The suicidal and voiceless

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The past few days I browsed the Internet trying to find someone who could speak from the standpoint of Yang Gailan, the 28-year-old farmer and mother of four, who committed suicide after slaughtering all her four kids by axing and force-feeding them pesticide. Her husband killed himself a few days after losing his entire family in a single day. The tragedy stunned, confused and angered a lot of people, who only slowly came to the gruesomeness of the case following the revelation of disturbing details of the struggling family living in the remote mountains of Gansu province, located in the arid far west of China, one of the poorest corners of the country.

The closest I could get is a blogpost by Luo Yufeng, a popular online figure who came from an abject background and made her name by intentionally posing herself as a buffoon that attracted wide disdain and ridicule. Lately, she emigrated to the United States and reinvented her public image as a hard-working self-made woman who successfully transformed her existence, materialistically and intellectually. In the blogpost she said she could relate to Yang’s situation, not just to her material poverty, but also to the “despair” that haunted people like her. She recalled her own experience as a countryside teacher, where her teenage female students dropped out of school to get married and raise kids. “They told me that going to college merely postponed the same misery of trying to locate a low-paying job and barely got by. At the age of 15, the girls already saw no hope in changing their circumstances. Sadly, many of them were actually right in their assessment.”

This is one of the rarer pieces in the aftermath of the tragedy that tries to make sense of it from a poor person’s point of view. As in most events that capture phenomenal online attention, the space is dominated by educated, urban (and largely male) voices. In a way, they help amplify the story to enable a wider discussion. But the limitations of a middle-class world view also risk trapping the debates in pathetic premises resembling the gated neighborhoods of Chinese cities.

The article that almost single-handedly turns the poor family’s death into a national subject of debate is called “The ants in a prosperous time“. In a broad stroke manner, the author attributes the tragedy to extreme poverty and the society’s diminishing opportunity for upward mobility. “They are the downtrodden ants in a time of prosperity, unimportant, uncared for, neglected.” It calls on the society to better treat its disadvantaged, marginal members and advocates for significantly increasing welfare for such social groups.

The sentiment is familiar, which probably explains why it went viral on people’s WeChat walls almost two weeks after the incident actually happened on Aug 26. Prior to that, media reports about the killing, particularly the one by The Paper, were restraint in its attribution of specific causes. Information was simply too scarce to reach any conclusion about why Yang Gailan wielded the ax at her own children. Her grandmother was the last person to talk to the dying woman. By that time all four children were unconscious. The last words from Yang, if her grandmother’s recollection was correct, were bitter and enigmatic. She muttered about being “hard pressed” and insisted of taking her kids “with her”. The last minutes of her life did not give her the luxury of elaborating further.

But this does not stop commentators from imposing their own mental frames onto the case. The “ant” piece is an example of a class-anxious social group looking through a pre-defined lens at tragedy whose meaning is far from clear. By framing the case as a failure of a social structure to provide upward mobility, the piece caters to people who are constantly fretting about maintaining and raising their social status. They share a disdain of elites that keep a tight grip on precious resources and sympathize with the society’s most disadvantageous members. But it is hard to tell if a woman in remote Gansu mountains, for whom poverty has been inherited and internalized as a mode of life for generations of her family, would be primarily driven by a sense of social justice.

Another typical urban response to the case is even more reductionist. People fixate on the details revealed by media of the material possessions of Yang’s family: three oxen, three goats, twelve chickens, plus the tiny stream of income from Yang’s husband, a laborer at a pig farm in a nearby town. To the online spectators who busy themselves with calculation, these seem to be far from the kind of extreme deprivation that would account for the desperate act of homicide and suicide.

By negating the “poverty” narrative, critics try to override an overall sympathetic reaction to the tragedy with a stricter moral judgment. “She is first and foremost a murderer,” as one influential online figure would emphasize. Others call her a pervert and a psychopath. The response is not new. As this blog has explored before, online commentary about violence committed by marginal communities is becoming increasingly unforgiving and harsh. The view insists that no personal misfortune, social ailment or political suppression could be used to justify aggression against others. While an indiscriminate denouncement of violence seems morally infallible, in the public sphere the uncompromising stance also tends to shut out serious discussions about root causes, which are often blamed for “rationalizing” violence.

Female suicide rate in the Chinese countryside is historically high, with rates hitting alarming levels in the 1990s, at points 26% higher than men in the countryside. Those rates have since then plummeted (as much as 90% by some studies) thanks to massive migration into the cities which results in relatively freer, more upbeat lives for women. However, for those who remain in the countryside, the day-to-day stress of life, not only poverty but also a host of pressures in relation to supporting the household which disproportionally fall on the shoulders of women, still can be unbearably heavy. As a traditional saying goes, there are only three solutions to women’s problems: “one – to cry; two – to scream; and three – to hang herself”.

When experienced observers look closer at the details dug out by in-depth reporting, what they discover is exactly the kind of suffocating household stress that has cornered Yang Gailan to a brink. In a penetrating analysis of the micro-politics of Yang’s misery, the author sifts through publicly available information and singles out Yang’s grandmother as a more plausible cause of Yang’s fatal decision on Aug 26.

As the de-facto matriarch of the Yang family, the old lady divorced two husbands in the earlier years of her life for their incompetence. After her daughter, Gailan’s aunt, later killed herself by ingesting pesticide, the tough woman was left with her slow-minded, quiet son, and his two daughters. Gailan’s elder sister was married early to outside the village. And the burden of serving her grandmother and her father fell squarely on her tender shoulder. Villagers recollected Gailan often being scolded by her grandma, who leaved the impression of being demanding and inconsiderate. In order to keep her in the family, the grandmother “adopted” a husband for her, instead of marrying her out. From that moment on, the 20-year-old’s fate as a servant to the family has been locked in, attending to two elders and raising four kids, all on her own, until on that day, she collapsed

These are mere deductions and interpretations, to be clear. The difference is only that some are slightly more restraint and cautious than others when it comes to offering a conclusive, meaningful reading of a case at once appalling and heartbreaking. In this regard, rural China lacks its own interpreter. As one pessimistic observer puts it, in a public sphere dominated by an urban discourse, “the countryside cannot articulate itself.” No farmer’s representatives, no peasant intellectuals, no rural women’s advocates emerge to help make sense of Yang’s destruction of her entire family. The countryside remains silent while urban spectators heatedly debate morality and social welfare.

But does the countryside automatically understands itself? Asks one voice. It claims that certain extreme behaviors simply evade comprehension, no matter where it happens. What the society can do, rather than prematurely declaring that it “gets” these incidents, is to bide its time and make note of all the observable facts until it can fully grasp what has been going on. The unstoppable impulse of the Chinese Internet to (over) interpret any occurrence of significance is “hindering us from reaching a genuine understanding of our world.”

Canaries in the coal mine

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China is in a police state of mind lately. The number of police-related controversies since early May makes some observers openly wonder if it is pure coincidence or intentional agenda-setting.

One commonality in all these cases is the assertiveness of the country’s security forces both offline and online. The eventful month started with the Beijing police’s forceful handling of Lei Yang, a twenty-nine-year-old young professional who died while under custody on May 7, and culminated with a Shenzhen police officer’s disgraceful attempt to detain two young women who refused to show their ID upon random stop on the street. After information about the incidents was brought onto the Internet, the cyberspace was rattled, not just by the expected public outcry, but also by the unusually loud roar of the police force itself.

