Poor Man’s Violence

a-touch-of-sin

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.” 

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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.