Category: Civil Society

A Rose By Any Other Name….. Violence & Repression Under Xi Jinping

roseFor Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Jee tee-an), a human rights advocate and disbarred criminal defense lawyer, 2013 should have been a banner year.  The new Criminal Procedure law took effect ostensibly providing for greater rights for defendants and their lawyers; the Supreme People’s Court’s new President, Zhou Qiang, highlighted the pressing need for the judiciary to respect criminal defense attorneys; and the Third Plenum of the Party’s Central Committee released its resolution, calling on the Party to “give rein to the important function of lawyers in safeguarding citizens’ and legal persons’ lawful rights and interests.”  To cap it all off, in December, the government abolished the much reviled Re-Education Through Labor (“RETL”), an administrative punishment unsupervised by the court system that often resulted in hard labor sentence of up to three years.

But for Tang Jitian, 2013 and the early months of 2014 have proven to be anything but positive.  Instead, human rights advocates have experienced one of the worst  years since 2008 according to the 2013 Annual Report published by the non-profit Chinese Human Rights Defenders (“CHRD”).  Under the leadership of China’s new president, Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin ping), there have been more than 220 criminal detentions of human rights defenders, as documented by CHRD’s report, a three-fold increase from the previous year.  The number of detentions that have not gone through the legal process if even greater.

What makes Xi’s crackdown different – and more ominous – than previous ones is its veneer of legality and its attempt to mask the increased levels of violence.

China's new president - Xi Jinping

China’s new president – Xi Jinping

Nothing exemplifies that better than what happened to Tang Jitian in China’s Heilongjiang province this past March.

Whac-A-Mole: RETL is Replaced By Other Administrative Detention

As a human rights attorney, Tang has represented some of China’s most vulnerable, in particular adherents of the spiritual movement Falun Gong.  The Chinese government has categorized Falun Gong as a cult not necessarily as a result of any of its practices, but rather as an easy way to target a movement that was able to amass a large number of dedicated followers in a short amount of time.  It was Tang’s zealous advocacy of a Falun Gong practitioner that led to his disbarment in 2010.

On some level, one cannot be a human rights lawyer in China without understanding the particular plight of Falun Gong practitioners.  And that is why Tang ended up outside of a Jiansanjiang (pronounced Gee-en san jee-ang) detention Center where several Falun Gong practitioners were being detained in a “Legal Education Center.”

Re-Education Through Labor Camp before they were formally abolished

Re-Education Through Labor Camp before they were formally abolished

While the Chinese government may have eliminated the RETL system, it did not get rid of all forms of administrative punishment.  In its place popped up  drug rehabilitation centers to house many of RETL’s drug addicts and legal education centers to deal with RETL’s Falun Gong practitioners as well as citizen petitioners, people the government has deemed “troublemakers.”  The ability to detain individuals without proper legal procedures has been too powerful of a tool for a government with an obscene infatuation with “social stability” to give it up so easily.   For these detained individuals, it is of little consolation if the prison they find themselves in is called a labor camp or a legal education center.  In the end they are still deprived of their liberty without any legal review or access to lawyers and often with little to no contact with their families.

When the Lawyers Become the Victims

It was this discrepancy that Tang and three other human rights lawyers – Jiang Tianyong, Wang Cheng and Zhang Junjie (the Jiansanjiang Four) – sought to bring attention to by trying to serve as attorneys to the Falun Gong practitioners being held at the Jiansanjiang Legal Education Center.  However, before the Jiansanjiang Four could lodge formal complaints on behalf of their clients, the police raided their hotel room and detained the four attorneys.

Zhang Junjie would be released five days later; Tang Jitian and Jiang Tianyong were held in detention for 15 days.  None ever went

The Jiansanjiang Four - from L to R: Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Junjie, Wang Cheng & Tang Jitian

The Jiansanjiang Four – from L to R: Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Junjie, Wang Cheng & Tang Jitian

before a judge but again the law allows for this form of administrative punishment as well.  In March 2006, China’s Public Security Administrative Punishment Law (“Admin Punishment Law”) – a law that gives free rein to the police to detain individuals for up to 15 days – went into effect.  Under the law, the police essentially serve as prosecutor, judge and jury.  Although there is an appeal process, as Joshua Rosenzweig notes, “it’s possible to request that a detention be postponed pending the outcome of such a challenge [appeal], but, again, police have discretion to decide this based on whether they think the individual will continue to be a harm to society. So, basically one has little option but to serve one’s time in jail first and pursue remedies later.”

