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.

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You and Me, Ma and Xi

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, shake hands at the Shangri-la Hotel on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Singapore. The two leaders shook hands at the start of a historic meeting marking the first top level contact between the formerly bitter Cold War goes since they split amid civil war 66 years ago. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, shake hands at the Shangri-la Hotel on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Singapore. The two leaders shook hands at the start of a historic meeting marking the first top level contact between the formerly bitter Cold War goes since they split amid civil war 66 years ago. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The ANGLE is in the detail.

Initial response to the historic hand-shake between the two “misters” from across the Taiwan Strait is full of obsession with minute details, sometimes bordered on being excessive: digging up the pronunciation of dish names at the 1993 ice-breaking meeting between the two special envoys from both sides, which set thirty years of bumpy interactions in motion. But symbolism is always a big part of Chinese politics, especially when it comes to language. Up until this moment, reports about the meeting in mainland China are still flecked with quotation marks, which are meticulously put on every reference to political institutions in Taiwan, from the “presidency” to its “legislative yuan”, in lieu of putting “so-called” before each one of them.

“If titles are incorrect, words are not smooth.” The old Chinese saying applies perfectly to the decades of struggle between the Communists and Kuomintang, mainland China and Taiwan. Much of that can be traced through the names they called each other. An excellent piece by Beijing News’s book review section looks back at the 70 years since Chiang Kai-shek invited Mao to the fateful 1945 negotiation that determined China’s destiny right after the end of World War II. They referred to each other as “misters”, and toasted each other with even more amicable terms: “Wansui” (long live). The friendship lasted only for weeks, if not days. Neither side accepted the other’s conditions for peace, and references to each other quickly deteriorated into “gansters” or even “turtle monster”(an innuendo to Chiang’s bald head). Those derogative references lasted until both Mao and Chiang were dead, when new leaderships in Beijing and Taipei decided to set aside their bitter enmity by starting to adopt neutral titles.

It seems that the two parties, after 70 years, returned to their starting point. But for some, using “mister” actually represents a bigger concession from the mainland side, as it shows that the communist leader is willing to park the insistence that the Taiwan leader is but a provincial governor, therefore not an equal counterpart. He is also open enough to the idea of being presented as just “the leader of mainland China”, which in a way “condones the Taiwan authority’s governance of the island.” People are reminded of last year, when Ma proposed to attend the Beijing APEC summit as “leader of an economy”, which was rejected at that time. Small names, big meaning.

Beyond the minutiae, observers on this side of the strait did sense the grand strategic significance of the meeting. “Once the meeting between the two leaders were conceived to be an unreachable ceiling. Now it has become the floor.” Many believe that the precedent creates a new framework for bilateral interaction: a leader-to-leader platform is now possible. To be clear, regular party-to-party communication between the Communist and the KMT has long been re-established. In mainland China, party leader is usually also head of state. So it might give the impression that a top-level Mainland-Taiwan communication channel is already there. But in reality the Chinese head-of-state has never met with a sitting Taiwan president in person. And previous meetings were carefully arranged as strictly “party to party”, a compromise to bypass the tricky status issue. Yet as a Caijing Magazine commentary points out, such an arrangement has the limitation of restricting the mainland’s interlocutor to only the KMT, as Taiwan’s other major party, the Democratic Progressive Party, still has independence written in its charter, an insurmountable obstacle for the mainland to set up friendly party-to-party dialogue. A leader-to-leader platform, argues the article, could overcome Taiwan’s fierce and divisive partisan politics. When they meet, both would represent the political entity (mainland and Taiwan) as a whole, not party interests, which would create the favorable condition for a DPP president of Taiwan to appear at such occasions. With the DPP looking almost set to win the coming election, many people here are seriously predicting eight years of DPP presidency in Taiwan. Creating a precedent for such a summit when it is still possible, therefore, “gives peace a chance” in the following years when cross-strait relationship is going to be tested by unforeseeable events.

The meeting was widely praised across the spectrum in the Chinese cyberspace, a rare situation in today’s highly polarized opinion market. Moreover, many people felt strongly irritated by the CCTV’s clumsy and unnecessary handling of Ma Ying-jeou’s speech (cutting it abruptly after Xi’s).

