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.

The Widening Gyre: The Changed Power Dynamics of Journalists Visas

By , December 23, 2013
Former WashPo Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli

Former WashPo Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli

After publishing an article concerning the Washington Post‘s 2010 decision to pull author Peter Manseau’s 8,000 word magazine piece on Washington D.C.’s  Falun Gong  community, the Post‘s former executive editor, Marcus Brauchli, returned China Law & Policy‘s call. Brauchli, executive editor in 2010, denied insinuations of self-censorship: “The Washington Post did not nor would it ever have killed a piece of journalism because of concerns about getting visas for its reporters.  The Post made its [publication] decision, and as far as I know always makes its decisions, based on journalistic merit” Brauchli said.

But Brauchli, with decades of experience reporting from China, was far from ignorant of the China visa issues.  As of last Thursday, many but not all of the New York Times and Bloomberg China correspondents received press cards from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, enabling them to apply for their renewed visas with the Public Security Bureau.  But that does not mean the crisis is over.  As Brauchli noted to China Law & Policy, Beijing’s current approach to journalists’ visas appears to be a much more organized effort compared to the past.  Quite a number of individuals share Brauchli’s feelings, with many believing thatafter 2008, the Chinese government has been more inclined to use the journalist visa renewal or visa application process to intimidate and possibly censor foreign journalists.

But are these feelings accurate?  Even if the Times and Bloomberg journalists’ visas are renewed with full year ones – not the month to sixth month temporary journalist visas given to Paul Mooney and Melissa Chan before they were effectively barred from China – Beijing will probably continue its approach. It came fairly close to shutting down the China offices of two major news organizations.  As a result, it is imperative that the changed dynamics – both in U.S. newsrooms and in China – are understood.

Things Fall Apart: The John Pomfret, Ian Johnson & Andrew Higgins Visa Experiences

John Pomfret is perhaps the most famous American journalist to be expelled from China.  As a 30-year-old Beijing correspondent for the

John Pomfret reporting from Tiananmen during the 1989 protests

John Pomfret reporting from Tiananmen during the 1989 protests

Associated Press, Pomfret found himself in the middle of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, protests that would bring as many as a hundred thousand people to the Square, that would shake the Chinese Communist Party to its core and that would culminate in the massacre of hundreds on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4.

Ten days after the crackdown, Pomfret was  expelled from China.  The Chinese government accused him – along with Voice of America correspondent Al Pessin who also was expelled –  of stealing state secrets and violating martial law.

Pomfret’s journalist career would take him to other places and other crises, but eventually it would come back in China.  As Pomfret recounts in his book, Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, in 1997, the Washington Post, his employer at the time, sought to elevate him to Beijing Bureau chief.  But the Chinese government had not forgotten his coverage of Tiananmen eight years earlier; the Chinese Embassy told the Washington Post: “please try another name.”

Pomfret would be approved for a journalist visa but not without great effort on the part of the Washington Post.  Fortunately for Pomfret, Katharine Graham, head of the Washington Post at the time and a powerful force in her own right, got involved.  She invited the Chinese ambassador to tea and made sure that her friend Henry Kissinger mentioned Pomfret’s case to the Vice Premier Qian Qichen.  Additionally, according to a source close to the Washington Post, managing editor Bob Kaiser and Beijing Bureau chief Steve Mufson raised Pomfret’s visa directly with then President Jiang Zemin in an off-the-record conversation during their October 1997 interview.  As he recounts in Chinese Lessons, Pomfret himself decided to write a “self-examination” about his prior attitude in response to a Chinese government official’s request that Pomfret write a letter applying for the Washington Post position.  On Christmas Eve 1997, Pomfret received word that his visa was approved.  Since then, Pomfret has never had a visa problem.

Journalist Ian Johnson

Journalist Ian Johnson

If Tiananmen was Pomfret’s roadblock to China, Falun Gong was Ian Johnson’s.  Between 1997 and 2001, Johnson was one of the Wall Street Journal‘s China correspondents.  Like Pomfret, he was covering China during a major crackdown, this time on a burgeoning spiritual group that was able to amass tens of millions of followers in less than ten years: Falun Gong.