On the night of May 7, plainclothes policemen intercepted Lei Yang on the street near Lei’s home. According to family members and friends, Lei was on his way to the airport picking up relatives. He never made it to the airport though. The police’s story was drastically different: he was caught leaving from a prostitution house disguised as a foot massage place. Based on that theory, he made a detour on his way to the metro station, and used that extra time (a few minutes to be exact) to enjoy paid sexual service. Upon interception by the officers who were to bust the shop that night, Lei panicked and tried to escape. The cops forced him into a police car. In a struggle, he had what seemed to be a heart attack and died after being rushed to the hospital.

That version was heavily challenged by Lei’s family, who insisted they saw disturbing wounds on his dead body. Was he beaten to death? Accounts by street witnesses also suggest that there was quite a scene around the street corner that night.

From the beginning, questions about police misconduct shadowed the discussion. But they were met with a stern response from both within the security force and the society. Such voices are unapologetic: if Lei actually fought his arrest, then the police were fully justified in their use of violence. Amidst a tide of public criticism, the Changping district police, the authority responsible for the May 7 mission, released information about Lei’s attempt to violently escape. But it failed to put the controversy to a rest as no visual record existed to corroborate that claim, a key sore point in the debate as, inexplicably, all the video recording devices, including street surveillance cameras and the police’s handheld device were either not functioning or damaged in the struggle . The police also had a hard time selling their key assertion that Lei was a suspected John, a premise on which the forceful intervention was based. Again, no direct visual evidence, except for contradictory testimony from inside the foot massage shop, exist of Lei’s entering.

But state media quickly joined force with the police to quench public questioning. On May 11, BTV, Beijing’s local TV station, broadcasted a news clip wherein the woman who supposedly served Lei Yang went on camera to say that she gave him a “hand job.” On that same day, CCTV followed with a more extensive piece that almost exclusively disseminated the police side of the story. The officers directly involved in the questionable arrest were given generous slots in the prime time news program to make their case, which included the revelation of DNA evidence collected from a condom found at the scene.

Emboldened by what seemed to be strong evidence of Lei’s wrongdoing, commentators sympathetic to law enforcement did not feel they need to pull punches. In an article titled “Lei Yang, sorry but I am a policeman“, the author, who is likely affiliated with the security force, argues that law enforcement has “indisputable” right to stop and question those suspected for illegal conduct, and that suspicion can be entirely discretionary or even arbitrary. Upon resistance, police officers are fully entitled to use force to put suspects under control. “The society should correct a very wrong notion,” says the article, “the idea that police cannot beat you is a misconception. The law has given officers authorization to use force.”

The sentiment was echoed by Internet personalities who held the view that Lei was basically “asking for it“. What should have the police done? They asked rhetorically, begging for his cooperation? Even more restraint observers contended that Lei (and his family) had a weak case vis a vis the police, as it’s “nearly impossible” to hold the cops accountable for excessive violence if some manhandling was justified in the first place.

The incident set the country’s law-and-order hawks on an offensive mode throughout the month.  Later, when smartphone videos turned up on the Internet showing police officers handcuffing middle-aged women on the streets of Shanghai for minor traffic rule violations, and a Shenzhen officer verbally abusing and threatening two girls that he would lock them up with “rapists and people with AIDS”, hardliners turned the blame around and accused the subjects of law enforcement of disrespectful behavior. They maintained that those “scenes” were necessary lesson for the country’s populace to learn the proper way in front of its police. Much of that stance is a response to what they see as a knee-jerk liberal reaction which invariably criticizes the officers in such situations. By demonizing law enforcement, liberal “public intellectuals” have made the public unrulier in their encounter with it, the allegation goes.

What’s remarkable is the number of police-affiliated social media accounts that became particularly vocal. “What’s wrong with checking your ID? Who do you think you are?” One Weibo account owned by a local police officer fired up, “Who said women can be exempted from checks?” Other accounts also expressed impatience with public protest. An account associated with a county-level police department, noting the number of online video clips that put security forces under the spotlight, went even further by educating the public that simply video recording policemen in action is illegal, which drew immediate criticism from those who insist that to witness and monitor official proceedings is a citizen’s constitutional right.

Response to that newfound assertiveness is marked by a pessimistic reading of the bleak legal landscape the public faces. Lawyers lay bare the dire consequence if one does not comply with orders from officers, even when they are clearly violating protocol. Precedents after precedents indicate that Chinese courts do not side with ordinary people daring to talk back at officers who do not, for example, feel the need to flash their badge (a key point of contention in the above mentioned Shenzhen video). The Chinese state sends the signal that it values the authority of law enforcement more than procedural rights of the public which it considers a secondary concern. That same logic has prompted People’s Daily to publish an opinion piece following the Shenzhen video that advises citizens to “abide first, and complain later”. Entertaining “the right to refuse,” the logic goes, would be too costly a compromise for ground level enforcement.

But the defensive, unapologetic tone of the law-and-order camp provides an assembling ground for its resistance. The CCTV news program was intensively questioned for its one-sidedness and its inappropriateness: suspects of a potential criminal case were literally given the floor to influence public opinion. In a widely read post later thoroughly censored, a group of volunteers who took the time to examine the site in person, carefully recreated the scene and picked open the police’s claims one by one. How could the “prostitute” mistake Lei’s white clothing for black? Why would a “hand job” require a condom? How come Lei, who was in a hurry to get to the airport, ended his 200 RMB “service” prematurely yet spent a full 2 minutes walking only 67 meters, as recorded by two surveillance cameras? Why didn’t the police, eager to establish Lei as a suspect, never specified when exactly Lei entered or exited from the shop? They ventured the bold yet convincing hypothesis that the policemen never saw by their own eyes Lei’s presence at the foot massage place but only rushed to the scene after receiving reports. They probably intercepted the wrong guy, who was likely, and fatefully, just waiting for a taxi.

The provocative stance of police-affiliated social media accounts attract a particularly determined pushback from multiple corners of the cyberspace. Veteran observers point at the blatancy of their disregard for legal validity and lament about the pervert popularity they enjoy “among some high-level officials”. Apparently certain elements within the establishment see these accounts as novel and effective means to neutralize liberal attacks against the country’s security forces in social media. Ideological hawks have long advanced the conspiracy theory that public backlash against police malpractice is a systematic assault on the legitimacy of the Party, orchestrated by hostile external forces.

But the alienating effect of the arrogant, gun-wielding image of such “police trolls” online is starting to become clear. Even long time regime defenders became frustrated with their posturing, accusing them of being nothing more than bullies that intimidate ordinary netizens and push them to the opposite side. Certain official outlets joined the chorus, cautioning such accounts not to overreach and create unintended effect in the sphere of public opinion. As long time media watcher Song Zhibiao notes, this wave of police-related debates seems to have created a particular dilemma for some online “patriots”, who are torn between their affection for the country and their anxiety for everyday security, a feeling intensified by cases above.

The authority has to navigate carefully in waters like this, lest they get caught in treacherous swirls. The People’s Daily was openly trolled by hardliners after its Twitter account implied criticism of the Shenzhen policeman. After the Changping police and CCTV went under heavy fire, official response to the Lei Yang case has become more reserved: prosecutors have been meticulously updating the public about steps that haven been taken, while distancing itself from substantive statements. There are signs that public complaint is taken seriously: policemen involved in Lei’s arrest were put under surveillance on Jun 1. Two of them, including the one who had appeared on CCTV, were formally arrested one month later. Possible charges include causing Lei’s death and interfering with investigation. In the Shenzhen video case, the officer’s unit immediately apologized for his behavior and suspended his job.