Much of the overwhelmingly positive sentiment on Chinese social network sites can be attributed to a sense of healing wounds. The tragic and massively violent clash between the communists and Kuomintang costed millions of Chinese their lives, their family and their future. Popular accounts of those years of war and separation, such as Taiwanese writer Long Yingtai’s “Big River, Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949”, resonate strongly with a public that is beginning to see the deadly partisan struggle as unfortunate, not a vindication of more progressive ideals. The strong public sympathy toward the Kuomintang veterans expressed during the run-up to China’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and a call for their formal recognition by the mainland authority, is a continuation of this sentiment. “Having gone through all the difficulties, the brotherhood remains; When we meet each other, a smile dissolves all our enmity.” (渡尽劫波兄弟在,相逢一笑泯恩仇) The expression appeared in countless articles, posts and commentaries about the Xi-Ma Summit. Or as film director Jia Zhangke puts it on his Weibo account, “The two (leaders) are also old acquaintances separated by mountains,” a theme of his most recent movie that explores separation and reunion.

It should be noted, however, that this sentiment of healing is very much predicated on the coherence of CHINESE history. The struggle between the two parties, and their subsequent split of the nation into two, is seen as a disruption of an otherwise uninterrupted line of historical advancement. In this regard, the hand-shake rejoins a grand national history. But for a part of the Taiwan society that rejects being part of this particular history, and has come to terms with an identity that is natively originated from the Pacific island, the whole affair could feel alienating or, at best, irrelevant.

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

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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.

All Taboos Are Created Equal. But Some Are More Repulsive.

BiFujian

If an event finds its way onto the dinner table of my parents-in-law, it means it’s turning into a phenomenon. More so if their own social groups, made of retired former state-owned company employees, who are otherwise immune to cyberspace chitchats, are discussing about it vigorously in their WeChat circles.

The recent misfortune of (former) CCTV variety show host Bi Fujian, falls under this category. On Apr 6, a video clip showing a drunken Bi chanting a modified version of a cultural-revolution-era Peking opera at a private dinner party appeared on the internet and quickly turned into a mega-cyberevent. It was not so much the drunkenness but rather the adaptation that got him into trouble. In the playful and somewhat vulgar adaptation, he referred to Chairman Mao as “that son of a bitch who caused us lots of suffering” and the People’s Liberation Army as “just bluffing.”

Bi’s tremendous fame surely is a definitive factor in the blow-up. He is the host of a prime-time CCTV variety show that promotes grassroots performers. His popularity, especially among a middle aged female audience, wins him the privilege to host the annual CCTV spring festival gala, and the nickname “national grandpa”.

But other elements surrounding the video, the fact that it was leaked from a private party, the reference to Mao, and his communist party membership, played out in a more significant way that shapes the online debate.

Is this just one of those “hot mic” moments where celebrities inadvertently reveal their “real” thoughts? At least the Global Times thinks so. In its Apr 7 editorial, it puts this event in the context of a “globally common phenomenon of leaking celebrities’ private utterances onto the internet”, and places the responsibility squarely on the shoulder of Bi himself (“He has only himself to blame”). In terms of the key elements involved, the incident indeed resembles scandals such as Donald Sterling’s (owner of the NBA basketball team LA Clippers) PRIVATE comments to his girlfriend that he did not want her bringing African Americans to games or taking pictures with them, which led to a big controversy in the United States and Sterling’s removal from the league.

Yet liberal commentator on Weibo still can’t let go of the “private” nature of Bi’s chanting. Some of them see the development as a horrifying infringement of freedom of speech. As scholar Cui Weiping puts it, “We thought in a post-totalitarian era, everybody can say anything in private. As long as you don’t broadcast it, it’s ok.” Some of them go even further by saying that “the bottom line is: speech cannot be punished; thought cannot be policed. If you violate these rules, you are anti-civilization and anti-human.”

Really?

By pushing the issue hard as a battle for freedom of speech (in private), liberals provide ammunitions to their criticizers online (who cite the Sterling case as a slap on their faces), and also risk missing the true point of the whole thing: policing a lingering political taboo in the Chinese society.