In the beginning, Falun Gong, which uses traditional qigong exercises and draws upon the teachings of Daoism and Buddhism, was ambiguously tolerated by the Chinese government.  But on April 25, 1999, in response to a negative article published in a state-run magazine, an estimated 10,000 Falun Gong followers conducted a day-long silent meditation protest outside the Chinese government headquarters.  As Johnson recounts in his book, Wild Grass: Three Portraits of Change in Modern China, the fact that one group could amass so many people in one place without the State Security knowing, horrified the leadership.  Falun Gong – now perceived as a threat to its rule – would no longer be tolerated.  In July 1999, Beijing banned Falun Gong and began a violent crackdown against members of the group.  As Johnson recounted in his Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the crackdown for the Wall Street Journal and later in Wild Grass, Beijing permitted the crackdown to be enforced by all means necessary, even if that meant that many would die, a fact that Johnson recounted in his reports.

In 2001, Johnson left China to cover Europe for the Wall Street Journal.  But in 2007, the Journal sought to bring him back to China. Again, prior China coverage would prove problematic in obtaining a visa and would require the powerful resources of his news agency. According to an individual who had been involved in the matter, the Chinese government initially told the Journal that Johnson would never get back into China.  But as this source told China Law & Policy, the Journal began its lobbying in earnest with senior editors meeting with the Chinese ambassador to the U.S. and eventually Rupert Murdoch raising the issue directly with the Chinese government in Beijing.  Johnson also had to write a self-criticism.  But by 2008, right around the time Beijing was to host the Olympics, Johnson’s journalist visa was informally approved and was issued in early 2009 according to the source involved in the matter.

But less than a year later, Andrew Higgins’ attempt to obtain a journalist visa would end with a different outcome.  In 2009, the Washington

A group of nationalist Inner Mongolians protest in front of the Chinese Embassy, seeking the release of a Mongolian activist.

A group of nationalist Inner Mongolians protest in front of the Chinese Embassy, seeking the release of a Mongolian activist.

Post hired Higgins ostensibly as its Beijing Bureau chief and again the Post would need to lobby to get their chief into China as prior reporting had put Higgins on a blacklist. In 1991, Higgins was a Beijing correspondent to the British Independent newspaper, covering the Chinese government’s secret crackdown against ethnic Mongolian intellectuals in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.  According to a Human Rights Watch report, after being found in possession of a top secret Chinese Communist Party (CCP) document that ordered the harsh crackdown(a.k.a. Document 13), Higgins was expelled from China.

This time the Post was not able to overcome Higgins’ past.  According to a source involved in the Higgins negotiations, the Post raised Higgins’ visa issue in every high-level meeting with  Chinese officials, including the Chinese Ambassador; then executive editor Marcus Brauchli and publisher Katharine Weymouth went to Beijing to meet with China’s foreign minister about Higgins visa; and Don Graham, head of the Post at the time reached out to influential Americans, including Henry Kissinger, to assist with getting Higgins a visa.  But the Post‘s efforts failed.  Unable to obtain a residential journalist visa to China, in 2012, Higgins left the Post to cover Europe for the New York Times.

Since the Higgins’ incident, at least two other journalists – Paul Mooney and Melissa Chan – have been effectively denied journalist visa and many others, including Philip Pan and Chris Buckley, both of the New York Times, have been waiting more than a year for their visa request to be approved.

The Center Cannot Hold:  China’s Visa Policy Demonstrates its Continued Insecurity

Was Higgins the harbinger of China’s changed and harsher foreign journalist policy?  Another source familiar with the Higgins’ negotiations did question the strategy of the Post, noting that there were certain missed opportunities, that the Post did not bring in top people, like a Katherine Graham or a Rupert Murdoch, to close the deal, and Higgins’ alleged crime – being found in possession of top secret CCP documents – was inherently harder to overcome than Pomfret or Johnson’s issues.  But the source did tell China Law & Policy that the Higgins’ debacle reflected a China taking a harder line against foreign journalists.