In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s groundbreaking dissent against the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Utah v. Strieff, which coincidentally happened right in the middle of the Chinese debate over police misconduct, she compares victims of unwarranted police search as “canaries in the coal mine” that warn society about the corrosion of civil liberty that “threaten all our lives”.

In China, the warning sent out by the canaries have to pass through a much noisier tunnel before it reaches the ears of people in the “coal mine”. In the process, the simple clarity of civil liberty is complicated by anxieties about law and order, entrenched mistrust of authority and an urge to publicly prove the other side wrong, either through righteous, dogged questioning or through nasty intimidation. The whole affair has made some question the overall impact of public opinion on the judicial system. As one prosecutor writes after the arrest of the two officers in the Lei Yang case, “We have seen cases where the judiciary is hijacked by public opinion. We have also seen cases where the judiciary single-mindedly disregard public oversight. Both are a deviation from true justice.” The goddess of justice has hell of a partner to tango with in China.

Road Rage

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Chinese netizens can be mean, very mean. On May 30, a photo of Prof. Mao Baohua from Beijing Jiaotong University, circulated widely on WeChat. What’s remarkable about the photo is that it was placed in a black frame, the kind often used at funerals. The poor professor was singled out by netizens because he had suggested that Beijing should levy a congestion fee in the fashion of London and Singapore to ease its chronic traffic jams. The new measure was being seriously contemplated by city officials and its passage seemed imminent.

In this high-pitched show of public discontent, one gets a glimpse of the kind of frustration that forms the foundation of many public backlashes against seemingly “progressive” policy initiatives, be it a congestion charge or an oil price floor. Various sources of dissatisfaction gather under the banner of “fairness”, an increasingly prominent theme that features those debates. After years of dizzying growth that substantially expands the “cake” for everyone, it seems that the country has entered a stage where reforms often have to deal with re-allocating that precious cake.

In many such cases, policy makers get their way despite vehement complaints from citizens, giving the impression of a get-the-job-done type government that does not cave in to public bellyaching, a kind of “efficiency” that politicians in a liberal democracy would envy. But as examples will show, the role of a cake-cutter is increasingly challenging for the government to assume, at a time when competing ideas of fairness, each with its own political potency, clash openly in the public sphere.

Beijing is a city notorious for its traffic jams. Over the years, the city’s administrators seem to have exhausted all conceivable ways to loosen the daily clench of its congested roads. They have introduced a lottery system for new plates, limiting monthly addition to the capital’s vehicle fleet to a grudging 20,000. On top of that, they have also imposed a complicated road rationing program based on the last digit of each plate. On any given workday, cars with certain last-digit numbers are prohibited from hitting the road. In special occasions such as the Olympics or the military parade, a more drastic even-odd plate system would kick in, forcing half of the city’s cars off road. But traffic conditions in Beijing continue to deteriorate. According to a recent report ranking China’s most congested cities, Beijing unsurprisingly occupies the top spot.

This is the background of the recent congestion charge proposal that is being floated around by city officials and advisors. Prof. Mao went one step further by putting a concrete figure on the fee: at least 20 RMB daily, earning himself an awkward place under the media spotlight.

The prospect of a congestion charge essentially tears apart the equality imposed by a non-discriminating lottery and rationing system, which opens a can of worms.

The sentiment that surfaces in a big way is “Beijing nativism”, a kind of unabashed prejudice against people from outside Beijing. Locals angrily blame outsiders for sucking up the city’s scarce road resources, and demand prohibitive actions against drivers and cars not from Beijing. China’s social welfare system is still largely hinged upon one’s Hukou (residence registration), a brownish little booklet that determines if you legally belong to a city or not. Public resources, such as education and healthcare, are allocated based on Hukou, erecting a wall between the haves (native residents) and the have-nots (non-natives). Consequently, access to those resources is fiercely guarded by the locals, to the extent that open conflict once broke out between natives and migrants over public school enrollment. An “equal educational right” movement was born out of that clash. And a number of nasty references to non-natives, such as “non-native cunts” and “migrant hecklers”, entered the Chinese vocabulary.

You would think this native-first sense of entitlement is quite backward. Yet policy making is surprisingly accommodating of such sentiments. Beijing’s traffic control measures, underneath the surface of mechanical fairness, have native-first elements deeply embedded in them. Non-natives face a higher threshold to be qualified for car purchase in Beijing. And vehicles registered outside Beijing need to get a permit before entering the city, which needs to be renewed every week.

The congestion charge could completely change the way how road use is to be allocated in Beijing. Instead of arbitrarily ordering part of the fleet off the road, it lets price signals do the job. Those who are willing and able to pay get access. Others have to opt for transportation means other than driving.

A few commentators, such as CCTV news journalist Wang Zhi’an, are visibly buoyant about the fee. They see it as a correction to the longtime unfair arrangement that gives car owners disproportionate access to Beijing’s roads, while squeezing the space for other transportation means such as buses and bikes. Now it’s time for drivers to pay their due. Wang even suggests an almost punitive 50RMB one-way charge, “high enough to turn most of the working-class car owners to subways and buses”. He openly taunts people who complain about the proposed fee, accusing them of harboring “fantasies” about a Beijing where everybody can own cars while not bothered by traffic jams.

This vision of “road justice” is immediately challenged by those who cannot stand the prospect of “roads for the wealthy and the privileged.” In reality, many low-income residents still live within Beijing’s downtown areas, making the fee especially unjust for particular social groups. Even the usually unapologetic Global Times is worried about the class implications of the fee: “Congestion charge would block Beijing’s working class from driving into city center. Policy making should definitely avoid exacerbating social stratification.”

The proposed policy is also dogged by the question of how responsibly the government would dispense with all the money that is to be collected: is it actually going to invest further into public transportation and make road use more equitable among car owners and bus takers? The line of questioning gives birth to more imaginative proposals such as directly distributing the collected money to Beijing’s millions of metro and bus takers, despite the apparent lack of feasibility.

Scholars such as Peking University law professor Deng Feng are critical of the law for a different reason. He believes that congestion charge is an inefficient measure not able to differentiate those causing congestion from the ones suffering more from it, another fairness issue that policy makers have to grapple with. More fundamentally, the legal argument goes that commuting between work and home on public roads is a right derived from the worker’s constitutional right to earn a living. The government has the responsibility to keep at least one transit passage free of charge.

Most people are pissed by the congestion charge not for its intrinsic merit, but its arrogant undertone. As mentioned above, Beijing has been experimenting with all sorts of traffic control measures to no avail. Every introduction of a new measure is interpreted as an indirect acknowledgment of the ineffectiveness of previous policies, which makes the unilateral announcement of new controls almost like a finger in the public’s face. This is the context within which many Chinese policies are judged by their subjects. Debates do not happen in a vacuum, but in a space muddled by a depressing legacy. Frustration piles up as more and more measures are thrown in to solve essentially the same problem. People half-jokingly demand previously paid taxes and fees back to be reimbursed. As Peking University’s Prof. Deng puts it: “the government has never examined ineffective measures that are still in place, nor has it explained for the rationale for the new fee.”

