A Thorn in the Government’s Side – China’s Human Rights Advocates

Prof. Eva Pils

Prof. Eva Pils

Since the fall, not a month has gone by where there isn’t some Chinese human rights advocate being prosecuted.  The charge is usually the vague and broad claim of “disturbing public order.”  Activist Xu Zhiyong (pronounced Sue Zhi young) was given four years in January under that charge, one year shy of the maximum.  Cao Shunli (pronounced Ts-ow Shun lee), another human rights, died in police custody while being investigated for the same charge.

Who are these human rights advocates and lawyers?  And why has the Chinese government become increasingly harsh?  To put this all in is Prof. Eva Pils, an associate professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and research fellow at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute.  In 2006, Prof. Pils wrote the seminal article on human rights lawyers in China, Asking the Tiger for His Skin: Rights Activism in China. This summer, Prof. Pils will continue her work with a book on rights activism entitled China’s Human Rights Lawyers: Advocacy and Resistance.  Last month, as more human rights advocates and lawyers were being detained, Prof. Pils sat down with China Law & Policy.

Read the transcript below of Part 1 of this three-part interview or click on the media player below to listen:

Length: 14:49 minutes

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EL:  Thank you for joining us today Prof. Pils.  Let’s start with a little bit of background.  These human rights lawyers, who are most frequently referred to as “rights defense” or “rights defending” lawyers, when did they first start to emerge and why?

EP:  Thank you.  I think that they used to call themselves ‘rights defense – weiquan [维权] lawyers’ – but I think that actually over

Bringing back the law - Deng Xiaoping

Bringing back the law – Deng Xiaoping

the past one or two years, they’ve started preferring the term renquan lushi [人权律师] which means ‘human rights lawyers.’  That’s in a way related to how they emerged.  They emerged because in the post-Mao era, especially from the 1990s onward, it became possible to use the law to defend rights, for one thing of course because there [now] was law — it was only under the Deng Xiaoping reform and opening policies that law became an accepted tool of government of the Party-State, after it had been completely denounced in essence as a counter-revolutionary idea in the last decade under Mao Zedong

Then the other thing is that there was a period, [from the beginning of the post-Mao era until] the 1990s when the Party-State authorities were essentially encouraging the use of law to address certain kinds of dispute, certain kinds of conflict in society.  During that time, weiquan – rights defense – was actually an officially propagated term.  As background, one would have to say that rule by law – yifa zhiguo [依法治国] – was an idea that the authorities were making use of in the Deng Xiaoping era in order to claim political legitimacy.  That in a way replaced the political legitimacy coming from the idea of a communist revolution that was what political legitimacy was based on in the Mao Zedong era.

I think that this argument [about law as a tool of governance] is quite right, this is how Deng Xiaoping wanted to develop China in the post-Mao era, but also I think that the authorities, perhaps including Deng Xiaoping, didn’t fully realize what they were letting themselves in for when they promoted the idea of [rule by law and] weiquan.  Perhaps this was because they were quite good Marxist-Leninists and believed sincerely that law was nothing other than a tool of governance to be used by the ruling power.  Whereas of course, from the weiquan or rights defense perspective, [law] is  connected to justice and it’s connected also, potentially at least, to political resistance,  to the idea of rights, of human rights.  I think that it’s a step toward a more explicitly political agenda that the lawyers who used to be referred to as weiquan lawyers have now chosen to call themselves human rights lawyers.

EL:  In terms of the political agenda, the agenda of the human rights lawyers in China, in terms of their issues – is there something that unifies them as a single issue or are there  different issues?  In general, are they located in one area or do you find them throughout the country.

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

EP:  I think in terms of area, definitely there is a huge concentration in Beijing and also in a couple of other cities, in particular Guangzhou and of course also Shanghai.  But when you look at how they work and where they work, it is very important to see that they really work all across the country.   In the Jiansanjiang case you mentioned just before [the interview] you have a couple of human rights lawyers going to this extremely remote location in Heilongjiang with the purpose of freeing, or in any case providing legal support to, a couple of people who are extra-legally detained there.  That’s an example of what human rights lawyers do regardless of where they are based.

Is there something that unifies them?  My impression in having done so many hundreds of interviews over the past couple of years with, I suppose, a few dozen human rights lawyers, [is that] they are very diverse, they are very different in terms of their personalities, their approach to their work, and in some of their convictions.  But there are things that do unite them.  I think that for one thing, they see themselves as adopting different methods from what many other lawyers are prepared to do.  For instance, they reject the idea of wining and dining the officials concerned in their clients case to get results.  In that, they’re not different from a group of lawyers called sikepai [死磕派] lawyers, lawyers who are very uncompromising.  But what sets them apart from the sikepai lawyers is that they are willing to take on cases that nobody else will want to touch.  I suppose one good example for that is the cases of people who practice Falun Gong.   And thirdly, they [human rights lawyers]  have recently started identifying more clearly around political ideas.  They want democracy.