Each of the Jiansanjiang Four were held under the Admin Punishment Law.  Tang and Jiang were given the maximum punishment of 15 days for “using cult activities to endanger society.”  It was Tang and Jiang’s attempts to represent Falun Gong practitioners – the very reason for their profession and protected by the Lawyers Law – that was punished.

Under the Veneer of Legality, Increase Levels of Violence

Five to 15 days might not seem like a long time, but for someone being tortured, it is an eternity.  While being held by police, each of the Jiansanjiang Four experienced repeated beatings and each needed to go to the hospital upon their release.  This is what makes the Admin Punishment Law dangerous – without any supervision or the ability to appeal the sanction, the police have free rein to do what they want with these “troublesome” human rights advocates.

Tang Jitian receiving diagnosis at the hospital AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

Tang Jitian receiving diagnosis at the hospital
AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan

This type of violence against human rights advocates is becoming increasingly common under President Xi Jinping.  While beatings are the most common, denial of services, including food and medical treatment has also become prevalent and at times with dire consequences.  Tang Jitian suffers from spinal tuberculosis.  According to Boxun, while at a Beijing hospital after his detention, Tang was initially informed that surgery was necessary to avoid paralysis.  But a few days later, the head of the hospital visited Tang’s room to inform him that the surgery was not possible at the hospital and suggested that he leave.  Tang’s TB, at least the spinal portion, is going untreated.

For Cao Shunli, another human rights advocate who had been criminally detained since September 2013, it was her medical condition mixed with possible beatings that eventually killed her.  On March 14, 2014, while still in police custody, Cao died of as a result of her tuberculosis.  Her family claims that her TB was left untreated and that she was physically abused in police custody.  To this day, Cao’s body has not be release to her family for proper burial.

But while China conducts one of its worst crackdowns on human rights advocates, it is still able to obtain a seat on the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, a body responsible for enforcing many of the international human rights standards which the Chinese government violates with abandon.  One wonders how many other human rights advocates must die before the world wakes up.

Why an Intermediate Court? The Impending Criminal Trial of Activist Xu Zhiyong

By , January 21, 2014
Xu Zhiyong in better days - on the cover of Chinese Esquire in 2009

Xu Zhiyong in better days – on the cover of Chinese Esquire in 2009

On Wednesday, the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court will hear the trial of rights-defending lawyer Xu Zhiyong (pronounced Sue Zhi-young).  His alleged crime?  Disturbing public order, a charge that the Chinese government has used with abandon since China’s new president Xi Jinping rose to power at the end of 2012

Xu was not always the Chinese government’s Enemy No. 1.   Early in his career, Xu was celebrated for his ground-breaking work.  In 2003, Xu, along with rights-defending attorneys Teng Biao and Yu Jiang, successfully pushed for the abolishment of China’s custody and repatriation system, a form of extrajudicial detention that resulted in abuse and on one occasion the death of a college student.   In 2008, Xu, through his legal assistance organization the Open Constitution Initiative (“OCI” or in Chinese “Gongmeng”) represented parents whose children were poisoned by contaminated powdered milk, keeping the issue in the press and obtaining some form of justice for the parents.  These cases, in addition to investigations into the use China’s “black jails” – extrajudicial, ad hoc and secretive holding cells used to house government-defined trouble makers – brought both domestic and international fame.  In 2008, Xu was featured in China’s Economic Observer and by 2009, he would grace the cover of China’s Esquire magazine.

But Xu’s success also brought the attention of the Chinese government at a time when it was beginning to look less and less favorably upon the rights-defending movement.  In July 2009, Xu was detained on charges of tax evasion.  After being held for almost a month, Xu was freed on bail and his organization was fined a stunning 1.46 million RMB.  Such was the end of OCI.

