In search of Tang Lanlan

Tang Lanlan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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 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.