Jim Sciutto, Former Chief of Staff to Amb. Gary Locke

Jim Sciutto, Former Chief of Staff to Amb. Gary Locke

Some, such as Jim Sciutto, former chief of staff to Ambassador Gary Locke, have argued that the Chinese government’s current attempts to censor foreign journalists through the visa process reflect a “more confident Chinese government.” Certainly, in 1997, when the Washington Post was seeking Pomfret’s visa, China was desperate to be in the good graces of the U.S. government as it anxiously awaited WTO entry.  In 2008, when the Wall Street Journal sought to get Johnson back, China was attempting to pull off its first Olympic games with as little criticism as possible.  But Higgins visa application came after these events, when China has made it through the 2008 economic crash and in 2010, surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy.

But the type of reporting the Chinese government is currently trying to suppress does not reflect a Chinese Communist Party secure in its rule; instead, it demonstrates a government cognizant of the fact that its power is more vulnerable now than ever before.

The Chinese government’s current targets are the New York Times and Bloomberg, two news agencies that wrote hard-hitting articles exposing the corruption at the highest levels of the Chinese government and the CCP.   According to one source that China Law & Policy spoke to, these articles represent more of threat to the CCP’s legitimacy than Tiananmen, Falun Gong or any other taboo topic.  Tiananmen, Falun Gong, and Tibet are not issues that are necessarily on the minds of every Chinese person.  But corruption is.  If the media, even the foreign media, is able to prove that the Chinese leaders are corrupt, these allegations go to the very core of the government’s authority.

For the leaders of China, this threat is not theoretical.  In a September 2013 People’s Daily editorial, Li Congjun, the head of the state-run Xinhua News Agency, used particularly harsh language to  lambast the foreign press.  Referring to certain unnamed foreign media outlets as “hostile i_will_crush_you_loldog_elephant_ears_pajama_pals_pet_costumeforces,” Li went on to criticize these outlets for smearing the CCP and China with made up stories which further weakens China’s interests and national standing.

In the introduction to his 2004 book Wild Grass, Johnson described the Chinese government’s message to current threats to its rule as “we are nervous, possibly even weak, but do not meddle; we can still crush you.”  In 2004, that message was for Falun Gong practitioners.  Today the message is still the same, but this time it is for foreign media companies and their reporters.

The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer: The Weakened State of US Media Companies

The Chinese government may be weak, but as its threats to the New York Times and Bloomberg demonstrates, it may very well still have the power to crush.  In elaborating on allegations of self-censorship, Brauchli was adamant that such a thing would not happen.  ”Our credibility has always rested heavily upon the depth, quality and accuracy of our reports.  Any type of self-censorship could have impaired our success as a journalistic enterprise.”

This is likely true on the journalist side of the enterprise, but as news agencies find it harder and harder to turn a profit, at what point is the business side able to unduly influence editorial decisions.   Two weeks ago, Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, reported that with its Chinese website blocked, the Times had $3 million in lost revenue (the Times2012 revenue was $2.32 billion).  Similarly, Bloomberg News’ parent company, Bloomberg L.P., makes 85% of its profit through the sale of its stock-trading Bloomberg terminals.  With only 3,000 terminals throughout China, the market is undersaturated (compared with 10,000 terminals in Hong Kong and 100,000 in the United States).  Finally, even the Washington Post appears to rely on China for revenue.  Since 2010, the China Daily has paid for “China Watch” to the supplement section of the Post‘s website.

As Evan Osonos, former New Yorker China correspondent pointed out at some point business considerations must come into play: “the prospect of taking an expensive stand against a foreign state is unappealing, especially when it might mean giving up their dreams for future growth in China.”

Max Baucus, will be dealing with more than just  trade as new Ambassador to China

Max Baucus, will be dealing with more than just trade as new Ambassador to China

The Higgins visa incident and subsequent incidents might indicate more than just a scared China; it might also represent news agencies no longer powerful enough to fight on their own for the principle of freedom of the press.  As a result, even if the immediate crisis with the Times and Bloomberg journalists pass, there is still a pressing need for the U.S. government to remain vocal on this issue especially as it seeks to bring a new ambassador to China.