The more things change, the more they remain the same - 25 years after Tiananmen, still cracking down on dissent

The more things change, the more they remain the same – 25 years after Tiananmen, still cracking down on dissent

EL:  Just in terms of the crackdowns that we are seeing and I think you talk a little bit about this in your previous answer.  There has always been a crackdown on dissent in the People’s Republic of China, even in the post-Mao era.  You see the 1978 Democracy Wall movement, there is a crackdown. You see the Tiananmen protests of 1989, there is a crackdown.  Should we be surprised that the same Chinese Communist Party is looking to crackdown on these rights defense lawyers and activists?

EP:  No.  No, we should not be surprised.  I don’t think that the lawyers are surprised either.  And I say this, although I just said that initially, in the 1990s, there was this official promotion of and use of the idea of rights defense.  There was, I think, for a couple of years, especially around 2003 when you had the famous Sun Zhigang incident, this notion that perhaps rights defense could mean a bold group of courageous lawyers, legal professionals, and legal academics sympathizing with them, persuading the State to introduce incremental reforms.  One of [these reforms], for instance, could have been to introduce some sort of meaningful constitutional adjudication  – whichever mechanism one would have used –  this would have made a potentially very great contribution towards making constitutional rights guarantees more effective in actual people’s lives and actual legal practice in China.

So, [until around 2003] you had that hope  – and of course along with that an expectation  – that the State would tolerate weiquan.  But actually very early on, from the moment almost when they started being successful, these weiquan lawyers also encountered repression.  I think we now understand better than perhaps a couple of years ago, that that was really based in a high-level perception that weiquan presented a political challenge and that consequently, it had to be controlled.

So, what has been happening  from about 2004 and especially over the past couple of years, has been a tightening of control, and the use of ways of trying to stop lawyers from engaging in weiquan.  I don’t think that anyone I have spoken to has been surprised by what has happened.

EL:  So in terms of the tightening of control, you mention that the Sun Zhigang case in 2003 is kind of a high point.  But then by

Locked Up for Four Years - Human Rights Lawyer Xu Zhiyong

Locked Up for Four Years – Human Rights Lawyer Xu Zhiyong

2009, we see a government crackdown with Gao Zhisheng basically being abducted and being held incommunicado.  Also in 2009, you see the disbarment of activist lawyers like Tang Jitian and Liu Wei; you see Xu Zhiyong being investigated.  Then in 2011, with the Arab Spring, we see another crackdown.  Now, 2013, 2014, we are seeing perhaps the worst treatment of advocates.  So you were talking about how some of the responses [to weiquan lawyers] is coming from high-level.  I think a lot of people see these different crackdowns as separate incidents, just a knee-jerk reaction by the Chinese Communist Party.  But should we see it that way or should we see it as part of a larger trend?

EP:  I think that it is based in a decision that as I just said was essentially made in 2004 that they would have to be controlled and I think that basic attitude and policy has remained the same also before and after the recent changes in leadership.  So I definitely think this is part of a larger trend, yes.  I think that also the situation at the moment is worsening.

EL:  I think we can guess what it that the Chinese government is so afraid of.  But what precisely is it?  Is it the issues themselves or is it another power base that could take away power from the Party?  What is it that they are so afraid of?

EP:   Well, I think from the perspective of the Chinese authorities, or at least from [the perspective of] that part of the Chinese government that is entrusted with the task of stability preservation – of weiwen [维稳], it’s quite clear (and perhaps it is clearer to them than to lots of people outside and inside China) that the human rights movement of which human rights lawyers are of course an important part, stands for political ideas that challenge the Party’s political existence.

"Social Stability" at all costs

“Social Stability” at all costs

There is a perception also amongst the establishment that the current system isn’t viable unless it’s somehow changed.  But I think what leads to this attitude of having to crack down on human rights lawyers is that the establishment, the authorities, are completely reluctant to allow any civil society forces to take control of the changes that need to be introduced.  So, yes, there may have to be changes; but certainly we, the Party-State, want to stay in control of changes.  Another way of putting the same thing, I suppose, is to say that the tizhinei [体制内]forces, the system, the establishment, can’t accept the idea of accountability to people outside of the system; and in a way, it is not institutionally set up to accept that idea.  That of course means that the notion, the idea of political opposition, the idea of a free open political discussion of popular grievances, of the forces of social unrest, of the various contentious issues which you have in Chinese society right now is even less acceptable.

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For Part 2 of this three-part interview series with Prof. Pils, please click here.

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.

Bloomberg & Censorship: A Harbinger of What is to Come?

By , April 13, 2014

bloomberg-1In June 2012, Bloomberg News’ China coverage was considered cutting edge.  It’s China team had published  an investigative piece that unmasked the enormous wealth accumulated and hidden by current Chinese President Xi Jinping and his family.  For its courageous China coverage, Bloomberg won a prestigious George Polk Award here in the U.S.  But back in China, the accolades were less than forthcoming.  Instead, Bloomberg received the Chinese government’s retribution with its website blocked, its journalists experiencing increasing difficulty renewing their visas, and its computer systems penetrated by Chinese hackers.  Evidently it’s coverage hit a nerve.