When the source of policy-making is considered incompetent and inherently unjust, nobody, no matter the size of the piece he gets, sees himself getting the fair share of the cake. Even if Beijing city’s leaders may find a way to shove the congestion fee down the throat of its citizens, administrators in other parts of China are already “feeling the burn” of public anger: right before China’s annual college entrance exam in June, thousands of parents in Hubei province protested in front of the provincial education authority against rumored reallocation of college entrance quotas. The cake eaters are getting rebellious.

The Unbearable Coldness of Being (Chinese)

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“If Everything is Cold.” The usually witty Cai Fanghua, a columnist for the Beijing Youth Daily, titled his recent WeChat post with apparent solemnity. The subject was the near-death experience of a fellow journalist, whose traumatic ordeal had stunned and incensed the public for the past two weeks. Oddly, the case has nothing to do with journalism or news reporting, but the protagonist’s profession did help make it a national front page story.

On Nov 9, Mr. Zhang Yang, a TV journalist from Liaoning province was on board China Southern Airline’s flight CZ6101 on a reporting mission to Beijing. Before boarding he ate a light lunch. Barely after the flight took off he felt an acute pain in his abdomen which, in a few minutes, rendered him immobile. He had to half squat on the ground, sweating profusely. He knew something had gone badly wrong with his body. Attended by the stewardess, he was assured that an ambulance was already waiting in Beijing.

When the plane touched down on the icy runway of Beijing Capital Airport, it turned out his nightmare had just begun. With the ambulance visible outside the window, the gate of the plane just did not open. This poor guy had to wait another FIFTY minutes before the crew sorted out a supposed brake malfunction and opened what later became the gate of hell (or at least purgatory)for this reporter.

Neither the crew members nor the ambulance staff were willing to carry this suffering man down the flight. Both considered it the responsibility of the other side. The emergency service staff did not even carry a stretcher. So right in front of this patient, the two sides engaged in a nasty fight that involved abusive language of all sorts. Everybody was so self-involved that no one paid a tiny bit of attention to the guy, who,by this point, was literally howling with pain on the ground. He feared that he was to die on the plane. Mustering what remained of his strength, he shouted to the fighting crowd, “I’ll carry myself!” and started crawling down the steep stairs. Nobody offered him a hand. Upon reaching the ambulance, the driver kindly asked him if he could climb onto it by himself, as the lifting device was “too cumbersome to handle”. With bitter resignation, he obliged.

It’s not over. Ambulance staff would only send him to the airport-affiliated hospital, not a place known for its medical prowess. After running all sorts of examinations on him, doctors at the airport hospital realized that his conditions were critical enough that he needed to be immediately transfered to a major hospital. So they hailed a 999 emergency service ambulance, which was once again an ill-fated turn of event in this reporter’s eyeball-dropping journey of death.

The staff on the 999 ambulance, telling the reporter that both recommended hospitals were full (a lie probably), insisted on taking him to 999’s self-owned emergency center on the far north side of the city, bypassing all nearby hospitals that could have taken him in right on spot. Upon arrival, hours had passed since the plane landed in Beijing. Zhang was almost unconscious, head swollen and belly about to explode, while doctors at the center were clueless about how to treat him. With his lingering consciousness, Zhang asked someone at his side to make a phone call to his doctor friend in Beijing, who forced the immediate transfer of him to one of the city’s best hospitals.

At long last, Zhang received a life-saving surgery eight hours after he first saw an ambulance through the window of his flight. Intraperitoneal hernia had blown up his small intestine like a balloon. He was that close to death. Surgeons cut off 80 centimeters of his clogged intestine to save his life. Days after he barely stared down death itself, he posted his experience on Weibo.

Every once in a while the Chinese society would be stung by its own indifference to the suffering of fellow countrymen. In 2011, eighteen passers-by turned a blind eye to a dying toddler lying in the middle of the street hemorrhaging after being ran over by a van. When the video, captured by a closed circuit camera, emerged on the Internet, it became a global spectacle. The Daily Telegraph in the UK described it as “a story that has deeply unsettled millions in China, posing troubling questions about whether three decades of headlong economic development has left nothing but a moral vacuum in its wake.” Half a year later, the incident was still part of the broader conversation about China: when the young writer Han Han, then still active in social debates, did an interview with the Financial Times, he brought up the girl as a sign of “the Chinese society’s cold selfishness.”

At least part of that harsh collective self-assessment is the relic of an intellectual tradition dating back to the early 20th century. In a rush to make sense of the humiliating defeat of China in front of the major powers, militarily, politically and culturally, Chinese intellectual elites plunged themselves into an obsession with the so-called “national character” (guomingxing) . Being “cold” and “indifferent” was considered a big part of that national character, nailed into the consciousness of every Chinese by Lu Xun’s classic image of a group of by-standers cheering the execution of a fellow Chinese by the Japanese.

Whereas post-colonialist scholars have later seriously challenged the idea of a (flawed) “national character” as a myth constructed by the likes of Lu Xun under the influence of a dominant colonialist narrative of the time, the tendency to self-generalize still lingers on, particularly in popular accounts about events such as the above mentioned toddler.

But there are indications that discussions about the country’s moral status are gradually evolving into a different kind of self-examination. One such indication is the effort to debunk the myth of Chinese coldness by demonstrating, in a non-scholarly fashion, that it is nothing more than a product of poorly verified media accounts. Wang Zhi’an, a quite unorthodox CCTV investigative journalist with a propensity to bust what he sees as populist sentiments, has done some work to expose that a few well-known cases of so-called Good Samaritans being extorted by those they help, a major source of the “coldness” impression, are misrepresented by the media: The “Good Samaritans”, such as the famous Peng Yu, are actually responsible for the injury of the victims.

Another strand of the discussion, somewhat related to the above Good Samaritan issue, is to unearth the social and institutional set-up that prohibits well-intentioned individuals from extending their helping hands. A subset of the debates surrounding Zhang Yang mistreatment at the flight’s exit was on this topic. Some highlights the risks associated with handling patients in critical conditions, citing previous incidents where airline staff got complained or sued by patients. Industry experts liken it to the moral dilemma of helping fallen old people on the street, the lack of liability shields often discourages passers-by from helping.

What ultimately makes this “airport-gate” unique is that it does not stop at a mere “hard look” at the ugly side of the Chinese society. Its transformation into a genuine opportunity for social improvement sets it apart from so many similar cases that only result in increased cynicism. A large part of it should be attributed to our protagonist, Zhang Yang, who vowed to make himself “the last one to suffer from such inhumane treatment,” and has since then turned himself into a formidable campaigner who is particularly savvy in navigating the treacherous Chinese cyberspace, which eats and defecates public figures on a daily bases. He shrewdly dodges common pitfalls that had obliterated many a predecessors of his: he turned down compensation offers from both China Southern Airline and the airport hospital, neutralizing any accusation that he is doing this for economic gains; His writing, albeit poignant and pointed, was restraint in its allegations; He was sympathetic toward those individuals who made him suffer, who he saw as victims of the system too. He made it explicit that in order to push for systematic change on the problems exposed by this incident, he would take pains to keep himself “uncorruptible”. This includes refraining from taking any advantage of his journalist identity, even barring his own media organization, the largest TV station in Liaoning province, from reporting his story. His determination, and a peculiar ability to steer public opinion without getting bruised in the process, seems to have come to fruition. So far he has secured repeated public apologies from China Southern Airline and the airport hospital. His adamant yet reasonable manner left such a strong impression on his adversaries that it became part of the official record in China Southern Airline’s internal communication about the encounter:”Mr. Zhang is a polite, reasonable and tolerant person. He understands how to defend his rights in a rational, fair and legal way. He makes no absolute claims.” The airline promised to conduct a comprehensive review of its practices in relation to medical emergencies, including proper authorization for its front-line staff to give necessary, humanitarian assistance.