That’s exactly what the Maoists are trying to do. From the very beginning, their attack on Bi’s denigration of Mao has been politically loaded. “As a CCTV host, Bi’s insult of our founding father, his mockery of the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party is flabbergasting. He himself is a party member and an army veteran. Such a betrayal of one’s faith is thought provoking.” An Op-Ed on the Communist Youth League’s official website goes even further by making it explicit that Mao is the ultimate “political bottom line”: “Mao Zedong is a giant of his era. He is the founder of the People’s Republic… Even if it’s a private party, even if it’s a private space, not everybody, everything can be mocked and satirized like this.”

Dealing with the legacy of a previous leader has always been a thorny issue for an authoritarian regime. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev probably knows it the best when his 1956 secret speech lambasting Stalin unleashed political shock waves all across Eastern Europe. Fully aware of this, China has been very careful in its handling of Mao’s postmortem reputation, even though many of those post-Mao leaders (including Deng Xiaoping and President Xi) had personally suffered from Mao-era political persecutions. It’s within this context that President Xi made his famously dialectic and Newspeakish comment that “we cannot use the past 30 years of history (opening and reform) to negate the party’s 30-year rule before that; neither can we use the previous 30 years (Mao era) to negate the later 30 years.”

By charging aggressively to enforce the political taboo on Mao, conservatives also inadvertently triggered a backlash that is only barely short of an online referendum. It is very clear that many reactions to this incident have been stirred up by the memory of Mao-era horrors. As an 80-year-old college professor writes on his Weibo, “for us old persons, that comment of Bi is just plain truth.” Others invoked the “culture of tattling” that was a feature of Cultural Revolution tragedies where wives tattled on their husbands, and sons tattled on their fathers, just to show their loyalty to the revolutionary cause. One of the posts was sneaky enough to bring the elder Xi (President Xi’s father)’s own experience to the attention of the netizens: “Xi Zhongxun was tattled on by his communist colleague in Shaanxi, and all of a sudden he became an anti-party, anti-Mao element to be banished from power for the next decade.” If comparing a leaked video to Mao-era tattling is a bit far-fetched, the hard-liners’ vituperative diatribes on social media only reinforced the mood. The ultimate moment came when Bi Fujian made his public apology on Weibo on Apr 9. Comments, as many as 100,000 at one point, flooded under his post. And before they were being deleted, a great number of them were in SUPPORT of him. If left untouched, it could easily become an incomplete yet revealing polling of the public’s real take of Mao’s legacy. All the tens of thousands of comments were deleted in a matter of hours.

It is one of those rare occasions when you need to appreciate the restraint shown by official media outlets such as the Global Times. In its signature anti-climax tone, the above mentioned editorial contains passages like this: “If we only use this video to make judgments on Bi’s political leaning, it is obviously unsound. This is not something that should be encouraged after decades of opening and reform… It is also not encouraged to release a celebrity’s private utterances online without his or her consent.” This is where some less melodramatic reading of the event starts to converge. As one coolheaded commentator puts it: “No, this is not going to affect YOUR freedom to say anything at a private party, cuz you are not Bi Fujian. Even if you call the police and tell them you said so, they won’t give a damn. Bi is a state-owned TV station employee and a party member. He is subject to an employee’s code of conduct and party discipline.”

If taboos and political correctness are universal checks against freewheeling speeches, and their very existence does not constitute an infringement of personal rights, then is this Bi controversy much ado about nothing? Maybe not. Not all taboos are equal. And (interestingly) an economist most accurately summarizes the difference:

“In the U.S. you can mock the President in every each way as you like, but never caricature disadvantaged communities such as African Americans. In China, it is ok to say whatever denigrating things about migrant workers or the disabled, but don’t say anything negative about the leaders. If you think this is the same, I have no further comments.”

The latest news says that CCTV has suspended Bi Fujian and has removed his name from the catalogue of CCTV hosts on its official website.

How did China’s Spring Festival Gala turn into a feminist’s nightmare?

