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Private Eyes Face Public Eye

The latest Supreme Court decision allowing privately taped recordings in lawsuits has, once again, spiced up the controversy about the role of private detectives in China.

Proponents were quick to declare it a blessing, cracking open legal ground for this underground business.

The ruling will also help civilians who hire private investigators to dig up information about extra-marital affairs and other secrets, they add.

But civic affairs lawyers who oppose such surveillance practices said the optimism was groundless because it was based on a misreading of the legal interpretation.

The Supreme Court ruling, released last month, require that materials introduced should not encroach on the legitimate rights and interests of others, the public and social mores, they said.

"It is obvious that private detectives are not allowed to tap into the privacy of others," said Li Yao, chief attorney at the Beijing-based Huaye Law Office.

Li said some private detectives are now crossing the line.

One of the most controversial issues is whether private investigators can conduct surveillance when they investigate cases. Under Chinese law, only public security officials can use surveillance tactics.

Meng Guanggang, a prominent private detective in Northeast China's Liaoning Province, said all he does is investigating, and that is a right of every Chinese citizen.

China's first private detective operation began in Shanghai in 1992, and soon many others joined the bandwagon.

Meng opened his business in 1993, when he resigned his position as a police officer.

But private eyes were dealt a heavy blow that year when the Ministry of Public Security issued an edict banning all private detective businesses, causing private eyes to move underground.

Private detectives have struggled to survive in the last few years using titles such as business advisors or civil researchers.

While the exact number of such businesses is unknown, many informed sources say there are over 200 private detectives who mainly work in major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.

Shao Ming, a civil lawyer at the Shanghai-based AllBright Law Office, admitted that private detectives are highly sought after among urbanites in divorce and debt repayment wranglings, because they cannot gather evidence for court themselves.

"Where there is a demand, there is a market," said attorney Li Yao.

Despite all the controversy, private detectives do help, many said.

Wei Wujun, a famed private detective in Sichuan Province has helped dozens of women over the past five years compile evidence of misconduct by their husbands and enabled them to secure financial compensation in their divorces.

(China Daily May 16, 2002)

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