#MeToo on the Chinese Blogosphere: Justice, Victimization and Intellectual Revolt

MeToo
Former CCTV journalist Wang Zhian retweeting sexual assault allegation against his CCTV colleague Zhu Jun

Deng Fei, Feng Yongfeng, Zhang Wen… Before this summer, they were, respectively, celebrated investigative journalist and philanthropist, respected environmental activist, veteran columnist. Now their names evoke other images: sexual predation and harassment.

On July 23, a 23-year-old woman with the pseudonym Zhao Xin pressed the send button on a web post about how she was raped while doing a multi-day trek from Inner Mongolia to Beijing to raise fund for a philanthropic cause in 2015. The alleged rapist, Lei Chuang, was the leader of her trekking group and the man behind the cause, widely known for his relentless advocacy for non-discrimination against hepatitis B carriers. Zhao accused Lei of tricking her into staying in a single room with him one night and forcing himself on her. She had no sexual experience before that night and suffered severe depression afterward.

Her post electrified the Internet, kicking off a wave of online allegations against other sexual assaults and harassments. The intensity of the outpouring exceeded previous #MeToo moments in Chinese social media, most notably the brief outburst on China’s college campuses earlier this year, when professors and teachers were exposed. While that round of #MeToo was pretty much contained inside the ivory tower, this time people believed that the movement had boiled over. Following Lei Chuang, victims named a string of aggressors, sending the advocacy, philanthropic and media communities into shock. In less than a week, reputations lay ruined, friendships broken, professional ties severed.

The resultant outcry did not just challenge the male dominant culture of many professional circles. It also, somewhat unexpectedly, pitched China’s liberal intellectual elites against a younger generation of thinkers and practitioners who are willing to call out their elders for being out of touch and hypocritical.

The first sign of that schism emerged as soon as Lei Chuang’s scandal went public. His response to the allegation was inconsistent at best, first owning up to it and offering to turn himself in to the police, then changing his story and claiming that he was “in relationship” with the victim. Most people reacted with disgust and shock. Funders moved swiftly to distance themselves from Lei Chuang. Oxfam China issued a strong-worded statement condemning the behavior of its previous grantee (it did not fund the trekking in question). In the same fashion, foundations immediately severed their relationship with Feng Yongfeng, the well-known environmentalist admitting to multiple accounts of sexual assaults.

However, things weren’t that straightforward behind the scene. Privately, Lei Chuang’s “buddies”, a group of fellow male activists and charity professionals, expressed support for him in their private WeChat group. “We don’t need to condemn Chuang’s morality,” one said. “He has already paid his price,” the other concurred. “Agree. He’s part of us. He can take whatever responsibility he owes. But we should still encourage him to face it bravely and start over.” “The last are the words of Deng Fei, the journalist-turned-activist widely seen as the hero who exposed cancer villages and raised money for malnourished school children.

The conversation was leaked online, fueling outrage not just at Lei, but at those fellow-travellers who appeared to relate more to the aggressor than to the victim. Those people, includingNGO directors and founders of charities,usually was represented the most progressive element in Chinese society. And yet, as Datu (大兔), one of the Feminist Five activists who were internationally recognized for their brave activism around sexual harassment, noted, they seemed to be bound not by some shared value of social justice, but a primitive brotherhood more often seen in fraternities and gangs.

It was a terrible revelation. And Deng Fei, the best known among the group, quickly began to draw scrutiny. Disgusted by the leaked conversation, other women stood up against him.  In a popular WeChat post where he was called “the philanthropic leader”, he was accused of force-kissing a female volunteer during a 2015 event. And the allegations escalated. In a stunning turn of events, a former intern at Pheonix Weekly, where Deng used to work as a leading investigative journalist, wrote to the magazine’s former editor-in-chief Huang Zhangjin about an incident many years ago where Deng tried to rape her. The admired journalist, as the accusation goes, lured the intern into a hotel room to “discuss a story”, and suddenly jumped on her, pants off. She managed to escape, went back home and “washed herself for hours”. In his Weibo article about this alleged assault, Huang wrote: “I understand how devastating (releasing this letter) would be to my former colleague. But it’s nothing compared to what this girl has suffered. A victim’s trust can’t be taken lightly.”

Li Yaling, a screenwriter and donor to Deng’s charity, made an angry statement on Weibo declaring her friendship with Deng over. But the severance of personal relations isn’t always straightforward. Huang Zhangjin and Li Yaling are rather exceptions. The more common reaction is one of camaraderie, as Lei’s buddies demonstrated, or of conspicuous silence.