Fast forward a little over a year and last November, allegations of self-censorship regarding its China coverage engulfed Bloomberg News.   According to unnamed Bloomberg reporters, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler killed what would have been another investigative piece exposing the deep and corrupting ties between one of China’s wealthiest men and the top leadership of the

Matthew Winkler, Head of Bloomberg News

Matthew Winkler, Head of Bloomberg News

Chinese Communist Party.  Allegedly Winkler  feared that if the story was published, Bloomberg journalists would be kicked out of China and its China offices effectively closed.   Winkler denied the allegations, informing the New York Times that the piece had in fact not been pulled. Even with these denials, Bloomberg quickly suspended the lead reporter on the story and the executive editor of  Bloomberg’s investigative news division who also was an on its June 2012 China story, Amanda Bennett, left the company shortly thereafter   Coincidence or sign that journalism takes a back seat to business?  Recent events point toward the later.

Should We Be Surprised That Bloomberg’s Priority is Its Bottom Line?  

By early 2014, it appeared that things had died down for Bloomberg’s beleaguered China team.  But in March,  the accusations of self-censorship re-emerged.  First was Peter T. Grauer’s, chairman of Bloomberg News’ parent company Bloomberg LP, admission that some China stories it “should have rethought” when discussing Bloomberg LP’s China business.  Then, only days later, longtime Bloomberg employee and editor-at-large for Asia news, Ben Richardson, vocally departed from Bloomberg and explained to media critic Jim Romenesko that “[he] left Bloomberg because of the way the [November 2013] story was mishandled, and because of how the company made misleading statements in the global press and senior executives disparaged the team that worked so hard to execute an incredibly demanding story.”

Working at a Bloomberg Terminal

Working at a Bloomberg Terminal

But while self-censorship – if that is what is going on Bloomberg – is always disappointing, in Bloomberg’s case, it shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Bloomberg News is only a negligible part of Bloomberg LP, at least revenue-wise.  Instead it is the Bloomberg Terminal, a computer that delivers real-time stock quotes, provides an electronic trading platform, and a widespread instant messaging service, that is king.  Bloomberg Terminals are ubiquitous at investment banks and hedge funds; those organizations would not be able to function without them.

At $20,000 a terminal a year, it is the sale of these terminals that account for the vast majority – around 80% – of Bloomberg’s revenues.  According to Dean Starkman, an editor at Columbia Journalism Review and author of The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Bloomberg News was always meant to play a supporting role.  When Winkler founded the news division in the early 1990s, “Bloomberg was explicit about creating a new model, integrating business and editorial, where the two would work together” Starkman told China Law & Policy in a phone interview. In fact, according to Starkman, it was only in the last five to ten years, with the financial crisis, that Bloomberg News started to get more serious about journalism and rose in prominence.  It was in that period that Bloomberg News won various awards for its coverage in many parts of the world.

But when a company gets 80% of its revenue from a single product it is important that its other lines of business do not hurt that

Trader in Shanghai, not working on a Bloomberg Terminal

Trader in Shanghai, not working on a Bloomberg Terminal

product.  Here, Bloomberg’s China coverage most likely violated that business tenet.  After the June 2012 publication, sales of the Bloomberg Terminals in China came to a halt.  But China, unlike the United States which accounts for 37% of Terminal sales and Europe which accounts for 35% of sales, is far from a saturated market.  In fact, China only accounts for a mere 3,000 Bloomberg Terminals (the tiny island of Hong Kong accounts for more than 20,000 Terminals).

To be shut out of China would jeopardize Bloomberg’s ability to increase its revenue, all at the time when its main competitor, Thomson Reuters, is gaining market share.   In 2010, Thomson Reuters sought to take advantage of the financial crisis by creating the Eikon, a cheaper competitor to the Bloomberg Terminal.  Although Eikon had a shaky start, its growth more recently has been phenomenal (but many in the industry still view it as inferior).  In 2013 it tripled the number of Eikon subscriptions to 122,000.  A scary prospect for Bloomberg.

Given that Bloomberg’s cash cow – sales of its Terminal – took a major hit after the publication of the article on Xi Jinping’s family wealth and that its battle with Eikon will be on mainland, it is not surprising that Bloomberg potentially killed another news article that would have hurt its bottom line.

Should We Be Concerned That Bloomberg is a Harbinger?

It’s no secret that the titans of the media world have taken huge hits with the influx of the internet.  The Graham family’s recent sale of the Washington Post to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is one such example.  For the business side of journalism, it’s not just about the bottom line, it is about survival.  With this mindset, will every media outlet that covers China soften its coverage?

Dean Starkman, editor at the Columbia Journalism Review

Dean Starkman, editor at the Columbia Journalism Review

“No” Starkman emphatically told China Law & Policy.  “[Bloomberg] is different from other media companies.  Other than Reuters, no other media company has as much to lose in China.”  Even when raising the issue of the New York Times and its Chinese language website which is blocked in China, Starkman was still optimistic.  “The New York Times doesn’t have to be there as a business; it’s just there as a newspaper.  There is no critical need for them to grow in China.”  Bloomberg on the other hand, very much has a need to grow its Terminal business in China.