There is no sign that Zhang Yang, who is barely recovering from his surgery, is to halt his one-man campaign which is quickly becoming one of the most consequential events of China in 2015. His experience touched tens of thousands of onlookers who fear that one day their own lives would be hung in the balance in the same way. His integrity as a person, reflected by those bold and eloquent Weibo posts written with a distinct style of self-mockery and empathy, adds to his resonance as a voice that calls for progressive improvement of a system crucial to potentially every Chinese. After shedding light on loopholes in the airport emergency system, he has now thrown the full weight of his attention, along with that of the whole society, on the 999 emergency service, which arguably played the most detrimental role in his tortuous journey on Nov 9. Unlike China Southern Airline and the airport hospital, 999 took a hard line against Zhang’s questioning, accusing him of “disturbing social stability”. It also arranged its own “expert” to speak on CCTV News claiming that everything was done according to procedure, a move that drew wide ridicule on the Internet. After posting a scathing piece about the 999 emergency service, a subsidiary of the half-governmental Beijing Red Cross Society, Zhang filed formal complaints to the Red Cross and the Beijing health department. He has now hired a lawyer and is preparing to sue.

A story about “coldness” has led to a potential revamp of China’s emergency services. In what was supposed to be a poster-boy case of indifference and negligence, Zhang Yang’s quiet determination has created space for the expression of warmth. Anonymous Weibo users from inside the aviation industry sent him personal apologies for what they saw as a chronic problem with China’s airport medical emergency support. In a show of great empathy, they “felt ashamed of” what their unrelated colleagues have done to Zhang and asked for his forgiveness. Finally, some part of the Chinese society is responding to the coldness of their countrymen with grace and decency.

Poor Man’s Violence

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From Jia Zhangke’s film “A Touch of Sin”

“I’m trying to create a panorama view of our society. Lately, the occurrence of acts of violence continues to increase. In those acts we see their social background and roots that require us to confront. The lingering air of tension and grumpiness spreads over us like a pall.” The renowned Chinese director Jia Zhangke explained why he made his celebrated 2013 film “A Touch of Sin”.

The film recreates four true stories in recent Chinese memory: a hotel housekeeper who stabbed two bureaucrats to death when the latter tried to sexually assault her; a gunman who openly killed and robbed a dozen of people in downtown areas of major Chinese cities; a villager who slaughtered fourteen village elites with a shotgun; and a Foxconn worker who committed suicide by jumping off the dormitory building.

The director presents the cases as allegories of the China we live in: poverty, social injustice and the deprivation of dignity turn ordinary Chinese into anti-heroes of our time. In a beautifully written article by Jia himself, he referred to the ancient story of the “Mid-night flee of Lin Chong” (an episode in the classic novel “The Water Margin”), where Lin, a well-to-do military officer, was set up by his enemy, got his family ruined, forced to escape into the mountains, and returned as a rebellion leader. Jia considers it “the story of all of us.” He built it into the film, in a scene before the bloodbath in the poor village.

The well-off town of Wenzhou in late August knew no anti-heroes or rebellion leaders. The “Mr. Hot Pot” restaurant was buzzing with customers enjoying their lunch when a young waiter poured a basin of boiling water on the head of a female customer. The woman, a mother of a 7-month-old, was severely burned. Surveillance video showed the waiter struggled to hit the woman again even while he was being clasped by his colleagues and the relatives of the victim. He was only 17 years old.

Later, local media found out that the cause of the young man’s irrepressible wrath was the customer’s “disrespectful reference to his mom”, which was basically a standard curse in the Chinese language (“tamade”) when someone felt irritated. His irresponsiveness to the customer’s repeated requests annoyed her, who sent out an open complaint on Weibo and then scolded him with strong language. “I grew up in a single-parent family and haven’t seen my mom for years. She could have cursed me. But I couldn’t stand she cursing my mom.” He told the journalist.

Like many visually stunning acts of violence that are captured by modern audio-visual devices, the video immediately became a hot topic on the Chinese internet. Reactions to the event bespeak two diverging worlds: a world that tries to relate to the wounds of the abject perpetrator of violence and the other that rejects any “rationalization” of violence whatsoever. The former constitutes the emotional foundation on which Jia Zhangke builds his artistic realm of violent anti-heroes, while the second, fed up with the daily display of brutality, demands unwavering law and order. That divergence would probably define how the country makes sense of similar incidents in the years to come.

Voices sympathetic to the 17 year-old waiter were clearly audible in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Many such voices hover around the theme of rich vs. poor, the privileged vs. the disadvantaged. In those interpretations, it was the arrogance of the customer that “provoked” the act of vengeance. One commentator, who clearly self-identified with the privileged, even cautioned that people should “never have any disputes with those at the bottom of our society. They have nothing to lose and will chop you up if you threaten their dignity.”

Such reactions sickened a few observers who branded what they saw as the blame-the-victim mindset. Their views represent a major push-back against a sentiment that in the past has dominated the society’s reaction to violence wielded by marginalized groups as a weapon. (An iconic case is the 2008 Yang Jia case where Yang raided a police station and killed 6 policemen.) “Don’t lead the discussion to class hostility anymore!” A famous CCTV news anchor was visibly annoyed by the above narrative. Some commentators completely rejected the idea that the young man was the “disadvantaged” in the encounter with the victim.

In some way, the push-back stands for a progress in the evolution of online discussions about the everyday violence around us. To be clear, much of it was originally induced by a notable tendency in previous cases where a victim’s own moral failings were used to rationalize the atrocity, a recent example being the applause to the brutal beating of a pregnant woman who had a record of repeated burglary. A widely read post on Zhihu.com summarizes such a pattern as “trying to find sin in a victim, while trying to find virtue in a criminal,” and sees an analogy in the accusation of sexual assault victims for “dressing seductively”. So in a sense, the insistence on the isolation of an act of violence from the victim’s own moral conditions represents a progress towards more rationality in the ethical codes of this country, and could serve as the public opinion basis for more progressive legal protections for victims of violence.

But the no-rationalization sentiment can also transform into a general “hardening of hearts” that completely refuses to acknowledge the plight of the aggressor, particularly those coming from lower social classes, in the belief that any such acknowledgement would constitute a justification of the act itself. It was already notable in the aftermath of the horrific bus arson case in Xiamen two years ago, an act that killed 47 people including the arsonist himself. When details of the arsonist’s miseries prior to the suicidal attack (unemployed, mistreated by bureaucrats, years of ignored petitions) touched off a wave of public compassion, official media declared such sentiments as an indulgence of violence and an insult on the dignity of law. The stance met with resistance from commentators who saw the pursuit of “root causes”, which were often tied to the abuse of power and social injustice, as a legitimate cause and not equivalent to defending the cruel act itself. In return, they criticized their harsh critics for being eager to divert attention from the injustice behind the case. “We are all on the same bus. If one man feels despair, all of us are unsafe,” said one well-circulated post that resonated strongly on Weibo at that time.