China Journalists Edward Wong & Paul Mooney to Testify before Congress

By , December 10, 2013

ceccIn response to the precarious situation of U.S. journalists in China where approximately 24 New York Times and Bloomberg reporters may not have their visas renewed, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China will host a roundtable discussion on the issue, tomorrow, December 11 at 3:30 PM.  The event will be held in Washington, D.C. at the Capitol Visitors Center, Room SVC 203-202 .

Panelists will include Paul Mooney, who was outright denied a journalist visa to work as Reuter’s Beijing correspondent, Edward Wong, current New York Times China correspondent, Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists and Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia at Freedom House.

Because of the demand for this roundtable, an RSVP is required.  Please RSVP, no later than 10 AM on December 11 to Judy Wright at judy.wright@mail.house.gov

The roundtable will also be broadcast live on the web at: http://www.cecc.gov/events/roundtables/chinas-treatment-of-foreign-journalists

Since Vice President Biden’s visit to Beijing where he met with U.S. journalists and publicly raised the issue of press censorship, there have not been any reports of any New York Times or Bloomberg correspondents receiving their visas.  To the contrary, in a series of Twitter posts, New York Times China correspondent  Ian Johnson stated that the first reporters will be forced to leave on December 17, presumably the expiration date of their current visa, with all to leave by December 31.

Yesterday, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) released its 2013 Year-End statement, noting yet another year of negative trends.  The FCCC found “…that the Chinese authorities are increasingly using the denial of visas, or delays in their approval, in an apparent effort to influence  journalists‘ coverage. No correspondents for the New York Times and Bloomberg have yet been able to renew their annual residence visas, which have been subject to unusual and unexplained delays this year.”

The FCCC also noted that potential censorship goes beyond China’s borders, giving credence to author Peter Manseau’s belief that in 2010 the Chinese embassy contacted senior editors at the Washington Post to kill his story on Falun Gong in DC.  Although Manseau’s incident was in 2010, the FCCC reported that in 2013, “…[o]n at least two occasions this year Chinese embassy staff in foreign capitals have approached the headquarters of foreign media and complained about their China-based correspondents’ coverage, demanding that their reports be removed from their websites and suggesting that they produce more positive China coverage.”  One wonders how many other occasions there have been.

If you are in DC tomorrow, this should be an interesting and important event.  Again, RSVP is necessary by 10 AM tomorrow to judy.wright@mail.house.gov.

For those interested in learning more about foreign journalists’ visa troubles, please see China Law & Policy‘s three-part series with Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Late to the Party? The U.S. Government’s Response to China’s Censorship

By , December 9, 2013

Part 3 of a three part series on American journalists’ difficulty in obtaining visas to China.  For Part 1, click here; Part 2, click here

Journalist Paul Mooney in San Francisco

Journalist Paul Mooney in San Francisco

When China denied veteran journalist Paul Mooney’s visa request this past November, neither the State Department, Administration officials nor anyone on Capitol Hill said anything publicly about a U.S. citizen appearing to be punished for his speech.

Similarly, when China failed to renew U.S. citizen and Al Jazeera English correspondent Melissa Chan’s visa, forcing her to leave China in May 2012, a State Department deputy spokesperson merely expressed the Department’s “disappointment” very briefly during a regular Q&A session with the press:  “I would just say that we’re disappointed in the Chinese Government – in how the Chinese Government decided not to renew her accreditation.  To our knowledge, she operated and reported in accordance with Chinese law, including regulations that permit foreign journalists to operate freely in China.”  Such has been the extent of the Administration’s public statements, until now.

It is certainly a positive development that Vice President Joe Biden, on his trip to Beijing last week, publicly rebuked the Chinese government for its treatment of U.S. journalists, tying Beijing’s actions to impacting “universal human rights.”  While the comments at last Thursday’s closed-door meeting with U.S. journalists were off-the-record, the fact that the meeting occurred was very much on-the-record, demonstrating that the Administration has finally realized the seriousness of the situation and the need to try a new tactic.