A case in point is that of Zhang Wen. The man, an editorial board member of News China, was accused by at least 6 women of raping, assaulting and groping them. Some of the accusers were well-known writers and journalists. Facing those charges, Zhang chose to slut shame the women confronting him, declaring,”she slept with many” or “she was a divorcee”. He also suggested that rubbing and touching were perfectly normal in Beijing’s cultural circle gatherings. It was a text-book how-to-shoot-yourself-in-the-foot response to a #MeToo allegation and rightly angered even more people. But former journalist Wentao wondered how come some of Zhang’s most renowned friends were silent about the matter. One of them was He Weifang, a law professor at Peking University and a symbol of the liberal intelligentsia of today’s China. In a private WeChat group, Wentao gently nudged the public intellectual to speak up about his friend’s conduct. Professor He, an outspoken defender of human rights and social justice, had made very strong statements on previous cases of sexual assaults where victims were unfairly treated. His response to Wentao was remarkably evasive, claiming that his friendship with Zhang left him only capable of standing aside “watching and sighing”.

The incident offered #MeToo’s Chinese critics an opening to express their uneasiness with the online movement. Does He Weifang have the right to be silent on the case? Is it justifiable to press him to take a stand? With memories of the Cultural Revolution looming in the background, the debate over #MeToo was inevitably colored by a sense of alarm that victims would be unfairly labeled and mass hysteria take over.

Zhang Wen’s loudest defender, Yan Lieshan, exemplified that sentiment. A veteran columnist for the famed Southern Weekly, a stronghold of progressive values in the Chinese press, Yan berated Zhang’s accusers for resorting to online shaming rather than legal channels. He referred to such accusations as “online terror” and “primitive vengeance”, completely at odds with the spirit of due process. Although he drew a fair amount of criticism by suggesting that the victims’ failure to protest on site equaled “playing along” with Zhang’s advances, his first point on due process did resonate with some of his peers.

One of them was Liu Yu, the Tsinghua University political scientist whose essays on the details of American democracy have inspired many Chinese readers. On July 28, as the Chinese social media was still rattled by an outpouring of new #MeToo revelations, Liu posted her 17-point comment on the movement. After briefly acknowledging the positive “educational” value of #MeToo, Liu delved into what she considered the shortcomings and flaws of the campaign. Not surprisingly, what troubled Liu the most was #MeToo’s lack of procedural justice. People name and shame alleged aggressors openly on the Internet, without processes that protect the accused. “By nature I don’t like daming dafang dazibao (loud shouting, venting and big-character posters).” Her choice of words did the trick of invoking Maoist era memories, as daming dafang dazibao was Mao’s way of mobilizing the mass against his political enemies, stirring up a frenzy of hysterical political tirades across the nation’s factories, campuses and government compounds. Similar to Yan Lieshan, Liu Yu insisted that online shaming should be a “last resort”, after all other grievance channels were exhausted, including face-to-face confrontation with the aggressor.

Liu’s concern is that too often #MeToo blurs the degree of terribleness of sexual offenses. Those who commit minor offenses (a stupid text message due to a misread signal) share the same undifferentiated online humiliation as those guilty of much worse conduct (rapes and violent assaults). She believes that the legal process is more rigorous in that it treats cases individually and specifically. And, most importantly, the judiciary follows the principle of presumed innocence and proportionality. “I always appreciate the level of caution and care embodied in due process,” Liu wrote. “Men also suffer devastating reputation damage if mislabeled as sex offenders.”

The words of Liu Yu, a measured, scholarly, cosmopolitan female voice on the Chinese Internet, carry weight at this moment. The post created a splash on Weibo and WeChat. Her message about the importance of due process won the approving repost of Yan Lieshan and He Weifang, the law professor. But criticism also came quickly.

The most obvious critique is Liu’s faith in the integrity of China’s legal system today. Her advice for sexual harassment victims to exhaust grievance channels before they go online sounds, to a Chinese ear, like the ancient Chinese emperor’s notorious question to his officials: “Why can’t those starving peasants just eat minced meat?” In a point-by-point rebuttal,Yale Law graduate Zhao Danmiaoreminded Liu Yu that the Chinese legal system is far from robust when it comes to sex-related offenses. It is also inappropriate to expect a grassroots social movement to follow principles of the (American) criminal justice system such as due process and proportionality.

In a more in-depth response to some Chinese intellectuals’ obsession with “presumption of innocence”, author Lin Santu clarified that the principle embodies a very peculiar set of burden-of-proof and weight-of-evidence requirements that almost only apply to a criminal case scenario. He explained why, in the context of civil disputes and sexual offenses, a different threshold for evidence is not only justifiable, but also desirable: “The disciplines of psychology and sociology have significantly expanded our understanding of the behavior pattern of sexual offense victims, which increases the default credence of their testimony.”