Fortunately for the Chinese people it was not the end of Xu Zhiyong or his rights-defending work.  Instead, Xu looked to take his ideas and create

Emblem of the New Citizens Movement - calligraphy of Sun Yatsen

Emblem of the New Citizens Movement – calligraphy of Sun Yatsen

a more organized grassroots movement.  Working with other rights-defending lawyers, journalists, activists and average citizens, the movement called on the Chinese people to uphold the rule of law and seek to protect their civil rights.  By May 2012, Xu named this movement “New Citizens Movement” (in Chinese, Xin Gongmin Yundong) and called upon the new citizens to unite and help to establish a rule of law, protect constitutionally-guaranteed rights, end corruption in government and change the role of the Chinese people from subjects to full-functioning citizens.  Xu’s essay describing the movement was quickly removed from the internet.

Although many describe Xu’s approach as moderate, it is still too radical for the Chinese government, especially a Chinese government with a new president eager to solidify his power.  Over the past year, the Chinese government has detained over 100 activists, many of whom are New Citizens.

In July 2013, Xu’s time had come; the police detained him and various other activists and in August 2013, formally arrested him for disturbing public order.   In its December 2013 indictment, the Beijing police charged Xu with organizing and being the ringleader of protests held in Beijing calling on the government to require that senior government officials disclose their financial holdings and assets (see video below of one of the protests).

The fact that the Chinese Communist Party has recently initiated such a pilot program of asset disclosure is irrelevant.  Last Friday, Xu appeared before the Beijing Municipal No. 1 Intermediate Court where he learned that his trial is set for Wednesday, that he will not be permitted to call witnesses, and will not be permitted to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses.  As protest, Xu will remain silent during Wednesday’s trial.

There are many things to question about Xu’s impending trial, but one aspect that jumps out as out of the ordinary is the fact that Xu’s trial will not be held in a basic trial court.  Instead, the intermediate court has jurisdiction; many of the other defendants arrested and charged for the same crimes will have their case heard in the Haidian Basic People’s Court.   Why is Xu different?  Why is his case being heard by a higher court?

Beijing's No. 1 Intermediate Court

Beijing’s No. 1 Intermediate Court

According to the China’s amended Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”), an intermediate court automatically has jurisdiction if the case involves charges of endangering state security or involves terrorist activities, or if the case has a penalty of life imprisonment or death  (see CPL, Article 20).  Here, the charges do not involve state security or terrorism and the penalty is a maximum of five years imprisonment.

However, according to the Supreme People’s Court’s Interpretation on the Implementation of the Amended CPL (“SPC Interpretations”), even when a case does not involve state security, terrorism, a life sentence or the death penalty, the lower court can ask the intermediate court to hear the trial if (1) the case is large or complex, (2) is a novel and difficult case, or (3) is a case that is significant and thus would provide general guidance to other case (see SPC Interpretations, Article 15).

If Article 15 of the SPC Interpretations is the basis of the Intermediate Court’s jurisdiction, then the Intermediate Court must issue a written decision accepting the transfer and submit that decision to the lower court and the prosecutor.  Article 15 does not require that the written decision be provided to defendant or his attorney (see also SPC Interpretations, Article 14: Higher people’s courts deciding to try a first-instance case within the jurisdiction of a lower people’s court, should send down a written decision to change jurisdiction to the court below, and notify the procuratorate at the same level in writing”).

Unfortunately, none of the articles about Xu trial – either in Chinese or English – explain why his case is being heard by the Intermediate Court and not, like the other defendants accused of the same crimes, by the Haidian Basic Court.

But regardless of the reason why the Intermediate Court is hearing Xu’s case, the SPC Interpretations are fairly clear that where a case involves

Xu Zhiyong, awaiting trial in the detention center

Xu Zhiyong, awaiting trial in the detention center

multiple defendants and the case is elevated to a higher court for one defendant, then all defendants should be tried by the higher court (see SPC Interpretations, Article 13: “For multiple crimes by a single person, joint crimes or other cases that need to be joined for trial, if one person or crime belongs to the jurisdiction of the higher level court, the higher level court has jurisdiction of the entire case”).