But one wonders if the Administration’s changed strategy – publicly addressing the issue – is too little too late.  According to reports, the Chinese

Vice President Joe Biden

Vice President Joe Biden

government is still toying with the visas of approximately 24 New York Times and Bloomberg correspondents; without renewal by December 31, the New York Times and Bloomberg’s China bureaus could potentially shut down, much in the way Al Jazeera English‘s Beijing office had to close, over a year and a half ago, when Melissa Chan’s visa was not renewed before its expiration.

Why the U.S. Government Must Act – Protecting an American Brand

A free and vibrant press has been a central tenet of the United States; it was crucial to the success of the American Revolution, is encapsulated within the First Amendment and rarely if ever abridged.

For Americans, standing up for freedom of the press is important  in and of itself, but becomes even more critical when journalists from one’s own nation are being restricted.  Congress or the Administration insisting that China allow access to foreign journalists is different from demanding access for other industries; it is not some mere effort to protect the domestic media establishment. Rather, speech is a core value of the American people, and condemning censorship is, as Hillary Clinton put it, part of our “national brand.”

This national brand goes beyond the U.S.’ own borders.  As recounted by Chinese journalist Liu Jianfeng in a special report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, it is often the foreign press’ coverage of domestic events that provides the green light necessary for the Chinese media to cover more sensitive issues.  Liu specifically points to the 2011 Wukan protests, where over a thousand villagers demonstrated for months because of the local government’s land seizures, to make his point.  It was only because the foreign press started covering the event that the Chinese media was permitted to do so.  Similarly, Melissa Chan filmed her report on China’s black jails in April 2009; in November 2009, a Chinese magazine ran a similar expose.  In February 2013, signaling official opprobrium, a Beijing court sentenced 10 men to prison for illegally operating a black jail.  Thus, the U.S.’ promotion of freedom of its press in China benefits the Chinese people, bringing some accountability and transparency to their one-Party state.

Not Just a Moral Principle But Also Good for Business

good_businessChina’s attempted censorship of the foreign press – through its abuse of the visa process – certainly infringes upon free speech.  But there is a more mercantile reason to guarantee that U.S. media companies are not censored: information and disclosure are key to efficient markets.  Accurate information protects investors and businesses as it creates transparency in the market, placing all sides of a transaction on equal footing.  This is especially true where an economy, like China’s, is particularly opaque.

One of the apparent red lines for foreign reporters is the finances of China’s leadership: the New York Times‘ David Barboza wrote an October 2012 series concerning former Premier Wen Jiabao’s protection of his family’s investment in Ping An Insurance and Bloomberg published its June 2012 “Revolution to Riches,” an expose on the children of China’s revolutionaries and the power and wealth they have been able to accumulate.  Both have also become Beijing’s main targets.

What Beijing currently seeks to censor – articles about the overlap of its economy, major businesses and the power elite – are the exact articles

Cheers! Former Premier Wen Jiabao

Cheers! Former Premier Wen Jiabao

necessary to inform potential market investors.  Unfortunately as the New York Times and Bloomberg reporters appear on the cusp of a compelled departure, there are few news agencies that can – or will even want to – fill their role of hard-hitting financial reporting on China, a time-intensive endeavor.

But even articles about legal development, political unrest, growing wealth inequalities, environmental degradation and crackdowns on dissent, issues that Mooney and Chan fervently covered, are also important.  Businesses who invest in China hire companies – like the Eurasia Group – to inform them about these developments.  It is vital to their investments to know if the village, town or county where their company or factory is located is a political powder keg.

But by continuing to harass, intimidate and effectively expel journalists who cross certain red lines, Beijing is sending a message to the remaining reporters.  “The decision to deny Paul Mooney a visa has brought home to our membership the lengths the Chinese authorities will go to persuade foreign reporters not to report on things they don’t like” Peter Ford, president of the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”) told China Law & Policy in a phone interview.  Foreign reporters who are left in China may not want to continue to take on these hard-hitting stories that could effectively terminate their livelihoods.  Their editors may not let them.  As a result, banks, investors and even the U.S. government will lose one of its most important resources for accurate and frank reporting on a country vital to America’s position in the world.