In the everyday violence that fills our smartphone screens, the sensitive artist sees ancient tales of rebellion; the analytical intellectual sees problematic patterns of thinking, while the curious observer of contemporary China sees a moral compass under the influence of shifting magnetic fields. With this compass, the nation will have to navigate its own sea of misery and find a way out of it.

P.S.  Just while I was writing this blog, a man stabbed and injured four judges inside a Hubei province courtroom, for what he considered unjust ruling. The man was having a labor dispute with a company and was suing the latter for reimbursement of his work. The incident touched off widespread panic and anger among fellow judges all across the country. And that sentiment also spread to other professional circles such as doctors and nurses, who are also often subject to such violence. In an article by previous Caijing journalist and now criminal defense lawyer Xu Qianchuan, he expressed frustration over what he sees as “uncivilized” reactions to the incident:”In a civilized society, good social and cultural systems will rein in the beast of violence. Whenever it pokes its head out of the cage, the whole society condemns and scares it back. But in an uncivilized society, violence is accepted or even encouraged… Aggressors become heroes and even spokespersons of certain values. This is a horrible kind of society that we should try our best to avoid.” 

Qing’An: the Disappearance of Authority and the Billion-member Grand Jury

Qingan

On May 2, right in the middle of a tiny train station lounge, with dozens of bystanders watching and surveillance cameras shooting from at least three different directions, a policeman gunned down a  man in front of his 80-year-old mother and three young kids.

Almost two weeks have passed and the entire country still has not fully figured out what exactly happened in this supposedly well-recorded and easy-to-reconstruct incident. The collective pursuit of truth involves angry editorials from the nation’s most powerful propaganda machines, scores of investigative journalists sent to the site by the most elite media outlets, courageous and determined citizen journalists, anonymous whistleblowers, and an army of relentless netizens using their search-engine savviness to dig out the most obscure details. In the process, hundreds of millions of Chinese people got to know the trivial personal details of Xu Chunhe, the farmer that got killed; a deputy county chief from Qing’an, where the incident happened, got suspended for corruption charges; the entire Qing’an county government apparatus almost got paralyzed by corruption investigations and media inquiries.

Tragically, this near-epic quest for truth in the end failed to deliver what participants hoped could settle down fundamental disputes over what exactly happened. The situation leads observers to lament about the “disappearance of authority” in this country that can serve as the final arbitrator of truth. “Every tiny fact has multiple facets. If you want, you can infinitely challenge the minute details. Without authority, there will be no truth.” But the loss of a final arbitrator is probably not the only reason why truth proves so hard to find. In many ways, the fact about the Qing’an incident is like an allegorical bullet shooting into a powerful force field of public opinion that ultimately bends its ballistic trajectory.

Narrative acts like gravity. When it is reinforced by repeated occurrences, it turns into a gigantic black hole in the universe of public discourse: people can’t resist being drawn to it.

From the very beginning, the interpretation of the shooting is profoundly shaped by the popular narrative that often defines the encounter of China’s law enforcement forces (police, urban administration, etc.) with its subjects. The memory of landmark cases such as the Xia Junfeng case of 2009, where law enforcement forces brutally handled unarmed, marginalized members of the society, lays the foundation for a deeply-rooted mistrust in the minds of ordinary Chinese. So when news came out on May 2, with scant details that a man was shot dead after clashing with the policeman at Qing’an railway station in Heilongjiang province , suspicion immediately ensued. It only intensified after websites released photos from the scene showing an old woman sitting mournfully in front of the man’s dead body, and a young kid clinging to her helplessly.

The man is a Qing’an farmer, Xu Chunhe. The old woman is his 82-year-old mother, Quan Yushun. And the girl is his 7-year-old daughter. At the time of the shooting, Xu’s two sons, one 4 years old and the other 5, were also present. Such a combination of family members, old and young, is sure to draw sympathy for the dead man. Another story of “bad cop killing innocent people” is about to be nailed on the Chinese wall of horror. The revelation of Xu’s previous “petition and complaint” (shangfang) experience adds to the suspicion that the killing might be of a more sinister nature. Could he be killed for wanting to visit higher level authorities to petition for something? After all, petitioners are among the most downtrodden communities of the Chinese society. Their poignant experiences full of beating, interception and detainment are testaments to the dysfunction of China’s judicial system.

This new revelation brings the wrath of Chinese netizens to the point of boiling. The force field of “police brutality” starts to block out information that challenges the initial reading of the event. For instance, a detailed May 4 report by the official news agency Xinhua trying to reconstruct the scene falls short of making a dent on that perception. The Xinhua journalist, who reportedly had the privilege to review the recording of surveillance cameras, provides disturbing details of the scene: Xu lifted his own daughter overhead and THREW her on the ground; he also grabbed the policeman’s baton and hit the policeman even after the latter pointed the gun at him. Both new details are damaging to Xu, who has been imagined by many as the suppressed and disadvantaged. And attacking the policeman makes the shooting more justifiable. But the Xinhua report only provokes more intensive questioning. It has become obvious now that the authority is in possession of the full surveillance video. Then why don’t make it public if what it shows truly makes a case for the policeman? This is a question that bugs even the most pro-government minds. The Global Times’ Weibo editor becomes visibly angry by scolding the Qing’an local government for procrastinating on releasing the surveillance video: “Why wait until your credibility is completely bankrupted? Why can’t you learn from previous lessons?”

Well, the whole country has to wait a few more days for the video to come. And while everyone is waiting, shrewd Chinese netizens come up with a plan to force the hand of the local government. You don’t publicize the video. OK, I will dig up any dirt I can find about the county until you oblige. This vigilante-style online blackmailing campaign has the potential to be one of the most memorable episode of government-netizen interaction on the internet in years to come. It is not only full of bitter irony, but also powerful enough to make other local governments quiver in the anticipation of possible future campaigns against themselves.

The first to fall victim to the netizens’ tactic is Qing’an’s deputy county chief, who, in the wake of the incident, made an unwise decision to publicly praise the policeman for his “bravery in front of the mobster.” Incensed netizens “gang-searched” him on the internet, yielding tons of embarrassing results: his resume was shown to have been falsified, his residence registry was manipulated, and his wife was found to be enjoying a government salary without actually doing the job.  On May 12, ten days after the railway station shooting, Deputy County Chief Dong Guosheng was suspended from his duties.

No matter whether the tactic actually accelerates the release of the video, it clearly helps to keep the issue in news headlines. What it also does is further complicating public perception of the incident: now that we know the county government is corrupt, it is even more difficult to break free from the pulling power of the temptation to think that something sinister is behind the incident.

Almost at the same time of the suspension of the deputy county chief, Caixin Weekly released its exclusive report of the shooting, which adds yet another spin to the story. This time, it is the moral weaknesses of the protagonist that are under scrutiny. Caixin interviews fellow villagers of Xu to find out that he has a reputation for being “lazy” and is frown up for drinking profusely. He spends much of his leisure time in an Internet cafe. From his mother’s recollection, he downed a full cup of Chinese baijiu and half a bottle of beer before entering that fateful train station on that afternoon. He had no intention of petitioning anybody. Caixin’s report is not the most damaging for Xu’s (postmortem) reputation. There are also netizens who turn their search savviness to the same direction. One of them finds out early on that Xu’s irresponsibility is already a matter of media attention way before the shooting. As early as 2011, a Dalian newspaper reported about Xu’s mother begging on the street with the three kids, a result of her son’s tardiness and alcoholism.