New Citizens activist and rights-defending lawyer Xiao Guozhen speculates that the police and prosecutors sought to separate the trials so that the statements of the other participants can be used against Xu in his trial.  According to Xiao, in a trial with multiple defendants, one co-defendant cannot serve as a witness.  But when the trials are separated, the other defendant’s statements and confessions can be used in the trial against Xu.  But this all supposes that the other accused will speak out against Xu.

Hopefully Wednesday we will know although as Prof. Jerome Cohen points out, the authorities has done all that it can, such as using one of the smallest courtrooms in the courthouse for Xu’s trial to guarantee that the trial is all but closed to the public.  Another violation of the amended CPL.

Tom Friedman on China: End of Corruption in China or Just a Woman Scorned?

By , August 1, 2013

Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman

Every so often you read a news article so revealing…[and] say ‘…That story was the warning sign.”” So begins Tom Friedman’s unfortunate return to writing about China.

In Wednesday’s “Revenge of the Mistress,”  Friedman feebly attempts to argue that China has reached a turning point on official corruption and that turning point has been the online blitz of one “jilted mistress” of the deputy director at the State Administration of Archives.  For Friedman, this 26 year old woman, Ji Yingnan, and her online posts and photos of their lavish life together – a life she thought was forever until she found out that the man was married with a kid – are important in exposing the corruption that is prevalent in China.  For Friedman, she is the whistleblower that could change the course of China and potentially of the world. 

But Friedman’s article completely misses the mark and paints a picture of China that doesn’t really exist. 

First, a jilted mistress as a whistleblower?  Really?  Do you really think that the popularity of her blog posts is a result of an never-before-exposed seeping anger against official corruption?  Or is it more perhaps the lurid details of an affair that went wrong?  Are the excesses she exposes really that unknown to the Chinese public?

No.  The lavishness of government officials has been reported on by the domestic Chinese media for at least the past year.  What Ji “exposes” are facts that are already well known.  The Chinese public knows that graft and corruption is very much a part of their leadership’s lives.  China’s new President Xi Jinping has openly called for the end of corruption among government officials, implicitly admitting to the fact that corruption is wide-spread. 

While certain aspects of the leadership’s wealth – such as the wealth amassed by former Premier Wen Jiabao’s family and reported by David woman scornedBarboza in the N.Y. Times – have been kept a secret, the lavish spending and mistresses of some government officials has been reported.  And Ji’s post  in no way rises to the damning level of Barboza’s well-documented accumulation of wealth through government ties.  Unlike Barboza’s series of articles which were censored in China, Ji’s posts are still on the internet and she is even receiving media attention.  The reason: because she is not a threat to the ruling elite or necessarily their ways.  She is not a whistleblower; she is not a game-changer; she is a woman scorned. 

But the bigger fault of Friedman’s analysis is his complete ignorance of the fact that since May, the Chinese government has waged a crackdown on anti-corruption activists, petitioners and lawyers, detaining more than 30 individuals for their anti-corruption campaigns.  Most of these activists have been freed.  But most recently, the Chinese government has detained  well-known rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong who has called for greater government transparency and accountability of officials and their families’ assets. 

To ignore the work of these activists and the largely illegal crackdown on their activism (Xu was denied access to his lawyers in contravention of the Lawyers Law and the new Criminal Procedure Law) does a disservice to explaining what is really going on in China.  To claim that a “jilted mistress” is a civil society actor misinterprets what civil society is.   Likely Ji doesn’t have a “cause” other than herself.  The detained activists, their cause is to better Chinese society and have the government follow a rule of law.

Friedman naively calls on civil society actors to find allies within the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)  and convince them that cracking down on corruption is in their best interest.  As if these activists – sitting in their detention cells – hadn’t already thought of that.  While the CCP is not a monolith and there are some reformers within the government, it’s still not an open group of people.  It’s not like some reformer in the CCP is going to invite Xu Zhiyong out for a beer summit and get his take on things.  And what’s Xu suppose to do, write a letter about ending corruption?  In China, that’s what gets you detained.