Beyond the application of legal principles, supporters of China’s nascent #MeToo movement found other problems with Liu Yu’s comments. Some of them saw condescension: “Practitioners painstakingly planted the seedlings of sexual equality into the paddy field of Chinese society. Liu Yu takes a look at those sweat and mud stained women, and lectures them about how not to launch an ‘agricultural Great Leap Forward.'”

Others saw something much deeper. “Liu Yu’s generation of Chinese intellectuals have a fundamental flaw in their intellectual upbringing,” asserted Beidafei(北大飞), an influential fact-checker on Weibo. Beidafei argued that Liu Yu, like other intellectuals of her age (between 40-50 years old), has internalized a problematic combination of a superficial hypersensitivity against the Cultural Revolution and a sparse set of Western conservative/libertarian ideas, mainly consisting of “slogans from the likes of The Road to Serfdom,” Friedrich Hayek’s classic defense of liberal economic theory against the threat of totalitarianism. The result is an almost knee-jerk, hysterical reaction to any social justice movements on the left, and an obsession with the “slippery slope”, as if they will all readily morph into a tyranny of the mob.

In a blog titled “Farewell to the era of public intellectuals”, blogger Hu Han concurred. He pointed out that the most terrorizing big-character posters during the Cultural Revolution weren’t really from “the people”, implying that “the proletariat’s Cultural Revolution” was merely a manipulated vehicle and tool for elite political struggles. Therefore, comparing a spontaneous grassroots social movement to Cultural Revolution is “logically flawed”. He went on to argue that Liu Yu embodies a paradox of China’s intellectual elites: they need public support for their advocacy of liberal/libertarian ideas, and yet, deep down, they spell “people” as “mob”. They “must now pay for their outdated intellectual outlook and lack of connection with today’s reality.” The reality, as Hu saw it, is a general “anxiety about power deprivation” in Chinese society. When big liberal ideas such as constitutionalism and rule of law are tossed out of the window by the top policy makers, people at the bottom turn to lex talionis (law of retaliation) and “sentence by social media” to get quick-and-dirty fairness. China’s #MeToo grows out of this soil of severe power imbalance and despair. Disconnected with the everyday reality of women in China, living under the structural violence of family, employer and government, Chinese intellectuals who still plead with #MeToo victims to have faith in due process and abide by rules of order are, in Hu’s words, “laughably cute”(知识分子的可爱想象).

There are commentators who are open to acknowledge that some of Liu Yu’s concerns are valid. For example, Popodeqiao (破破的桥), a Weibo user known for his insights about online public opinion, proposed that at least #MeToo allegations should be non-anonymous (“as a kind of credibility deposit”) and contain sufficient details, with witnesses if possible. He claimed that #MeToo’s Chinese supporters might be a bit too optimistic about the social media’s ability to cleanse itself of falsified, damaging information.

As the Chinese Internet went metaphorical about #MeToo’s embedded values and political message, new accusations continued to appear, pulling people’s attention back to solid ground. On July 26, an allegation against Zhu Jun, a CCTV host and a household name, emerged on social media as by far the most eye-catching revelation of the movement. In the post, victim “Xianzi” described how the celebrity TV host forcefully groped and kissed her, an intern at CCTV at that time, when only the two of them were in a room backstage. She escaped after a singer appeared on the scene, interrupting Zhu’s aggression.

Besides the massive reposts it triggered, the blog post also prompted Caixin to run a report that has set the standard for thorough-going journalism on sexual-related offenses in the Chinese media: it included third-party testimonies of a distressed Xianzi mentioning the encounter to teachers and classmates immediately after the incident. To some extent, the case was exemplary of the due process on which scholars like Liu Yu so eloquently insisted. The victim reported the case to the police right after it happened, asked for copies of surveillance camera records on site, and told her superiors at school of the violation. Yet none of those actions, which underlined the exceptional determination and clear-mindedness of the victim, rendered any result. Instead, policemen advised her to let it go. Her parents received pressure. And she had to wait for four years, until she got encouraged by #MeToo, to make the case public.

To many who watched the unfolding of #MeToo, the case was not just a confirmation of where Liu Yu got things wrong, it also ominously signaled the possible end of the movement in China. Beneath the brutal reality of everyday sexual abuse in the society lies an even harder layer of cold truth: no matter how impactful the movement may seem, it “just can’t kill the beast”. From the outset, observers realized that the #MeToo outburst in charity groups and media organizations was not an indication of the relative terribleness of gender situations in those sectors. It was rather a sign that they were not covered by the protective shield of the “system”. When the fire of the movement gets closer to the inner circle of power holders, brigades of firefighters will be dispatched to put it out. And Zhu Jun marks the boundary where the fire extinguishers hold the line.