For Starkman, the decline in ad revenue is precisely the reason why media organizations will be forced to provide hard-hitting coverage of places like China:  “The fact that news organizations rely more on subscribers [for revenue] makes it all the more imperative that. . . their news coverage remains uncompromising.”   By relying on subscribers, the game comes down to credibility – if you publish less than the truth, you will no longer be credible.  For the traditional media outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal credibility is paramount.  But as Starkman pointed out, if readers doubt Bloomberg News’ articles, it ultimately does not affect their business because they still have Terminals to sell.

For Starkman, it is this need for credibility that could potentially drive newspapers to do more investigative articles, not less.  building_trust“Investigative pieces cover something everyone knows about but it hasn’t been documented” Starkman told China Law & Policy.  Corruption in China was one example that he provided; it’s well-known fact but few have been able to document the evidence as powerfully as the New York Times and Bloomberg News.  “As the gap between what everyone knows and what you cover becomes wider, you lose your credibility.”

And it is true.  When it comes to China coverage, the go-to newspaper is increasingly the New York Times.  Why?  Because it is able to provide the in-depth, uncompromised coverage about what is really happening in China.  Part of this of course is resources.  As Bloomberg’s former editor-at-large, Ben Richardson told CNN, these type of investigative pieces are extremely expensive and difficult to produce.  Large media outlets like the New York Times and Bloomberg have these resources. wall-street-journal

Another entity that has the money and expertise to publish investigative pieces on China’s corruption would seem to be the Wall Street Journal.  But they have yet to publish anything on China as in-depth as what the New York Times and Bloomberg covered.  Starkman did not blame this on self-censorship but rather a changed model of news reporting where shorter pieces predominate.  As the Columbia Journalism Review has documented, since Rupert Murdoch took control of the Wall Street Journal  in 2007, longer pieces have precipitously plunged.  “What’s the good of covering small incremental things if miss the one big thing”  Starkman mused.

Bloomberg’s apparent self-censorship is disheartening especially for the reporters who likely worked really hard on the piece that appears to have been killed (six months later it still has yet to be published).  But the Bloomberg Incident itself doesn’t signal the death knell for investigative journalism in China.  To maintain its monopoly on China credibility, the New York Times will likely continue its hard-hitting pieces for as long as China allows it to have journalists there.  It is that credibility that impacts the Times‘ bottom line.  Until of course Bloomberg purchases it.

And Things Just Got More Awesome: CECC To Host Hearing on Rights Lawyers

By , April 7, 2014

ceccToday, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) added two new witnesses to it’s April 8 hearing on the recent and severe crackdown on China’s rights activists.  If Prof. Don Clarke of GW Law School and Dr. Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch were not enough of a draw, the CECC just added Jewher Tothi, daughter of recently detained Uyghur scholar and activist Ilham Tothi and human rights lawyer, Teng Biao.

For those not in Washington, D.C., the hearing will also be broadcast live on the CECC’s website.

 

Hearing:  Understanding China’s Crackdown on Rights Activists
Date: April 8, 2014
Time: 3:30 – 5 pm
Location: 418 Russell Senate Office Building
Live webcast can be found by clicking here.

The hearing will also be archived on the CECC’s website.

Just For Fun – Art Review: Xu Bing’s Phoenix

By , March 10, 2014

P1000203There are those pieces of art that are truly transformative; that can change the way you see the world and remind you of the humanity of this united struggle we call life.  Picasso’s Guernica is one such work.  Now there is Xu Bing‘s (pronounced Sue Bing) recent installation – Phoenix.

Housed in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Phoenix is nothing less than iconic.  Back in 2008, Xu, who had just returned to Beijing after 18 years in New York City, was commissioned to create an art installation for a glass atrium in Beijing’s soon-to-be-completed World Financial Center.  It was Xu’s visits to the construction site that proved to be the inspiration for the work.  After seeing the paltry conditions for the migrant construction workers and the primitive construction techniques, Xu used much of the scrap left over from the site to create two massive and powerful phoenixes, an homage to those nameless workers who built one of Beijing’s most modern skyscrapers.

For those who have spent time in China, the materials that create the birds’ gritty skeletons are familiar: faded red, white and blue plastic tarps serves as wings, bamboo poles as the ribs, and old hand cement mixers for the birds’ heads.  But the message of these phoenixes is fresh.  As one of my companions noted, the simplicity of birds’ frames monumentalizes the laborers and workers who built one of Beijing’s fancier skyscrapers and who have largely been left behind.

But this was not a message that Beijing was ready for.  Reflecting how far removed the People’s Republic is from its socialist

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

rhetoric, the real estate mogul who commissioned the work requested that Xu cover the phoenixes’ rough frames  with nothing less than crystals.  Fortunately, Xu, schooled in the Socialist Realism style, refused to change his art.

Since 2010, the Phoenixes, and Xu’s homage to those invisible workers who have literally built China’s new society, have traveled around the world.  But seeing the Phoenixes suspended in flight in the nave of a Gothic cathedral is truly spectacular.  It elevates an amazing piece of art – and the message that infuses it – to an almost sacred and divine realm.  As we walked the nave this past Sunday, studying all the construction site scraps that created the birds,  the choir practiced at the altar, giving the phoenixes an angelic feel.