Courtesy of China Human Rights Defenders, chrdnet.com

Courtesy of China Human Rights Defenders, chrdnet.com

Finally, Friedman’s article ends by focusing on how corruption in the Chinese government doesn’t just destabilize China, but given our intertwined relationship, the United States as well.  But this is too simplistic of an analysis.  Certainly what happens in China impacts the U.S.  But would ending corruption solve everything?  Would that change the fact that the Chinese government ties its currency to the U.S. dollar?  Would that result in better air quality standards in China?  Largely no. 

What would have a bigger impact would be a rule of law.  Corruption goes unchecked because there isn’t an independent prosecutor to check local government officials.   Air quality in China is horrible because environmental regulations are not enforced and the people have no independent courts in which to bring their case.  Corruption is merely a symptom of the underlying disregard for a rule of law. 

Movie Review – Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

By , April 21, 2013

Ai Weiwei with his Tate Modern art installation “Sunflower Seeds”

For the past few years, Ai Weiwei (pronounced “I Wayway”) – Chinese artist turned dissident turned heavy metal singer – has occupied the Western consciousness as the voice of China’s activist community.  A larger than life personality and an adept producer and user of social media, Ai is well known to the pages of the New York Times, Time Magazine, and other Western media outlets.

But is he truly the voice of the Chinese dissident community?  Or just branding himself for success?  Is he even an artist?

Alison Klayman’s provocative documentary, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, doesn’t precisely answer those questions. Instead the movie displays the humanity of the man behind the brand and perfectly captures the oppressiveness and absurdity of the Chinese government’s clamp down on any form of effective dissent.  That approach provides for a compelling documentary that both attempts to explain a complicated man and an even more complicated country.

When Klayman first began filming Ai Weiwei, she did not intend to create a film that adeptly portrays China’s fear of any form of dissent.  Instead, she was filming a Chinese artist whose star was on the rise after assisting with the design of Beijing’s iconic Olympic stadium, the Bird’s Nest.

But soon after she began filming, a monumental earthquake hit Sichuan, China, killing over 70,000, many whom were children attending classes

Parents at the Mianzhu School, with children’s backpacks still sprawled on the ground

at schools that it turns out were shoddily built.  The unnecessary deaths of these children and the fact that the Chinese government failed to investigate the causes or even reveal the exact number of children killed, was a life-changing moment for Ai, which Klayman skillfully portrays in the documentary.

In December 2008, Ai begins his single-minded quest to provide transparency to this tragedy.  Through a series of trips to Sichuan, Ai interviews various families to learn the names of the children killed.  In the process he creates a network of volunteers who assist him in this endeavor.  Ai’s work culminates in a moving documentary of his own “So Sorry” which exposes the shoddy construction of school buildings and the subsequent government cover up.

On the first anniversary of the Sichuan earthquake, Ai goes online, publishing the names of these children.  Eventually, he organizes an online campaign where individuals across China can call in and recite one of the children’s names.  The ultimate product is perhaps the most subversive of Ai’s art – it is not just a tribute to the children lost; it is a wake-up call to the Chinese government that it is more than just Ai that wants greater transparency about the Sichuan earthquake; there is a whole bunch of people dissatisfied.

Activists protest the 5 year sentence for Sichuan earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren

Not surprisingly, the Chinese government does not take kindly to Ai’s investigation and call to arms.  He has done the two things that scare the Chinese Communist Party the most – he has been able to effectively galvanize and organize a large swath of the Chinese public nationally and he has been able to subvert the firewalls and use social media to its most.  When he is in Sichuan, he is beaten and prevented from testifying at the trial of earthquake activist, Tan Zuoren; he is followed by local police who create more a scene in trying to “disperse” Ai than if they had left him alone; the Shanghai government – without any trial or hearing – tears down his studio (which they had invited him to build only two years previously); and he is eventually arrested by the Beijing police, kept in an unknown place without access to family, for over 60 days.

All of these actions demonstrate the absurdity by which the Chinese government deals with its people, especially those who seek to hold the government accountable.  Some might refer to this as dissent, but as Ai’s Sichuan earthquake online campaign demonstrates, and later on the “demolition party” he has at his Shanghai studio, it isn’t really dissent when so many ordinary Chinese people are in agreement with him and support him.