Just because this guy is an irresponsible loser, he deserves to be shot dead in a train station? While part of the online discussion moves readily towards that direction, Tsinghua University political scientist Liu Yu insists that mixing one’s morality with one’s procedural rights is a sign of China’s pre-modern immaturity. And moral judgment also influences one’s reading of the incident, especially with regard to the victim’s motive. So far no one has got any clear idea about why Xu clashed with the policeman in the first place. And depending on one’s moral leaning, public opinion oscillates between “self-defense against police violence” and “malicious provocation under the influence of alcohol.”

It seems that only the surveillance video itself can dispel all the man-made mist over what happened on that afternoon. Even Xinhua News Agency joined the chorus of voices calling for its publication. Apparently, its own verbal re-creation of the video does nothing but further mystifies the issue. The Qing’an county authority itself might also be secretly craving for a closure: the national spotlight has proved to be too glaring for an otherwise backwater town. Thirsty journalists and netizens are following every lead they can find of scandals in that county, which is quickly increasing. So here it comes. At 11:00 sharp on May 14, CCTV News aired the EDITED version of the much expected surveillance video.

Viewers of the video would be shocked to find a drunken Xu Chunhe stumbling his way into the station. After sitting for a while, he started to harass other passengers and turned many of them away at the security check point, for no apparent reason. At this point, the policeman came to intervene. He grabbed and twisted Xu’s arms to allow other passengers to enter the station. But Xu resisted and hit him with a water bottle. Curiously, without cuffing Xu up, the policeman let go of Xu and rushed back to his office. Xu chased (!) him to the office and kicked violently at the door. When the policeman re-emerged into the camera, a nasty street-fight-style struggle ensued. His police baton did not scare Xu. It was in the middle of this fight that Xu did something horrible: he tried to throw his own daughter at the policeman. The video did not record sound from the scene, but at that split second, one can almost hear the banging of the kid’s head on the cement ground. That inaudible sound eliminated whatever sympathy most people still had for Xu.

The rest of the video is well known. Xu grabbed the baton from the policeman. Despite being pointed at by a gun, he did not stop his attack until hit by the bullet. He collapsed on the bench. And then the camera recorded a moment that crystallized probably the most unfathomable human expression: Xu’s mother, the old woman, picked up the baton slipping from the hand of his dying son, and hit him twice, as if disciplining a petulant child.

By then most people would consider the policeman’s use of gun not completely unjustifiable. But the fact that CCTV plays the role that should have belonged to a prosecutor or an independent fact finding commission makes some people feel icky. What’s even ickier is the video being edited before showing to the public. For those critics, key questions remain unanswered: what provoked Xu to block others from entering the station? How to make sense of another leaked video from a bystander’s mobile phone which shows the policeman brutally beating Xu up for 30 seconds with his baton, something that is not reflected in the CCTV version?

These questions probably will never get answered. Even they do, they will not alter the basic facts of the incident: Xu violently attacked a policeman on duty. But the ultimate difficulty of even reaching to this conclusion, collectively, shows just how tortured the process is for any official position to be recognized by the public in those controversial cases. Paradoxically, it seems that now more than ever, the authority eagerly wants to win over public opinion on such issues. Instead of resorting to a restraint and detached judicial body for the arbitration of controversial cases like this, the authority relies on mass media outlets such as CCTV and Weibo, to settle them. It acts as though it was dealing with a billion-member grand jury, and would do anything to sway its verdict on issues ranging from police brutality to celebrity using.

Insomuch as this approach of judicial populism “respects” public opinion, it has the fatal downside of poisoning the well of public discourse. To influence a grand jury of that scale, you have to deploy advocacy “nuke bombs” such as centralized propaganda machine. What it leaves the country with is the irreversible erosion of the credibility of authoritative institutions and the force field that becomes ever harder for truth to penetrate.

“Truth, Justice and History” Joined By Public Opinion

NieShubin

In the black and white picture, we can see Nie Shubin, the 21-year-old young man, kneeling on the ground, which is mysteriously white. Dressed in a dark colored overcoat, he does not look at the camera but casts his gaze downward in an obedient, resigned way. Both his hands are tied to his back. In front of his chest displays a rectangular card board that hangs on his neck, with hand written characters that says “rapist and murderer” and his name crossed out in a somewhat forceful way. A man squats on the right hand of Nie, facing the kneeling young man. At the moment of picture taking, he turns his face back toward the camera, as if checking whether the camera man takes the picture right. There are three uniformed persons standing behind Nie. One of them, wearing extremely clean white gloves, seems to be adjusting the cardboard on Nie. Their faces are not captured by the camera.

The picture was supposedly taken on April 27, 1995. It would become the last picture of Nie’s brief life. A few minutes later an executor would shoot him dead. None of those in the picture would have expected that exactly twenty years later the picture would be made public and become a sting of the nation’s conscience.

Rape and murder. Those were what the police charged the young Nie when they arrested him back in September 1994. A few weeks before, a 38-year-old female factory worker was found dead in a corn field on the way from the factory to her home in Kongzhai village, Shijiazhuang, Hebei province. Her family members and colleagues first found her one-piece dress and underwear five days after she went missing on August 5. It took them another day to track down her body, at that point severely decayed, in the corn field on the other side of the dust road.

According to the police, they quickly set up a special task force to investigate the murder. Workers and residents near the crime scene told them that from 1993, a suspicious young man was often seen lingering around the dormitory area of a nearby factory, sometimes peeping into lavatories for ladies. The man disappeared for a few weeks after the murder case but re-emerged in September. Based on descriptions of the man’s look, police intercepted Nie Shubin when he passed the dormitory area on September 23. “I did not kill anybody!” He reportedly told the police upon his interception. But after he was brought back to the police station, he very quickly admitted to have followed, raped and strangled the victim to death.

If it was not for a dramatic turn of events ten years later, Nie’s would have become one of the non-controversial regular criminal cases. His trial and appeal trial went very smoothly. In neither of the two trials did Nie deny the charges against him. He only pleaded for reduced sentences on the basis of his young age (barely 20 at the time of arrest) and good attitude. The court turned him down. He was sentenced to death, for immediate execution. On April 28, 1995, when Nie’s father tried to visit him at the detention center, he was told to not come by any more. His son was dead.

The whole family bought into the story that their beloved son was a rapist and murderer, until in 2005, a serial killer named Wang Shujin got caught in another province. When in custody, Wang claimed responsibility for six rape and murder cases, and he specifically mentioned one case: the August 1994 murder of the woman that sent Nie Shubin to his guillotine.

Southern Weekly, in its 2005 report that kick-started a decade long pursuit of truth, noted down the scene that touched the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who read the newspaper on that day: Nie’s father, an old man who suffered paralysis following an unsuccessful suicide attempt after his son’s execution, desperately waved his stick to drive away journalists while screaming, ” Don’t ever mention this again! Ever!”