Phoenix is on display through 2014 and should not be missed.  Admission to Cathedral is free but a suggested donation of $10 is politely requested (and well worth it to help support this piece as well as the Church’s important community outreach and services).

First Lady Michelle Obama & Kids to Travel to China

By , March 3, 2014
The Obama Ladies - Set to Take the Middle Kingdom by Storm

The Obama Ladies – Set to Take the Middle Kingdom by Storm

While it might be true that a US President’s visit to China is more “strategic,” this impending trip to China scheduled by the First Lady sounds like a heck of a lot more fun.  With her mother and two daughters in tow (Sasha studies Chinese and practiced with Hu Jintao), this should be a very interesting cultural exchange trip.

While tensions have been rising between the US and China, especially in regards to the South China Sea, this type of good will trip can help to remind the people of the two nations that our relationship is more than just government-to-government; it is people-to-people.

To the Obama ladies – 一路平安 (Yee Lou Ping Ann – Have  a Safe Journey!)

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the First Lady

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

March 3, 2014

First Lady Michelle Obama to Travel to China March 19-26, 2014

Mrs. Obama to Visit the Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School on March 4

The First Lady will travel to China from March 19-26, 2014. She will be visiting Beijing from March 20-23, Xi’an on March 24, and Chengdu from March 25-26. During her trip, the First Lady will meet with Madame Peng, the spouse of China’s President Xi Jinping. She will also visit a university and a high school in Beijing, and a high school in Chengdu. Additional details about the First Lady’s trip will be announced in the coming weeks. Accompanying Mrs. Obama on this trip will be her mother, Mrs. Marian Robinson, and daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama.

During the trip to China, as on previous international trips to Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America, the First Lady will be focusing on the power and importance of education, both in her own life and in the lives of young people in both countries.

She will also be visiting important historical and cultural sites in China, and will share with students in the U.S. the stories of the students she meets in China, as well as interesting facts about China’s history and culture – emphasizing the importance of students learning from one another globally.

The First Lady is encouraging students and classrooms across the U.S. to follow her trip by signing up for updates throughout the visit. View the First Lady’s message to students here.

PBS LearningMedia and Discovery Education will offer engagement opportunities for young people surrounding the trip, along with resources available for U.S. classrooms that explore the culture, geography, current events and people of China.

 

 

Where’s Your Tracksuit – Will Xi Jinping be China’s Putin?

By , February 13, 2014
President Xi waving to the Chinese Olympic team during the Sochi Opening Ceremonies

President Xi waving to the Chinese Olympic team during the Sochi Opening Ceremonies

Last week’s opening ceremonies were full of Russian stereotypes – ballet, nutcrackers, revolution, really bad techno.  But one image that was far from a cliché was the cozy relationship between Russian President Vladamir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.  Over at Concurrent Opinions, law professor and China expert Margaret K. Lewis, mused about what appears to be a deepening friendship and what this could mean for China.  Will Xi be wearing a tracksuit anytime soon?  Read Lewis’ post here.

CORRECTION on NY Times Reporter’s Departure from Beijing

By , February 10, 2014
CL&P issues a correction

CL&P issues a correction

Yesterday, China Law & Policy published a post regarding New York Times reporter Austin Ramzy and the circumstances surrounding his effective expulsion from China this past January.  After the post went up, some readers emailed me to comment that my analysis may be wrong, in particular my examination of Article 14 of the Regulation on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists (“Foreign Media Regs”).

Here’s the background.  On January 27, 2014, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) spokesperson Qin Gang addressed the Ramzy situation stating that by not changing the status of his visa (presumably to a tourist or some other non-journalist visa) when he re-applied for a new press card with MOFA, Ramzy was in violation of the regulations.

As I wrote yesterday, Qin Gang’s assessment is correct under Article 14 of the Foreign Media Regs) if Ramzy’s prior press card with Time Magazine was “canceled.”  Article 14 reads:

The cancellation of the Certificate for Permanent Office of Foreign Media Organization in China and the Press Card (R) shall be made public.

The Journalist Visa of a resident foreign journalist whose Press Card (R) is cancelled automatically becomes invalid ten days after the date of cancellation.

A resident foreign journalist whose Press Card (R) is cancelled shall, within ten days from the date of cancellation, present the relevant certifying documents to the public security authority of his place of residence to apply for the alteration of his visa or resident permit.

I concluded that Ramzy, who was permitted to apply for a New York Times press card in June 2013, did not have a canceled press card,

When obtaining press cards were a bit easier: Edgar Snow's press card for Beijing

When obtaining press cards were a bit easier: Edgar Snow’s press card for Beijing

making Article 14 inapplicable.  But a few emails came in, including from individuals with experience with press cards in China, that based on their experiences, it was more likely that Ramzy’s Time Magazine press card was canceled in order to apply for the New York Times press card, making Article 14 applicable.  Fox News also highlighted this reading of the Foreign Media Regs.

