CREATING HARMONY: Workers at a mediation center in Chongchuan District in Nantong, Jiangsu Province, help people in a dispute to reach agreement on December 11, 2008 (HAN YUQING)
At the Wangjing judicial office in Chaoyang District in Beijing, there are eight gratitude banners hanging on the wall. On every banner, people can find a name, Wang Xinzhong.
"As an excellent mediator, Wang is always our pride," said Wei Yueshan, a community police officer.
Wang came to the Wangjing judicial office after his retirement and was elected a people's mediator in August 2006. In past years, Wang mediated the settlement of a large number of disputes between local residents, which otherwise would have entered time-consuming legal proceedings.
Despite this, Wang admits, without a special law to consult, many difficulties often faced him during the process of mediation. Fortunately, the People's Mediation Law came into effect on January 1, providing legal backing to mediation.
The law entitles mediators to more legal power, as it spells out that agreements reached in the mediation procedure are legally binding with the confirmation of local courts and can be enforced by courts upon one party's request.
"This marks a milestone in the development of China's mediation system in its role in settling civil disputes," said Minister of Justice Wu Aiying.
A traditional method
Mediation of civil disputes has been a tradition for thousands of years in China. People traditionally regard going to court as a very serious move, so resolving disputes through mediation has become popular, Wu said. Behind it is the core value of social harmony.
Du Chun, Director of the Legislative Affairs Department of the Ministry of Justice, said the current system of mediation in China could date back to the 1920s and was legalized in 1954.
As a low-cost, convenient and rapid-solution mechanism, mediation has proven effective as the first defense in the settlement of civil disputes before they are brought to court.
According to the Ministry of Justice, China has an extensive network of grassroots mediation committees covering both urban and rural areas.
In 2009, more than 4.9 million people's mediators of the more than 800,000 grassroots mediation committees handled 7.67 million civil disputes, up 54 percent year on year.
Among the total disputes, 97.2 percent were successfully solved, and only 0.7 percent of the solved cases were brought back to court.
Meanwhile, statistics from the ministry also show these people's mediators have brokered more than 29 million civil disputes over the past five years, and 96 percent of them were resolved to the satisfaction of the involved parties.
Their efforts have prevented these minor conflicts from developing into bigger cases that have to be brought to court, said Wu. In this sense, their role in ironing out civil contradictions has not just relieved grassroots courts of a heavy burden. It has also contributed significantly to building a harmonious society.
Today, China's courts are always overloaded with civil and criminal cases.
In June last year, the Supreme People's Court released a guideline on its website, urging further implementation of mediation.
"Our country is currently in a time of many social conflicts. The task to maintain social harmony and stability is tremendous and onerous," the guideline says.
The guideline requires local courts to develop a deep comprehension of the "unique advantage and important value" of mediation in addressing social conflicts, maintaining social stability and promoting a harmonious society.
It also says mediation should expand from civil to minor criminal cases and administrative cases.
Despite the important role of people's mediators at all levels, there has never been a law to regulate their practice except for a set of regulations issued by the State Council, China's cabinet, in 1954.
Given the much narrower range of civil disputes they are involved in, such as conflicts between spouses, disputes between neighbors and the minor encroachment on people's rights and interests in the decades before the 1980s, the old regulations could meet the needs of civil mediation practices.
Now with Chinese society becoming increasingly pluralistic, civil disputes and conflicts has become much more complicated. The focus of the disputes have extended from traditional family and neighborhood issues to issues concerning land contracts, relocation and healthcare, making a mediation law essential, Wu said.
In 1989, the State Council promulgated the regulations on the organization of people's mediation committees. Three years later, the Supreme People's Court issued a judicial interpretation, stipulating agreements signed after mediation by people's mediation committees were legally binding.
On August 28, 2010, the People's Mediation Law, the country's first special law on mediation, was adopted at the 16th Session of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People's Congress, the top legislature of China, legalizing civil mediation procedures and clarifying the right of people's mediators and the parties involved.