But the newspaper had opened the locked cabinet in the basement. In retrospect, its original 2005 report was sympathetic to Nie but not biased:  it described how this introverted, timid kid was arrested and interrogated in an expedited, secretive manner, while it also highlighted the noteworthy fact that Nie never once denied the allegation throughout the whole process from arrest to trial, quite unusual for someone facing the risk of death penalty. Yet the newspaper’s restraint was tested by the stubborn opaqueness of the provincial authority’s review process, which lasted for another decade. By 2009, the newspaper’s tone had become visibly pessimistic with a touch of bitterness. “The truth could be buried forever,” says one of its subtitles. From this point onward, the dominant narrative of the Nie story started to take shape: a major cover-up led by a corrupt judicial machine devoured innocent people’s lives. For the next five years Southern Weekly continued to run reports, editorials and opinion pieces on this case. It is a monumental role for a Chinese newspaper to play: a ten year marathon on a single case which in the end almost blurred the line between reporting and advocacy.  It was done with an urgency that became the trademark of this liberal newspaper often associated with the marginalized and the suppressed. What at first was just an obscure murder case in a small village morphed into a flagship case that represents everything that is wrong with China’s criminal justice system. Its iconic significance begins to approximate (if not surpass) that of the Sun Zhigang case. In 2003, the death of the young man under police custody led to the end of the half-a-century old custody and repatriation policy, again a result of great coverage from Southern Metropolitan Daily, Southern Weekly’s sibling publication.

Southern Weekly’s persistent inquiry finally bore fruit last week when, following an order from China’s Supreme Court, the Shandong Provincial High Court held a hearing to review the Nie Shubin case. Both sides, the Nie family and the Hebei provincial authority (the original prosecutor), were given an equal footing at the hearing to present their arguments. And based on the hearing, the High Court will decide if the case warrants a retrial. With this unprecedented gesture (the format of a balanced hearing in a third party province), the administration seems to be conveying a message of openness and fairness, a decisive departure from the decade of secretive procrastination. However, it turns out that the impact of the event is much more complex.

It is the second time that an entire nation watches a judicial process through social media, where the Shandong Provincial High Court’s Weibo account posted proceedings of the hearing on a real time basis. Last time was 2013, when the live broadcast of the historic trial of former Politburo member Bo Xilai through Weibo redefined the public image of the Chinese judicial system. By presenting the trial directly to millions of web users in its own preferred fashion (and wording), the court bypassed the entire national press corp in the process, depriving the latter the opportunity to “set the tone” for the case.

The same happened with the Nie case. People flocked to the court’s official Weibo account to follow the hearing, which lasted for a full nine hours from 2pm till almost mid-night. In the process, the court produced a few dozens of condensed Weibo posts with verbal summaries (almost verbatim), photos and screen shots. Even if legally speaking, it was not a trial (there was no cross examination of evidence and no adversarial arguments), but both sides acted as if it was. The Hebei provincial authority prepared all kinds of visual aids to demonstrate the solidness of the original evidence against Nie in 1994, while the two lawyers representing Nie’s family offered pointed evidence showing the shakiness of the prosecutor’s case. One of the more dramatic points of argument was the above mentioned picture. Was the ground covered by snow? The lawyers asked. But it was supposed to be April 27, and meteorological data showed the temperature to be over 27 degrees celsius. And that place only snowed twice later that winter, both in January 1996. Was Nie’s execution postponed? If so, does this mean his execution record was falsified?

Revelation of such details created conditions for a pageant of amateur detectives. Netizens dug up old meteorological information, analyzed the shadows in the picture and researched on the optical nature of snow to come to their own conclusions. One influential opinion leader Google-Earthed the location of the crime scene and came up with a multi-page analysis asserting that Nie could not have been the killer.

In this atmosphere, the Hebei provincial authority’s highly sophisticated presentations become appealing to some netizens. Part of this is due to the lawyers overplaying their hand. For instance, they claimed that Nie’s confessions had been falsified because the road names in the 1994 records were only adopted in 2001. But the prosecutors presented evidence from interviewing the locals showing that such road names were indeed used by villagers at that time if not officially adopted. These rebuttals project an image of evidence-based confidence that impressed many, even though the prosecutors’ case was completely based on the confessions of Nie (which they claimed matched the crime scene in most details). Almost no forensic evidence exists on this case: no finger prints and no DNA are available. There was not even a proper autopsy of the body, which was aborted as it’s “highly decayed”.

Long-time advocates of a retrial, such as prominent Peking University law professor He Weifang, immediately cried foul after seeing materials from the hearing. For them, everything presented at that occasion only confirms their suspicion for the past ten years. “We finally know why they procrastinated for so long!” They treat the hearing an an exclamation mark following Southern Weekly’s decade-long inquiry. But the ground is shifting under them. The nation’s psychological makeup is very different from ten years ago. For one thing, liberal law professors and lawyers (who are dubbed “the lawyer party“) are now hated in conservative circles. And the Hebei authority’s performance gives the latter perfect ammunition to aim at the core of the pro-retrial narrative. Online personalities who are good at writing provocative pamphlet-style articles take advantage of the lawyers’ weak points to depict a picture of a total vindication for the Hebei authority. Others are less clear-cut in their opinions, but an influential law scholar who claims to be previously sympathetic back-tracks by saying that after seeing more materials he has become more conservative and “rational”. He highlights Nie’s unusual behavior of never once denying the allegations, and questions the lawyers’ certainty about the ground being covered by snow in the picture. However, he also criticizes the prosecutor’s inadequate defense for the integrity and admissibility of Nie’s confession (there is a suspicious absence of records of Nie’s first four days of interrogation under police custody).

If online opinion was only slightly leaning towards the Hebei authority, CCTV’s prime time coverage of the hearing on the next evening angered observers as completely biased. In the 14-minute report, CCTV arranged the footage in a way as if most of the lawyers’ arguments had been squarely rebutted by the Hebei side. More damagingly, CCTV interviewed a third party participant of the hearing, law professor Hong Daode (15 such participants were present to give their advice to the court whether they thought the case merited a retrial), who on record praised the Hebei side for its “unwavering confidence”. For the hundreds of millions of viewers of the program, they could have easily turned off the TV with the impression that the case had largely rested. That’s why online fury quickly built up. One source of the fury is Nie’s lawyers themselves. One of them published an open letter accusing Prof. Hong of being unethical, as participants of the hearing were not supposed to reveal their views, let alone swaying public opinion through TV. Some see the CCTV move as a signal of the administration’s position on the case: the hearing was less about judicial openness than a highly coordinated public overturn of the Nie story, a slap on the face of the “lawyer party”.

Nevertheless, the outcry against CCTV seems to have worked, to some extent. On May 4, Prof. Hong issued a statement through sina.com to formally clarify his view on the case. He claims that the CCTV interview only captured part of his opinion and when presented in full, he is actually strongly in favor of a retrial. He even deems the prosecutor’s evidence on the rape charge so flimsy that “not allowing a retrial is unacceptable”.

To this point, the fate of the Nie Shubin case still hangs in balance. The Shandong Provincial High Court has not handed down its decision on whether one of the country’s most watched and debated cases deserves a retrial. But retrial or not, observers are positive that through this whole process, the concept of “procedural justice” has been further disseminated and accepted. In the May 3 Southern Metropolitan Daily editorial titled “Truth, Justice and History“, the author elegantly underlines key procedural shortcomings of the Nie case, including the design of the hearing itself, which is another sign of sophisticated procedural discussions entering into public discourse.

But speaking of procedural justice, maybe a new challenge facing the Chinese judicial system after it lifts the dirty carpet of secrecy and cover-up is how to insulate its procedures from the noisy world of public opinion and propagandist manipulation.