I stand corrected and I thank the readers who wrote to me.  Under Article 14 of the Foreign Media Regs, it does appear that when a foreign journalist in China switches employers and tenders her prior press card, that card is effectively canceled and to be in line with the Foreign Media Regs, the journalist presumably has to apply for a change in visa status.

But the reason why I still continue to hedge and question if Ramzy was in fact in violation of the law, as opposed to just these regulations, is because when read in conjunction with China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law (“Exit-Entry Law”), Ramzy’s situation is a little less clear.  The Foreign Media Regs do not address what happens when the prior press card is canceled but the journalist is waiting on a new press card to be issued.  But the Exit-Entry Law permits an individual to stay until the expiration of a residency permit even when an application for a new one was denied (see Exit-Entry Law, Arts.29 & 32).  Additionally, the Regulations on Exit-Entry Aministration for Foreign Nationals (“Exit-Entry Regs”), which further define the Exit-Entry Law, acknowledge that there will be times when the visa and residence permit process is delayed.  In those situations, the foreign national can rely on the “acceptance notice” from the Public Security Bureau (“PSB”) to lawfully reside in China until her visa or residency permit is processed (Exit-Entry Regs, Arts. 13 & 18).

Qin Gang, stepping up the game!

Qin Gang, stepping up the game!

The Exit-Entry Regs do not apply to MOFA in its review of press cards, but did it take a page from the Exit-Entry Reg’s play book?  Did MOFA reassure Ramzy and the New York Times that with MOFA’s acceptance of the application, Ramzy could continue to reside in China on his Time Magazine visa and resident permit until the new press card was processed?  Article 21 of the Foreign Media Regs leaves it within the discretion of MOFA to determine the penalty, if any, for a violation of the Foreign Media Regs.  Unfortunately, emails to the executive and managing editors of the New York Times for clarification were not answered.

But at any rate, what the Ramzy incident reflects is that journalism just got a heck of a lot harder in China, especially for any news agency that seeks to cover sensitive issues.  Back at the beginning of January, Jill Abramson, the New York Times‘ executive editor, seemed to think things had blown over in China, that the earlier problems in securing journalist visas for their reporters had mostly been resolved.  But Abramson spoke too soon because with the Ramzy incident, the Chinese government just stepped up its game.

This is not the first time that the Chinese government has cited to law to provide a veneer of legality in its efforts to suppress criticism (or

Rights Attorney, Xu Zhiyong, recently sentenced to 4 years

Rights Attorney, Xu Zhiyong, recently sentenced to 4 years

more aptly suppress criticism that is not directed by the Party).  Chinese public interest lawyers and activists have been treated in a similar fashion.  Liu Xiaobo is likely the last activist the West will see tried for “subversion of state power” and since the lawless abduction of civil rights attorney  Gao Zhisheng, the recent prosecutions have been “in accordance with law.”  The Chinese government has become increasingly sophisticated in how it handles what it perceives as threats to its one-party rule.   In January, rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong was tried and found guilty for disturbing public order.  Back in 2010, civil rights lawyers Tang Jitian and Liu Wei were disbarred on highly technical regulations that govern the legal profession.  By turning to more administrative and technical punishments, the Chinese government can state that it is merely following the law, a defense it has come to realize the West finds a bit harder to counter.

game-changerSimilarly, the Chinese government now appears to be using the same strategy with foreign journalists and the visa application process.  It’s a labyrinth of regulations, making it easy for the Chinese government to point to a violation.  With the Ramzy incident, foreign media outlets in China can no longer rely on the assurances of MOFA or even how things were done in the past.

Ramzy might have been the sole casualty of the New York Times-China feud for the 2013 cycle.  But his forced departure is a game-changer and should be a warning to the U.S. government and U.S. media outlets that they too need to step up their game; things are far from “blown over.”

Another One Bites the Dust But Does Anyone Care? Congress is Silent as NY Times Reporter Leaves Beijing

By , February 9, 2014

New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy

New York Times journalist Austin Ramzy

Last month, while another U.S. journalist was packing his bags, forced to leave China, the U.S. Senate was poised to hold the confirmation hearing for Max Baucus, the Administration’s nominee to replace Gary Locke as ambassador to China.  You would think that central to the Baucus hearing would be the issue of journalist visas, or at least it would be mentioned by the candidate himself as a troubling development.  But you would be wrong.   Instead, after a December where the issue of U.S. journalists in China reached crisis level, Congress reverted to its shortsighted old ways, barely even raising the issue.

But, as the recent expulsion of the U.S. journalist clearly demonstrates, such a lackadaisical approach is increasingly dangerous as the Chinese government attempts to develop a more sophisticated response to try to maintain control of foreign journalists and U.S. media outlets through the visa process.

New York Times Reporter Austin Ramzy Effectively Expelled from China

For ten years, Austin Ramzy diligently covered Asia and China for Time Magazine, first out of Hong Kong and then since 2007, out of Beijing.  While his pieces were thought-provoking for a Western audience, they were hardly the type that would illicit anger from the Chinese government.  There were no articles exposing government officials’ vast wealth and while Ramzy did report on certain human rights issues in China, those articles were interspersed among other more general pieces.  In other words, he was likely not on the Chinese government’s target list in terms of renewing a visa.