A WeChat post captured this sentiment perfectly. Titled “Zhu Jun, the last bullet is reserved for you”, the post’s author Sangsangjie(桑桑姐) couldn’t help but notice the differentiated treatments received by the sexual aggressors exposed by #MeToo. “Men like Zhang Wen were humiliated on Weibo for days. But news about the accusation against Zhu Jun was censored within hours.” Some sexual offenders are more equal than others. And it is painfully clear to Sangsangjie that #MeToo in China may never get to the part of the gigantic iceberg below the surface. “It is within the guarded walls of the fortress that sexual exploitation is at its worst,” she noted. Behind the scene, women inside the fortress were sending her messages about their everyday experience: employees of state owned enterprises pressured to sleep with superiors to avoid being sidelined; journalists forced by their government sources to play drinking games with sexual connotations.

“The brutality of power is beyond our worst imagination,” as Sangsangjie reminded us. She sensed that the exposure of Zhu Jun, the face of one of China’s most powerful propaganda machines, would activate the system’s self-defense against #MeToo. With censorship, intimidation and outright threats targeted at Zhu’s accusers, the statement appeared to be prescient. However, up until this point, Xianzi and her friends have not given up their fight (they are actively preparing to confront Zhu on court. The latter sued them for libel). Criticized, belittled, underestimated, the nascent #MeToo movement nevertheless introduced a powerful free radical into the fatalist predictability of how power runs in China: the moral courage of commoners.

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In search of Tang Lanlan

Tang Lanlan

Almost ten years ago, in a remote part of northeast China bordering Russia in Heilongjiang province, something like an earthquake shook a small village of only 280 residents. On Oct 28, 2008, police raided the village and arrested 16 villagers. The charges were stunning and deeply disturbing. The arrested, most of them related to each other, were accused of sexually abusing, raping and gang raping a little girl called Tang Lanlan (pseudonym) for 8 years beginning when she was only 6. These people included her own father, grandfather, uncles and mother (for openly pimping her to other males in the village). Someone who read the court’s verdict on the case later told a reporter that the whole thing “read like porno fiction”.

By January 2018, a few of the convicts had served their jail sentences. The girl’s grandfather had died after being placed in custody. Now some of them, including her mother, are seeking redress for a crime they say they did not commit.

On Jan 30, the Shanghai-based online news outlet, the Paper, published a story titled “Finding Tang Lanlan“. The report followed Tang’s mother, Wan Xiuling, as she embarked on a journey to try to locate her daughter and “seek justice” for herself and her fellow family members. It highlighted the incongruities in the case, including two conflicting abortion records from the same hospital issued on the same day and the mutually contradictory testimonies of Tang and her “step-mother”, the owner of a private student dormitory and the girl’s de-facto custodian while she was at a junior high school far from home. The latter had helped her report the case to the local police but offered various versions of when she actually learned of Tang’s story. The Paper‘s report at the end focused on the supposed “mystery” of Tang’s disappearance. Official records showed that she had moved out of her parents’ household, to a different city.

But should Ms. Wan be able to find her daughter Tang Lanlan?

Many people reading the Paper‘s report were at once appalled and confused. By leaning heavily on Wan’s side of the story, the journalist did not address readers’ understandable puzzlement about why so many villagers were locked up by the police if, as Wan claimed, the whole thing was either a fabrication or a horrible misunderstanding. On what basis would the local police, the prosecution and the court trust the words of a poor 14-year-old girl if without any evidence? The report posed the question, but failed to point to alternative explanations for the shocking allegations.

Most observers of the Chinese media would admit that the report was flawed. It readily adopted the point of view of a convicted criminal without balancing it with other perspectives from the victim or the prosecution. Some critics pointed out that editors at the Paper might have been too excited about the sensationalism of the story to uphold basic journalistic standards. They bought too much into Wan’s narrative without considering the general “humanitarian environment of social media” today: netizens tend to sympathize with victims, especially in cases of sexual assaults.

More sympathetic voices probably would argue that in the current media environment of China, insisting on having the other side of the story, especially if the other side was the authorities, would be asking too much of a news organization. The investigation could easily get stonewalled, or worse, censored before it hit newsstands (or phone screens) if “the other side” felt questioned and threatened by potential media exposure. As if to prove the validity of this argument, a Southern Weekly report on the same case played out in this way (report was deleted). Unlike his peers at the Paper, the Southern Weekly reporter did a thorough job of interviewing Tang’s step-parents and sources inside local law enforcement. The article depicted a more rounded picture of the case, including new details such as torturing allegations against the police and what looked like Tang’s attempt to extort money from her aunt. But the piece was killed before the newspaper went to print, probably for shining an unfavorable spotlight on the local prosecution. The journalist had to post it on his own WeChat channel (which was censored again). Ironically, the flawed Paper piece, probably because of its “personal story” structure, got a green light.