Klayman also spends time interviewing Ai about his childhood which, although Ai shortchanges its influence, must have had some impact on his current world view.  Fortunately, Klayman spends some time developing this part of Ai’s story.  Ai’s father – Ai Qing – was a famous revolutionary poet and early communist supporter, joining the Chinese Communist Party and partaking in its historic “Long March.”

But like many intellectuals in the late 1950s, Ai Qing soon felt the weight of the Chinese Communist Party’s Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957).  With his new “dissident” label, Ai Qing and his family – including the one-year old Ai Weiwei – were banished to China’s far western province of Xinjiang.  There the Ai family would remain for 19 years.  As Ai Weiwei recounts in his interview, his once illustrious, revolutionary father was forced to clean toilets.  During China’s Cultural Revolution, Ai Qing became his city’s enemy number one and subject to repeated abuse at the hands of the Red Guards.

You can’t help but draw conclusions that Ai Weiwei’s current questioning of authority is a result of what must have been horrible childhood experiences.  Which makes you wonder – what about all the other children of victims of the Cultural Revolution?  Ai is public in his dissatisfaction but you can’t help but think that his emotions must be shared by a large number of China’s “Lost Generation.”

Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is amazing precisely because it never does answer the questions which started this post – does Ai speak for

Guess what Ai Weiwei is telling the Chinese government?

the Chinese people or is he merely a brand.  The movie leaves you confident with the fact that it doesn’t matter.  That this man, and only this man, should be judged on his actions alone, and his actions thus far are sincere and heroic.  By the end of the film, you can’t help but like the guy and cheer him on as he single-handily antagonize the Chinese state in order to have some accountability of the Chinese government.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is both uplifting and scary as Klayman perfectly captures a slice of contemporary China that at times is too quickly described: the cat-and-mouse game between the activists and the Chinese government, that often has serious and dangerous repercussions for the former.   As Ai continues to needle the Chinese government, adeptly using social media to galvanize more ordinary Chinese, what will the Chinese government’s reaction be?  He’s already been detained once.  What else can they do?  Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry doesn’t answer those questions because it can’t; only the Chinese government can provide the answer.

Rating: ★★★★★

Director Alison Klayman is currently touring the U.S. with Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.  Check out her website to see if she will be showing the film near you.  You can also request a screening by emailing screenings@aiweiweineversorry.com or purchase the movie on Amazon: Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

What’s Up with LGBT Rights in China?

By , November 15, 2012

Meg Davis, Executive Director of Asia Catalyst Introduces the Speakers
Photo by Robert Burnett, Jr.
www.rburnettjr.com

Last week, the day after the United States elected its first openly gay Senator and more states extended the right to marry to gay couples, Asia Catalyst and Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center co-hosted a fascinating talk about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights in China entitled “China’s Comrades.”

Featuring two on the ground LGBT activists – Sam Zhao (co-founder of China’s only lesbian magazine) and Dan Zhou (a Shanghai lawyer who has taken on some hard-hitting LGBT rights cases) – and John Balzano, a law professor and China expert who provided a more macro view of the movement, the talk broke down some common assumptions about China and the development of individual rights.

Zhou started his talk stating that this discussion was a “queer event” – although talks about Chinese legal development are common, Zhou noted that rarely if ever do these talks discuss LGBT rights development.  But while true, what was perhaps most queer about the talk was learning of the Chinese government’s response to the LGBT rights movement.  Usually the narrative at many of these rights development talks are the same – an authoritarian government trampling over individual rights, fearful that its monopoly on power will be destroyed by such nascent rights movements.

But for LGBT rights, the story seems to be different.  Zhao made a joke about how in

Sam Zhao, speaking at “China’s Comrades”
Photo by Robert Burnett, Jr.
www.rburnettjr.com

1996, a friend called her, excitedly telling her to return to Beijing because there was going to be a “big” lesbian party – eight lesbians were getting together.  Fast forward a little over a decade and in 2008, Zhao helped organize a two-day lesbian independent film festival where 600 lesbians attended.