But Ramzy’s status changed when, in April 2013, he took a job with the New York Times.  Since October 2012, when it published a Pulitzer-Prize

Former Premier Wen Jiabao

Former Premier Wen Jiabao

winning series on former premier Wen Jiabao’s questionable role in his family’s lucrative business holdings, the New York Times has become the Chinese government’s Enemy Number One.  Its website, including the Chinese-language portion, has been blocked in China, its U.S. website allegedly hacked from China, and every December, when it comes time to renew their visas, the New York Times China correspondents have faced excessive delays and effective expulsion.  The New York Times Fall 2013 coverage of the U.S. investigation into J.P. Morgan’s cushy ties with the children of China’s government elite, including the daughter of Wen, likely did not help its situation.

Ramzy’s visa troubles began almost as soon as he started working for the Times.  Although Ramzy had a journalist visa good through the end of December 2013, because he switched employer, under Chinese law, Ramzy was required to first apply for a new press card with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”).  Once issued, Ramzy then, with his new press card, would be required to apply for a new journalist visa and residency permit with the Public Security Bureau (“PSB”) to reflect his new employer (see Regulations on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists -”Foreign Media Regs” – Art. 10).

But, according to a source familiar with the matter, MOFA began giving Ramzy a hard time from the beginning.  For two months, the Beijing MOFA office refused to accept his press card application, informing him first that he would have to apply through Hong Kong, and then informing him that it would have to be through the New York consulate.  However, Article 10 of the Foreign Media Regs clearly states that the application can be made within China and directly to MOFA.

As the source told China Law & Policy, it was not until June 2013, two months later, that MOFA finally accepted his press card application.  But MOFA would sit on Ramzy’s application, and come December 2013, Ramzy was part of the New York Times contingent that was almost effectively expelled en mass when MOFA failed to process any Times correspondents’ press card applications and renewals.

Photo from Ramzy's Twitter feed showing that he had mostly packed his things

Photo from Ramzy’s Twitter feed showing that he had mostly packed his things

While the pressure from the Obama Administration, in particular Biden’s December visit to Beijing where he publicly raised the issue, appeared to have averted the de facto closure of the Times‘ China bureaus, Ramzy seems to be the lone casualty.  Ramzy’s vulnerability likely came from the fact that he was the only New York Times correspondent who was hired in the middle of the year.  For some reason, MOFA processes “new” applications for a press card with a news agency differently than a mere renewal of the press card for a reporter that continues to work for the same news agency.  This is what happened to New York Times correspondent Chris Buckley the year before.  Like Ramzy, Buckley took a job with the Times in October 2012 but MOFA failed to process his press card.  When his prior journalist visa and residency permit expired on December 31, 2012, Buckley was forced to leave China.  For the past year he has been reporting for the Times from Hong Kong while MOFA allegedly is still processing his press card application.

Similarly, by the end of this December, without a press card, Ramzy was unable to apply for a new journalist visa.  His prior visa and residency permit was set to expire on December 31, 2013.  At the end of December, MOFA provided Ramzy with a one-month “humanitarian” visa so that after seven years, he could pack up his life and leave.  On January 30, 2014, Ramzy left Beijing and relocated to Taipei, Taiwan to cover China from there.

Stronger Response from Both the US & China

With his departure, the White House issued a strong statement, condemning China on Ramzy’s effective expulsion.  This was a marked departure from the White House’s prior strategy of silence when other U.S. reporters were effectively expelled or banned from reporting from China (Melissa Chan in 2012, Philip Pan in 2012, Andrew Higgins from 2009 to 2012 and Paul Mooney in 2013).

But the U.S. was not the only country with a changed strategy.  For all of these prior expulsions and bans, the Chinese government has never

MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang

MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang

provided a specific reason for its delay or denial.  But in Ramzy’s case, the Monday before his departure, MOFA spokesperson Qin Gang addressed the issue and tried to put a fig leaf of legality over the situation.  While Qin implied that MOFA was still processing Ramzy’s press card application, he accused Ramzy of violating Chinese regulations because he continued to enter and leave China on his old visa connected to his prior employer and never applied for a new visa or residence permit.

Qin was correct that Ramzy did not apply for a new visa and residence permit once he took the job with the Times, but that was not a willful act.  For a journalist visa and residency permit, part of the application is submission of a valid press card (Foreign Media Regs, Art. 10).  Here Ramzy was not able to apply for a new visa where MOFA was sitting on his application for a new press card, failing to process it.

Regardless of that fact, the law does not require Ramzy to apply for a different type of visa (presumably a non-journalist one) while waiting on a new press card.  The only time that a journalist must apply for a different type of visa to remain in China is if his press card has been “canceled,” a decision that must be made public (Foreign Media Regs., Art. 14).  Here, Ramzy’s prior press card was not cancelled; rather he was applying for a replacement.*  Nowhere in the Foreign Media Regs is there a requirement that a journalist change his visa type while waiting on a replacement press card.

