While it might be a bit much to compare Yan Yiming to the unknown protestor who stared down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, the 44-year-old commercial litigator from Shanghai certainly isn’t lacking in the courage department.
Yan forged a reputation for being unafraid to take on the corrupt practices of Chinese companies and business executives on behalf of the country’s nascent class of private investors. Now Yan is taking on an even bigger adversary: the Chinese government.
The International Herald Tribune reported on Wednesday that Yan has presented a four-page petition to China’s Ministry of Finance requesting that it publish details of its 2008 expenditures and 2009 budget, something the ruling Communist Party hasn’t been particularly keen on in the past.
Each year, the IHT reports, Communist bureaucrats disclose only the barest outline of the government’s spending plans to the nation’s rubber-stamp parliament. Quoting liberally from public statements made by Chinese officials–including President Hu Jintao–Yan states that with China’s economic future resting on the performance of state-run industries, transparency and government accountability should be of paramount importance.
“If the government does not have a reasonable way of explaining and doing things, then the lack of trust and dissatisfaction in society will build up,” Yan told the newspaper. “And if the buildup continues, there could be an explosion.”
Such candor might seem surprising in Chinese society. But Yan is used to speaking his mind.
According to July 2002 profile in BusinessWeek, Yan once went to China’s Supreme People’s Court to obtain a judgment ordering lower courts to take cases filed by him and other lawyers representing aggrieved “mom-and-pop” shareholders of Chinese biochemical giant Guangxia; the plaintiffs claimed they were victims of misleading financial reports filed by the company.
Yan told BusinessWeek that he represented most smaller investors on a pro bono basis, while charging corporate clients a rate of $250 per hour. It’s unclear at this point whether that rate has gone up as the prestigious 200-lawyer Shanghai firm that once employed him–AllBright Law Offices–no longer does. The IHT reports that Yan now has his own Shanghai firm, and that its roughly $1.5 million in earnings last year put him in the “elite rank” of independent Chinese lawyers.
Besides asking for the Finance Ministry to open its books, Yan is also requesting that China’s macroeconomic management agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, submit itself to public examination of a $585.5 billion economic stimulus package unveiled by the central government in November.
Yan’s challenge to Chinese authorities comes at a particularly sensitive time for Beijing. The IHT reports that new freedom-to-information rules were passed last year, but remain untested. Chinese officials are also growing increasingly nervous about the so-called Charter 08 petition circulating among dissidents that calls for the implementation of democratic reforms.