Experienced observers were able to spot the mismatch between the form of the Paper‘s reporting and its substance. “The gravity and magnitude of the case warrants an in-depth investigative piece. Yet the paper opted for a format more befitting a hotline scoop about a regular family dispute.” And The poor reporting could be blamed on the drain of investigative talents that many Chinese media outlets experienced in recent years, due to a mixture of tough censorship and market forces, or it could be a conscious sacrifice of quality to be on the safe side.

If the debate had been restricted to the realm of journalistic professionalism, the case wouldn’t have sucked up so much oxygen on the Chinese Internet for an extended period of time before the Chinese New Year. As soon as the paper’s report was out, an accusation much more serious than “editorial quality control” was laid upon the publication and the journalist who wrote the report. In the story, Wang Le, the reporter, included a piece of hukou information (China’s residential registration) about Tang, with a few items partially crossed out to hide her exact identity. But certain critics were alarmed by the possibility that the girl might be tracked down with that partial information and be exposed to the risk of revenge by those newly released from jail. A storm quickly formed online that would devour Wang Le, the Paper, and the entire media circle.

The “privacy violation” argument had so much traction on line that many social media heavyweights quickly joined the chorus to condemn the Paper. Soon the accusation was blown to weird proportions. There were calls to manhunt the journalist (exposing HER personal information in the process), to punish the publication by making complaints to the authorities, or outright to lock up Wang Le.

The ferocity of the attack was distilled in the much-used slur “prosti-journalist“(as in “prostitute-journalist”, jizhe), playing with the similar pronunciations of the two professions in Chinese. All of a sudden, a large part of China’s online community was asking for the banning of the very media outlets whose existence was supposed to protect their interests.

As a genre, legal reporting is often considered one of the areas where the Chinese idea of “public opinion supervision”(yulun jiandu) is best manifested. It is also an area where the most experienced and capable journalistic talents are employed to document, scrutinize and question judicial proceedings and their consequences, creating a rare channel of interaction between the state and general society on matters of justice. Some of the historic reforms of China’s legal system in recent years, such as the abolishment of “shelter and repatriation”(a form of extrajudicial detainment), were also celebrated as landmarks in journalism. That dynamic was still playing out less than 3 years ago, when the retrial of the Nie Shubin case was received with dramatically different public sentiments. In that gruesome 1994 rape and murder case, the young Nie Shubin was quickly arrested, convicted and executed. 20 years later, the young man’s death sentence was questioned and revisited by the Supreme Court, after relentless pleading by Nie’s family and a journalistic marathon (lasting for more than a decade) by the country’s media. The forensic and procedural flaws of the original police investigation were the subject of great social media outrage. And yet in the Tang Lanlan case, netizens were surprisingly livid about journalists “daring” to ask questions about a “concluded case”.

Some saw this stiffening of attitude against critical media reports of sexual abuse cases as a kind of “over-compensation” for the chronic absence of justice for victims of similar aggressions. Netizens just wanted to believe that the convicted had been duly punished for their crime and felt offended when that belief was challenged. The intense emotional attachment can be attributed to a string of recent incidents that shaped public perception of the experience of rural victims of sexual abuse. Roughly a year ago, the jaw-dropping revelation about the Ma Panyan sisters in Chongqing rattled Chinese social media. When very young, the three girls were sold by their step father to villagers as “child-wives”, and were raped, abused and gave birth before reaching adulthood. The local authorities not only certified the “marriages”, but also dodged calls to hold the step-father and “husbands” accountable for human trafficking and rape after one of the sisters made their tragedy public on Weibo. Earlier, the Hebei government’s unwise move to publicly honor a rural school teacher for her “dedication” drew fierce net-wide criticism and ridicule. The school teacher had been abducted, raped and forced to marry a local villager. She chose to accept her fate and stayed. But the fact that her nightmarish life story was made into a beautifying movie (A Women Married to the Mountain) and later endorsed by the local government was a source of great disgust and became a permanent point of reference on the Internet.

Other cultural factors may have also played into the online perception about the case. China’s Northeast, the country’s rust belt, has seen its reputation plummet in recent years as its state-owned economy suffered. With the region’s economic decline, the public sphere is increasingly filled with tales of a morality collapse, of the people there losing their grip on the ethical codes that hold communities together. In early 2016, a Caijing journalist’s sensational account of the disturbing moral conditions of his hometown in the countryside of Northeast (e.g. married women seeking casual sex online) got him stripped of his journalistic credentials for fabricating facts and denigrating the region. This time, many netizens found the bizarre case entirely plausible in the Northeastern context and even used foreign movies such as Nicole Kidman’s Dogville to spark their imagination.