PassportsFinally, China’s Exit-Entry Administration Law permits a foreign resident to stay in China to expiration of a prior residence permit even when a new one is denied: “[I]f an extension is denied, the foreigner concerned shall leave China on the expiry of the validity period specified in their residence permits” (Exit-Entry Administration Law, Art. 32).

Ramzy was within the law in entering and exiting China on his prior visa while waiting on his press card.  But MOFA’s citation to the law, even if inaccurate, is an interesting development and not restricted to foreign journalist visas.  Rather, it has been a trend in dealing with criticism from abroad.  An examination of how the Chinese government has dealt with public interest lawyers shows a government increasingly using the law – even if only a fig leaf – to explain its suppression of dissent.  The Chinese government has come to realize that the rhetoric of law is often an effective defense and silencing device in dealing with the West.

The Danger of the Senate’s Silence

It is this more sophisticated response that should put the U.S. government on warning that Beijing does not intend to back down in toying with

The Baucus Senate Confirmation Hearing - Why Bother?

The Baucus Senate Confirmation Hearing – Why Bother?

foreign journalists visas.  That is why the absence of this issue during the Baucus hearing was a dangerous disappointment.  During the hour and a half session, not a single Senator specifically asked what Baucus intended to do about this issue.  Instead, the hearing descended into the verbal embodiment of a high school social studies essay on the “interconnectedness” of the world, how they are like us, and with Baucus addressing human rights only superficially, stating that its protection “is the bedrock of American society.”

By not focusing on the issue of journalists visas during the hearing, Congress has effectively signaled to Beijing that it can go back to the status quo; the Senate is too concerned with how to sell beef in China to pay attention  to one journalist unable to stay there.  This is certainly a missed opportunity because if there is one thing the Chinese government does not understand and fears as a result, it is Congress.  Even if five minutes of the hearing addressed the issue, that might have given the Chinese government food for thought.

And it would also have been useful for Americans to know what Baucus’ strategy will be.  As Ambassador, Baucus will have a lot of power to determine if there should be a policy of visa reciprocity.  Does he think that is an appropriate approach?  Does he think there are other ways to deal with this issue?  How public will he be when the Chinese government again trifles with a U.S. journalist’s visa?

The U.S. government – both Congress and the Administration – cannot allow this issue to slip into the background.  While the White House should be commended for issuing a statement on Ramzy’s expulsion, it needs to use every opportunity to remind the Chinese government that this is a key issue.  Just stating it is not enough.  Last week, when Daniel Russell, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs at the State Department held a press conference, two reporters in the audience were from Chinese government-run media outlets.  Perhaps starting the press conference with a comment about how the U.S. allows a free foreign vis-a-vis China might demonstrate just how important the issue is to the current Administration.

Goodbye New York Times?

Goodbye New York Times?

Consistent pressure on the Chinese government from all parts of government must continue until Pan, Buckley, and Ramzy’s visa applications are processed.  Back in December, when it looked like the New York Times and the Bloomberg China bureaus would effectively close, the U.S. government was able focus its resources and pressure China to renew the correspondents’ visas.  But here, the danger is no different.  Where the New York Times is unable to get a new press card for any new employees in China, it will be unable to replace its current correspondents.  How long can David Barboza, 10 years in China and Ed Wong, six years, stay there?  It might be a slow death for the Times‘ China offices, but, unless something changes, its end inevitable

 ——————————————————————————————–

* After publication of this post on February 9, 2014, it was brought to my attention that Ramzy’s prior press card with Time Magazine could have been “cancelled” under Chinese law and that Article 14 might apply to him.  A correction in the form of a new post can be found here.  Apologies in advance.  — EML

恭喜发财!Riding in on the Horse

By , January 29, 2014
Welcome to the Year of the Wood Horse!

Welcome to the Year of the Wood Horse!

Volcanoes, earthquakes, record high temperature.  Are you ready for Year of the Horse?  The horse might look like a gentle beast, but in the Chinese zodiac, it is full of fire and it is that fire that will make the new year a tumultuous, fun-filled ride.

After two years of reptiles – dragon followed by snake – the Chinese zodiac is back to the more fuzzy animals and the horse is one of China’s favorite.  People born in year of the horse are often prized – charming and intelligent, they are often the life of the party.  Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden – both horses.  But they can also be strong-willed, refusing to be corralled or dominated.  Mike Tyson is a horse.

What makes 2014 a little bit bumpy is the fact that horse’s internal element – fire – is at odds with the year element – wood.  Every zodiac animal has one of the five elements – wood, water, metal, earth or fire.  But every year has its own element and this year’s is wood.  But fire burns wood, making international tensions – think Syria, South China seas, the Olympics – downright combustible.

But a lot of how the year will pan out for the individual will depend on your own sign.  How will you do?  Check out your personal horoscope here (note you may have to do a Bazi test to determine the strength of your birth year element.  You can do that here – note that birth date is entered day-month-year).

At any rate, your year won’t be worse than Justin Bieber’s.  According to Hong Kong feng shui master Alion Yeo, Bieber will have a very negative year. ” gongxiThere will be times where he will not be able to control himself” Yeo told the AFP.

Whatever the year may bring you, we wish all of our lunar new year-celebrating friends a happy and healthy new year!

 

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