
"But she was the first one to file a lawsuit to the government and ask for compensation. I think that is really important and may encourage some other Chinese women who are in a similar situation, and it may urge the Chinese government to protect women’s reproductive rights and their right of informed choices," she added.
According to Xia, in 2012 representatives of the family planning committee in Dayuan County took her from her home to a hospital, where they forced her and her husband to agree to tubal ligation surgery in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are blocked and severed. She asserts that forced sterilization is against Chinese law and the surgery resulted in numerous health complications, including pain in her lower back, dizziness and vomiting.
Two years after the surgery Xia was diagnosed with pelvic congestion syndrome, a condition caused by varicose veins in the lower abdomen.
Xia sued the family planning committee that forced her to have the sterilization and says she should be compensated medical fees and psychological damage incurred by the surgery. But the court that rejected Xia’s case, said her medical problems are unrelated to the forced sterilization.
Last year, China’s National People’s Congress adopted an amendment to the Administrative Procedure Law that is expected to expand citizens' rights to sue the government and reduce the number of petitions the government receives.
Attorney Susan Finder, who has been observing China’s judicial system for more than 20 years, says even though Xia’s case was turned down, it portends further reforms in rule of law in China.
“This is one little case. There are thousands of cases in Chinese courts, but it should be seen as a positive development, that she is aware of her legal rights and did something about it," she said.
According to Chinese state media 13 million abortions are performed each year and that number is rising. The number of abortions performed annually is up 30 percent in larger Chinese cities, such as Tianjin.
William Nee, Amnesty International's China researcher says the outdated family planning policy results in local officials forcing women like Xia to have abortions or sterilizations.
“The irony is that with the demographics in China right now, is that they are potentially facing an underpopulation crisis," he said. "Cities like Shanghai have some of the lowest birthrates in the world.”
In 2013 China reformed its one child policy, allowing some families to have more two children if one spouse is an only child. Human rights advocates hope more cases like Xia Runying’s will spur further legal reforms preventing local officials from forcing women to undergo abortions.