Women’s right advocates online, whose efforts helped make the Ma Panyan case more visible, were split over how to respond. Some readily joined with others to condemn and curse the media. Others were more nuanced in their criticism, maintaining that a “due process and a professional, just judicial system are preconditions of women’s rights protection”, cautioning that the critique should not undermine the Chinese media’s (dwindling) ability to run critical reports that hold the judiciary accountable. But both positions were challenged by the view that these feminists were merely reinforcing the social stigma attached to rape victims. Instead of contesting the idea that suffering sexual assault was a kind of shame on the part of the victim, they inherited the cultural bias and insisted that the victim be permanently buried as fugitives from society.

In a world where media organizations are under attack from all corners, “Fake News” allegations from the US President being a prominent example, it is not entirely surprising that Chinese publications like the Paper enjoy their share of disparagement. What’s remarkable is that in China, supposedly benevolent forces in society have now joined the censors in squeezing the already curtailed space for media operations. In the name of privacy for a rape victim, netizens unload their fury on the media, leaving long time observers to marvel at the new reality that Chinese journalism has to inhabit.

The new reality means that in addition to being censored and destroyed, reports can also be deconstructed faster than a legitimate line of journalistic pursuit can be established. The Paper‘s piece was not so much blocked and deleted as it was thoroughly disabled and deactivated by seemingly sophisticated critiques. The feminist argument undermined not just the Paper‘s legitimacy in going along the “wrongful judgment” route, but the entire line of questioning by the media as a whole. So when other newspapers, such as Beijing News, followed up and tried to bring more facts to the table (it managed to get multiple law enforcement officers to comment on the case on record), they were also immediately hamstrung by a very hostile online environment that saw such inquiries as a form of violence against the victim. Critiques from journalistic perspectives did not make things any better. Beyond criticisms of quality control, commentators knowledgeable about media practices drilled into how the report came about in the first place and the “hidden motives” in the media’s agenda-setting attempt, claiming it was a collusion between the convicts’ defense lawyer and the newspapers to upend well-deserved verdicts.

Defenders of the media were left scrambling to adapt and find their footing. Some of them, including very prominent ones such as Rose Luqiu, felt the need to concede to the journalist’s wrongdoing before they could offer a defense of the media’s broader role of challenging problematic legal cases. The environment was tough enough for the Chinese media. They should be allowed the space to err on the side of the greater good. But the readiness to throw fellow journalists under the bus raised eyebrows. Defenders were seen to kowtow to the tyranny of online trolling and to offer cliched, one-thing-fits-all support of the press without addressing the specific dilemmas it faced in this particular case.

The Paper withdrew the report from its website amid mounting criticism. Beijing News defiantly continued to publish new materials on the case, but its Weibo account was muted by the platform for a few days. And representatives of the Supreme Procuratorate reportedly met with two of the newly released and their lawyer. The High Court of Heilongjiang province, on the other hand, denied reports that it had initiated processes for a retrial. No one, at least for now, managed to get hold of Tang Lanlan. If the girl has been watching all this from somewhere, she might feel vindicated that so many total strangers have spoken up on her behalf. Or, she might be appalled by the magnitude of the online storm that left behind a massive field of weird debris upon which the rest of her life needs to be built.

The class allegiance of China’s de facto voters

1000

“19 people dead and no one is lighting up virtual candles, no one is discussing system (reform) and human nature, no one is talking about policy and its implementation… No pressure is put on the government. It shows the cold-bloodedness of the middle-class de facto voters.”  So wrote a Weibo commentator on Nov 20, 2017.

Two days earlier, a terrible fire ravaged an apartment building on the periphery of Beijing, killing 19 residents, including 8 children. The neighborhood was located in a “village within the city”, a Chinese euphemism for slum. The victims were mostly poor migrant workers and their families. The news did not initially draw much attention, which led the above commentator to lament about the bourgeois limitation of online rage: urban middle class people only cared when their peers were affected.

There is truth to that statement, especially when recent events are taken into account. Over the summer in 2017, Chinese social media was mourning the death of four members of a Hangzhou family (3 kids and their mother) in a fire, the result of intentional arson by their housekeeper. As the husband and father of that household, Lin Shengbin, waged a poignant and noble online campaign against his real estate managers, whom he accused of negligence (the victims’ bodies were found almost 2 hours after firefighters arrived at the scene), hundreds of thousands came to his support. People lit virtual candles for the family and heatedly debated improvement of fire safety rules.