‘It’s Only Words’…Or is it Visa Retaliation?

Right now, approximately 24 foreign correspondents for the New York Times and Bloomberg are waiting for their visa to be renewed.  According to reports, many have not received their press cards, the annual cards issued every November by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) and necessary to apply for a visa renewal with the Public Security Bureau’s (PSB) Exit- Entry Administration.  Under China’s new Exit-Entry Administration Law, resident foreigners, such as foreign journalists, are required to apply for a visa renewal at least 30 days prior to the current visa’s expiration (see Article 32).  In China, all journalists’ visas have a December expiration which could be any day in the month, with the 31st as the last.  Since it is already December 8, those journalists who have not received their press cards, are currently in violation of Chinese law.  However, as Gary Chodorow, a Beijing-based immigration lawyer, points out, the law is silent as to any repercussions to applying late.  But that is of little comfort to those reporters unsure if they will have to leave China on or before New Year’s Eve.

visa denied“Things are never going to get better if we don’t do something reciprocal” Mooney complained to China Law & Policy last week in a phone interview and prior to Biden’s Beijing visit.  “Some sort of stronger tactic would be helpful”  Mooney said.

But is Biden’s public censure last week and meetings with journalists sufficient to stop a Chinese government that appears intent on essentially shutting down two major U.S. media outlets in China?  Even in light of Biden’s actions, the Chinese government appears to have dug in its heels with a MOFA spokesperson stating on Thursday that “[a]s for foreign correspondents’ living and working environments in China, I think as long as you hold an objective and impartial attitude, you will arrive at the right conclusion.”  “Objective” was the same key word used in Mooney’s visa interview before his visa application was denied.

This type of stubborn behavior is precisely why some have begun to consider reciprocal visa treatment as a way to deal with China’s attempted censorship of the foreign press.

The U.S.’ Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) provides journalist visas “upon the basis of reciprocity” (see INA Sec. 101(a)(15)(I)).  Reciprocity is a foundational principle of the international order, guaranteeing that the treatment of one country to another will be returned in kind.  Reciprocity – and the fear of negative reciprocity – is what induces international actors to act reasonably.

While visa reciprocity is usually in regards to fees and other procedural aspects, reciprocal treatment can be used to deny entry to a foreign national.  The INA also permits the State Department and its consular agents to deny a visa where entry of the individual would have “serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States….”  What is a “serious adverse foreign policy consequence” is left in the discretion of the State Department and its employees.  In fact, the decision to deny a visa falls under the “Doctrine of Consular Non-reviewability” and is rarely subject to judicial review (exception: Kleindienst v. Mandel, 408 U.S. 753 (1972)).

With the U.S. issuing 989 journalist visas to Chinese mainland reporters in 2012, many of which are issued to Chinese state-run media outlets,

Chinese state-run Xinhua News in the heart of NYC

Chinese state-run Xinhua News in the heart of NYC

some have looked to deny one or two key visas as a form of reciprocity.  At the very least, some have suggested slowing down the visa approval process much in the same way the Chinese government does to U.S. journalists in China.

While legal, it raises the question of is this who we want to be?  The reason why the U.S. government should more publicly reprimand Beijing for its treatment of foreign journalists is because of the U.S.’ commitment to freedom of the press.  For the U.S. to refuse a visa to a Chinese journalist would undermine that commitment.  While many of the Chinese reporters do work for the state-controlled media, they are still journalists and should be protected by freedom of the press.  These also are not the individuals responsible for the Chinese government’s actions.

The U.S. government, in calling on China to stop censoring its reporters through the visa process, has the moral high ground.  Because of the principle of freedom of the press, the U.S. government is seeking to guarantee that its media outlets – outlets that often run critical stories on these same politicians – are able to report freely from China.  Even if not reported in the Chinese press, this type behavior still resonates with the Chinese journalists both in the U.S. and in China.

Robert Mugabe, No Visa for You!

Robert Mugabe, No Visa for You!