What was interesting about Zhao’s story was the fact that the Chinese government even allowed the film festival, and not because it necessarily has an anti-gay bias.  Usually, when movements get too large, the Chinese government sees the movement – be it LGBT rights activists organizing a film festival, rural villagers decrying the taking of their lands, or factory workers protesting inhuman working conditions – as an alternative source of power and threat to its rule – events are broken up and email listserves are shut down.

But both Zhao and Zhou discussed the success they have had in creating an LGBT community throughout China, with much of this success a result of the internet.  Even Balzano noted that while it is true that when movements in China get too large, too overt or too public, the government seeks to crack down, the LGBT movement thus far has not faced the same kinds of pressure.

Audience listens during China’s Comrades
Photo by Robert Burnett, Jr.
www.rburnettjr.com

Zhou did point out that the LGBT rights movement is not completely immune.  In 2012, some LGBT rights bloggers held a successful conference in a southern city that many activists attended.  When they tried to re-create the event in Beijing, the government put a stop to it.  But according to Zhao, when the activists asked the Beijing government if the reason was because the event was about LGBT rights, the government said no.  According to the authorities, the basis for denying the activists their conference was because it bordered upon a “mass incident” which the law forbids.

But not everything is rosy for LGBT individuals in China.  While Balzano remarked that there is no law in China that is overtly discriminatory toward the community, the law is still used at times to harass LGBT individuals.  Zhao confirmed this, noting the difficulty in obtaining the proper government approvals for her lesbian film festival because many officials equated lesbian film with pornography.

Zhou also commented that while there is no law that governs sexual relations in a

Photo by Robert Burnett, Jr.
www.rburnettjr.com

private place, what is still up for debate, at least with some government officials and courts, is what is private.  There have been cases where a hotel room is considered public or a bedroom in an apartment that serves as a business office during the day.  Zhou also discussed the prosecution of one of his clients – a gay D.J. who was part of a party in a gay nightclub.  He was taken in for “lewd” behavior.

Finally, although only briefly touched upon in the talk but much more fully fleshed out in the readings that Asia Catalyst and the Leitner Center diligently selected (see “Resources” list below) is the societal pressure that all Chinese face but is more acute in the LGBT community – parental pressure for a heterosexual marriage and a grandchild.  All of the reading went into depth on this issue, noting that traditionally in China, homosexual conduct has been tolerated so long as that behavior is more “on the side” of a heterosexual marriage that produces children (in this regard, Balzano’s article made an important distinction between traditional acceptance of homosexual behavior and not necessarily homosexual identity).  This pressure and to some degree behavior is still very much present in the LGBT community in China (the Kam article interviewed a number of Shanghai lesbians to ascertain how they deal with the heterosexual marriage issue).

Photo by Robert Burnett, Jr.
www.rburnettjr.com

Although China’s LGBT community is still in greater need of protection, especially since vague laws are arbitrarily used to harass some individuals, its movement appears to be on more solid footing than other rights groups.  By the end of the talk, Zhou’s initial remark – that it is queer that discussions of LGBT rights rarely happen – made one wonder, why isn’t Western China watchers especially those who focus on and seek to promote civil society development, examining China’s LGBT movement more.  The LGBT rights movement is an outlier in the normal course of civil society development in China.  What is it that allows it right now to be a bit more immune to traditional government pressure?  And is there anything other movements can learn from the LGBT rights movement?  China’s Comrades proved that more a deeper understanding of the LGBT movement are necessary.

Resources:

John C. Balzano, Toward a Gay-Friendly China?  Legal Implications of Transition for Gays and Lesbians, 16 Tul. J. L. & Sexuality (2007).

Lucetta Kam, Opening up Marriage: Married Lalas in Shanghai, in As Normal as Possible: Negotiating Sexuality and Gender in Mainland China and Hong Kong (Yau China ed., 2010; Hong Kong University Press).

Holning Lau, Grounding Conversations on Sexuality and Asian Law, 44 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 773 (2011).

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If you are interested in learning more about Asia Catalyst, its events or how you can support this on-the-ground organization, please visit its website here.  For its Fifth Anniversary Campaign, Asia Catalyst’s Board of Directors has generously offered to match all individual gifts donated in 2012 (up to $8,000).  All donations are tax deductible.

 

 

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