What’s notable is that the Hangzhou family did not live in a battered working class neighborhood prone to fire and other hazards. Theirs was one of the city’s most expensive gated residential neighborhoods. The response created by Lin’s call for justice was as much about sympathy for a family tragedy as about shattered confidence in the safety of the living conditions of millions of property owners in big Chinese cities who had paid dearly for their apartments and houses.

The case occupied media headlines for as long as a month, forcing the Hangzhou government to respond in a high profile way, which reinforced an increasingly powerful narrative that despite being non-democratic, Chinese authorities are somehow held accountable by the opinions of the propertied urban middle class, which is, pathetically, blinded by the narrow interests of their own social stratum.

That limitation is felt in issue after issue, from social welfare to the environment. The Daxing fire occurred at the same time that Chinese social media was barely recovering from the shock from a child abuse scandal at (again) a high-end Beijing kindergarten (monthly tuition stood at RMB 5500, or USD 900). Parents, enraged by rumors of their kids being needled and molested, demanded answers from the kindergarten and the education authorities. The outcry appeared to have completely consumed the Internet, blinding it to the fire tragedy just miles away that killed impoverished children. Later, Beijing’s effort to clean up its polluted air this winter, a move widely seen as a response to mounting pressure from the vocal middle class, reportedly caused poor villagers from neighboring Hebei to suffer from a shortage of fuel for heating: they were forced to stop burning coal without being given a stable supply of alternative natural gas.

For years, China’s expanding urban middle class has been entrusted with the hope that it may push the society toward greater openness and better governance. And it has, to an extent. Besides the improving air quality of big cities, the pressure is also believed to have made food production healthier and the government more transparent. It is often assumed that, with a larger number of citizens conscious of their interests and rights, who won’t be readily silenced or marginalized, those in power will need to reconfigure their way of dealing with the society (or their “de facto voters”).

But increasingly that progressive image is eroded by the realization that sometimes the same consciousness of interests and rights generates less expansive and inclusive values. It is well documented that Not-In-My-Back-Yard protests against polluting industrial projects, albeit potent, often just push the projects to places with less organized resistance and a more vulnerable environment. And previously this blog has taken note of the ugly yet strong nativist sentiments in Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, which treat public goods such as roads and schools as exclusive privilege.

Up to November 20th, 2017, the fire that devoured 19 lives appeared to only affirm that wintry indictment of the Chinese middle class. But later developments would challenge that narrative and demonstrate how internet debates actively recalibrate the moral compass of the Chinese online community.

Days after the devastating fire, the Beijing municipal authorities came up with a drastic measure to solve the fire safety problem once and for all: to evacuate all the under-standard residential compounds on the outskirts of Beijing. As if trying to compensate for the inaction which might have contributed to the fire, it acted forcefully this time. Tenants were given very short notice, some in the matter of a day, to move out of their apartments. Many had to scramble for new housing, not easy to be arranged in such short time, and were rendered homeless overnight. On the Chinese Internet, videos of a massive exodus out of residential squalor began to emerge. Media reports zoomed in on those who were forced to move in freezing cold weather, producing touching stories of migrant parents and kids thrown out of their homes, some of them having to leave behind their “Beijing dream” and head back to their backwater hometowns.

As if suddenly awakened from its original silence over the incident, the Chinese Internet greeted the harsh measures with universal condemnation. In addition to those media outlets which dispatched journalists to cover the much-censored story, some of whom witnessed midnight evictions firsthand, more than one hundred intellectuals signed an open letter to the Party leadership accusing the campaign of egregiously violating human rights and dignity. The letter was swiftly removed from the web. Nevertheless, its spirit upwelled across cyberspace, and spread from online to the offline world. Before long, people started to organize support groups through WeChat that provided temporary accommodation to those who had no place to stay. Small businesses, including restaurants and family hotels, put out advertisements offering free lodging to new hires. “The massive urban cleansing campaigns that happened around the world in the 20th century was in the end no longer accepted by 21st century Chinese public opinion,” declared one Weibo commentator.

The controversy created an opening for elaborate discussions of the social fabrics that connect the urban middle class with its often-neglected migrant brothers and sisters. It produced touching first-hand accounts of the emotional bonding on a personal level and also in-depth looks at the fundamental economic and ethical basis for a more inclusive, not exclusive, urbanization process. One of the widely read media stories around the time was titled “O2O is slowing down“, which highlighted how the eviction campaign was shaking the foundation of the new Chinese urban lifestyle based on low cost online services (O2O stands for online-to-offline services), from meal delivery to e-shopping. As migrant package delivers and Didi drivers busied themselves with house hunting, urban dwellers found their orders unanswered. The lubricant of a convenient, affordable machine of service run on hundreds of thousands human beings running around the city came to a sudden halt.