 

If the U.S. government were to resort to visa reciprocity, it should not look to restrict or delay Chinese journalist visas.  Instead, visa denials or delays of employees of MOFA or the PSB, the entities that are responsible for U.S. journalists current mistreatment in China, is likely more appropriate.  Visa denial of responsible government officials would not be a first.  The U.S. currently has a visa ban on approximately 128 Zimbabwe government officials and their families.  These high officials have been deemed to be partially responsible – along with President Robert Mugabe – in undermining Zimbabwe’s nascent democratic practices.  As a result, the U.S. has targeted them with visa denials

 

‘But Words Are All Have’…Other Options Open to the U.S.

There are still less extreme courses of action that the U.S. government can take.  Biden’s public statement in Beijing and meeting with U.S. journalists were a start.  Public admonishment of China’s behavior must continue and be regular.  In speaking with China Law & Policy, Ford, president of the FCCC, an organization which does not support using visa retaliation, stated that “the FCCC does not think it would be inappropriate for foreign diplomats to take every opportunity to remind their Chinese counterparts that Chinese journalists face none of the obstacles that foreign reporters in China are faced with. ”

In the U.S., this reminder must come from both Congress and the Administration.  Although Mooney has reached out to members of Congress, including his representative, Nancy Pelosi, Capitol Hill and the White House have remained largely silent other than Biden’s recent remarks in Beijing.  China Law & Policy‘s calls and emails to Representative Pelosi’s office went unanswered.

Fortunately, to keep this issue front and center, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (“CECC”) will host a roundtable discussion

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, shaking hands with former Premier Wen Jiabao

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, shaking hands with former Premier Wen Jiabao

this Wednesday featuring Mooney, Bob Dietz, Asia Program Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, and Sarah Cook, Senior Research Analyst for East Asia with Freedom House.  How well attended that roundtable is will signal to Beijing just how far it can go in its abuse of the journalist visa process.  Biden’s gestures in Beijing were an important start but will senior Administration or State Department officials attend the roundtable?  Will it be more than just Congressional interns in attendance?  China knows how to read Capitol Hill tea leaves as well.

There is a chance that the New York Times and Bloomberg reporters will have their visas renewed and the China bureaus will not be shut down.  But while the immediate crisis might be avoided, as this series has demonstrated, Beijing will likely continue to find ways to censor foreign reporters through the visa renewal process or through direct pressure on the editors of key newspapers.  The fact that this has risen to crisis level means that the U.S. government did not act boldly soon enough to protect one of its core values, freedom of the press.

This is the third and final post in this series.  To re-read Part 1, click here; Part 2, click here.

Self-Censorship or Survival? If so, Bloomberg is Not Alone

By , December 4, 2013

Part 2 of a three part series on American journalists’ difficulty in obtaining visas to China.  For Part 1, click here.

While the New York Times might still be on a path to publish at all costs, other news organizations might not be so immune to the Chinese government’s attempts to muzzle more critical voices.

Bloomberg-News-logoLast month, Hong Kong-based Bloomberg New reporters leaked to the press allegations of self-censorship at the organization.  According to the staff’s accounts, editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler killed an explosive investigative piece that revealed the financial ties between one of China’s wealthiest men and the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, one of the “redlines” that often leads to visa troubles.  These Bloomberg reporters told the New York Times that Winkler’s concern was that if they published the story, his journalists might be kicked out of China altogether, leaving the organization unable to cover anything.  Bloomberg has denied the allegations and has stated that the story is still active.  It has yet to be published.

But if these allegations are true, Bloomberg would not be the first major U.S. news organization to participate in eyebrow-raising and possibly self-censoring behavior.  The Washington Post had a similar curious event, where the long arms of the Chinese censors potentially reached the Post‘s headquarters in Washington.

An Example of Self-Censorship in the U.S. Capitol?

In late 2009, Peter Manseau was studying for his doctorate in religion at Georgetown University.  Manseau was far from a China hand but through his religious studies became intrigued by Eastern religions, in particular the use of qigong in traditional Chinese religions.  Coincidentally, 2009 also marked the ten year anniversary of the Chinese government’s public crackdown on the spiritual movement of Falun Gong, a movement the Chinese government has long considered a cult and a threat to its rule; it does not like to even be reminded of the group’s existence.  But with the anniversary, Washington D.C. was awash in Falun Gong protests and demonstrations.