It’s the Chinese New Year again. Besides lunar new year mainstays such as fire crackers and Jiaozi, watching the CCTV’s (China Central Television) Spring Festival Gala has been “a force of habit”(CNN) since its debut in 1983. “Combine the viewers of the Oscars, Emmys, American Idol finales and MTV Video Music Awards — then throw in the Super Bowl ratings for good measure — you are not even close,” CNN provides a reference to understand the magnitude of the annual variety show. This was proudly broadcasted by CCTV as a somewhat envious compliment. (Yes, we in general hate the biased “Western media”, but never hesitate to quote them verbatim when they compliment.)

To many viewers this year’s show was nothing special. Ever since the diversification of entertainment became possible in the late 90s, the appeal of the show has started its gradual decline. Long gone are the days when a catch phrase in the show becomes a permanent establishment in the Chinese language almost over-night. Today, comedians have to borrow heavily instead from the vibrant internet world for puns and jokes that to some viewers are already too outdated to be relevant. For a person like me, the show has become a kind of background noise of which the only function is to remind people that it’s the New Year’s Eve.

But this year, in addition to the regular ridicules and parodies of the stupid show (which have become more fun than the show itself with the emergence of social network sites), a very serious conversation started to develop as soon as the show was over. It turned out that many female viewers were deeply offended and disturbed by the values expressed in the show. More specifically, they were aghast to see how a 4-and-half-hour show could squeeze in so much content demeaning to women in each and every way.

Imagine if NBC aired a comedy sketch that features a punch line comparing women with sexual experience to “second-hand products” and genuinely expected it to be funny (not as a ridicule of such references), or if the theme of a 10-minute sketch on the Academy Award show was about two men telling a “female loser” (30-year-old, single and overweighted) how to pick herself up by having an attractive super model as her role-model, with all sincerity. (This is of course not to say that Hollywood does not have its own problems with the portrayal of women.)

This was what ACTUALLY happened in front of 700 million pairs of eyes on the night of Feb 18, if CNN’s viewership figure is correct.

Many female viewers were fuming with anger. The hashtag #spring-festival-gala-discriminates-against-women (#春晚歧视女性) on Weibo accumulated over 5 million clicks in only 24 hours after the show.  A popular post (with close to 20,000 re-posts) describes the show as a complete collection of discrimination against women, “from appearance discrimination, to job discrimination, to marriage discrimination, to the objectification of women as a whole.” Serious critiques of the show quickly appeared on sites such as zhihu.com (a Q&A site similar to Quora). In one of the most viewed posts, the author cited the objectives set by the 1995 World Women’s Conference (held in Beijing) for “women’s representation in the media,” one of which was to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media.” The author then asked pointedly if China’s national television station was promoting or actually impeding the achievement of this objective set 20 years ago.

What those female viewers find even more disconcerting is that neither CCTV nor those participating in the show (including many actresses) seem to consider this a problem. Indifference proves to be a bigger challenge for advocates of women’s right. Therefore, many of the commentators voluntarily took up the educational and enlightening role, disseminating arguments about why women should speak up and openly resist such treatments that they considered repulsive. Some of them started to spread images that they claimed to represent women’s deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, implying that it was largely due to women’s quiet acquiescence of injustice (even though such simplistic depiction of the Afghan situation met with strong skepticism).  Petitions were quickly put in place to call for CCTV’s open apology.

Such sentiments do not resonate with everyone. Accusations that such criticism is unfair and over-reacting have dogged the debate from the very beginning. There are also self-professed “feminists” offering counter-arguments that women should not feel entitled to treatments not proportional to their own capabilities, calling criticizers of the Gala a “feminist cancer.” From this mixture of rebuttals emerged a more comical “school” of thinking that the criticism represents “a blind adoption of Western values.” (Not surprisingly many upholders of such views are men).

Yet again, in the discussion of the world’s most watched variety show, two unconnected parallel universes appeared in China. When the heated debate about women’s representation by the Spring Festival Gala was still far from over on social network sites, China’s mainstream media outlets, CCTV included, were busy selling a different story about the show: “Anti-corruption themed sketches considered the most ‘edgy’ in the show’s history.”

The country acts as if it has watched two different Spring Festival Galas.