As criticizing the campaign directly on a human rights basis became a sensitive undertaking and faced severe censorship, commentators turned to the economic dimension of the issue to earn more space for discussion. Beyond the shock to the Internet economy, a broader issue arose which touched on the rationale for the whole “beautification” of Beijing. “The obsession with urban cleanness that places excessive emphasis on the visuals is affecting the inclusiveness of urbanization,” criticized Li Tie, an economist with the NDRC-affiliated CCUD, in a very polite think-tank manner. Before, netizens had dug up a speech by Beijing’s Party Secretary Cai Qi two months earlier claiming that his government would “restore the majestic spatial order of the capital”, and “reinstate the unparalleled masterful plan of the ancient city.” The ambitious plan involved lowering the density of the population, construction, tourism and business in city central to “quiet Beijing down.” The speech was widely seen as laying the ground for the massive eviction, which critics claimed was against the universal law of urbanization.

Expert voices on Weibo challenged the campaign as economically unsound. Shutting down seemingly chaotic urban slums would block the low-cost buffer zones that millions use as their first entry point into a city life, therefore impeding the “sustainable process of urbanization”, as Tongji University professor Zhu Dajian puts it. In a widely shared article, influential Peking University economist Zhou Qiren argued that Beijing’s clean-up campaign was turning away “poverty alleviation opportunities that show up on its doorstep.” In the past few years, the country’s leadership has made “targeted poverty alleviation” a signature initiative. In Zhou’s view, the scale and dense population of a megacity makes unskilled jobs that are otherwise unprofitable, such as bottle scavenging, economically viable, therefore providing millions of poor migrants a way to support themselves. Instead of running expensive poverty reduction programs in remote parts of China, why not let these people lift themselves out of poverty while they are already in the capital city?

The discussion serves as an antidote not just to the narrow nativism that still occasionally surfaces (certain Beijing natives celebrated the eviction as long overdue), it also confronts a more deep-rooted social Darwinism that some believe has infected much of the thinking of the country’s elites. The outburst of disapproval of the term “low-end population”(diduan renkou) is one indication of such pushback. According to an online “archeological” piece tracing its origin (which was deleted), the discriminative term appears to be a massive slip of the tongue by China’s local governments. There is no evidence that the central government used the term in any official way, but it did appear in documents issued by lower level bureaucracies (district departments of Beijing, for instance). More likely, it is a shortened version of the “population employed by low-end industries”, a term with a much less Nazi eugenics-like connotation. But as any slip of the tongue may imply, the abridgment, some suspect, reveals the “sub-conscious” of those who use it. In an article on the Hongkong-based Initium Media, scholar Cheng Yinghong was blunt about “the ominous signs of social Darwinist politics” in China. He believed that such politics would need to constantly seek “losers” to sacrifice, while making the survivors feel righteously entitled and deserving.

Cheng’s warning found its validation in a Weibo post by “sunplantist”, an influential blogger, the day after the fire. Titled “You are at the bottom of the society, that’s your problem“, the author, with an extremely broad stroke, cast the human society as nothing more than a jungle with only two species, the “haves” and “have-nots”.  “The haves will only share their resources when technology advancement makes revolts by the have-nots a real threat. Democracy is a rational move by the haves to placate the have-nots.” But there will always be have-nots and no well-intentioned social justice policies can save them. Until they can rob the haves of their power, the only thing those poor people can do is to self-help and “change the micro-environment around themselves.”

While the popularity of such “no-bullshit” straight talk reflects the psychological foundation of a Darwinist world view, the strong backlash shows the vitality of the counter-force on social media that still bears the torch of progressive enlightenment in the Chinese society. Major microbloggers, in response to the above post, laid out articulated arguments about why the Law of the Jungle was not and should not be the organizing principle of human society. Taking care of the “have-nots” is not just ethically the right thing to do, but also rationally a better choice for the society as a whole.

Nothing captures the middle class psyche in the winter of 2017 better than a piece of satire: “The fence of the middle class has collapsed.” In an almost allegorical post, the author presents imagery that consists of a hellish blood pool, middle class garden and castle of high power. The child abuse scandal marks the fall of the garden’s fence, giving the complacent bourgeois a taste of the hell just outside. But in a dark twist of the allegory, those traumatized middle class people chose to pay slightly more to erect a stronger fence, while never courageous enough to challenge the Olympian puppet masters living in the high castle. Only history will tell if this characterization of the Chinese middle class is prophetically accurate or shortsightedly cynical. For now, those in power seem still reasonably willing to entertain the prevailing sentiments of their “de facto voters”. On November 27th, the Beijing Party Secretary instructed his subordinates to “leave sufficient time for the mass to relocate.”

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.