Seeing these demonstrations, which usually included qigong movements, Manseau pitched an article idea to the Washington Post for a piece

Author Peter Manseau

Author Peter Manseau

focusing not so much on Falun Gong in China but more on what it is in the United States, in particular the groups that amass on the streets of D.C.  The Post liked the idea and Manseau began writing.  Because the piece was about individuals who lived in the District, it was to be a featured piece in the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine.  Manseau was under the impression that the story, scheduled to run at 4500 words, might even be a cover piece.   ”They were entirely supportive,” he told China Law & Policy in a phone interview.

Although the article was to be D.C.-focused, there was no way to avoid the underlying political currents since his interviewees – two North American-born practitioners and one an exile from China – kept raising the issue of the Chinese government’s suppression of Falun Gong.  “I reported the story out and realized that the story couldn’t run without contacting some Chinese official to comment” Manseau said in his phone interview.

On April 30, 2010, Manseau called the Chinese Embassy and spoke with its press person, Wang Baodong.  “He told me that he didn’t want the story to run. It wasn’t threatening in any way, but he did say something along the lines of ‘We would strongly encourage you not to write such a story.’ He then mentioned a top editor at the Post, and asked if the Sunday magazine was in this editor’s portfolio.” Manseau added Wang’s comments to his article and then on May 3, 2010, filed a final draft with the magazine.  Manseau believed that the story would run at the end of that month.

But it didn’t.  Instead, on May 7, 2010, Manseau learned that there was trouble with his article and on May 10, 2010, the Washington Post, once supportive of the piece, killed it.  The article never ran in the Post (an updated version was later republished by Salon as “Falun Gong’s March”).  For Manseau what was interesting was that he wasn’t paid a “kill fee,” a percentage of the full fee, usually 10 to 30%, that is contractually obligated to be paid if the article is cancelled.  Instead, as he told China Law & Policy, he was paid in full.

Was there Chinese government pressure at play here?  Manseau believes so.  He told China Law & Policy that at the time he learned that Wang Baodong, the Chinese Embassy spokesperson, raised the issue of his Falun Gong piece directly with high-ups at the Post.

China Law & Policy‘s calls to the Washington Post to verify or deny these allegations were not returned.

What is curious about Manseau’s story is that its time frame, especially when the article was killed, coincides with the Washington Post‘s struggle to obtain its China correspondent, Andrew Higgins, a journalist visa.  Hired in 2009, Higgins was in Hong Kong, anxiously awaiting to start reporting from China.  But because of his prior work and expulsion from China in 1991, the Chinese government was not moving quickly on his application (although it did give him a temporary visa to cover President Obama’s China trip in November 2009).

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger

In fact, in March 2010, just a little less than two months before Manseau called the Chinese Embassy, the Washington Post enlisted the help of Henry Kissinger in its efforts to get Higgins a residential journalist visa.  In fact, the foreign editor at the time, Douglas Jehl, told the Washington City Paper that the Post was talking to the Chinese Embassy about Higgins visa and found that “[t]he embassy has been very responsive to our requests.”

In 2010, when Manseau was in the midst of writing his piece, Jehl was having conversations with the Chinese Embassy about Higgins’ visa.  Did the Embassy – as a quid pro quo – put pressure on the Post to pull the Falun Gong piece after Manseau showed his hand to Wang?  If it did put pressure on the Post, can the Post be blamed for pulling the article in the hopes that its reporter, desperate to enter China, would be allowed in?  More importantly, how many other editors at different news organizations have had to make similar pacts?

‘Pleased To Meet You, Hope You Guessed My Name:’ The World Media Summit

One such pact that seems to be becoming a regular affair is the “World Media Summit,” an event that the China Media Project aptly described as “the media event all major global media players attend but none bother to actually cover.”

Created in 2008, the year China was to hold its first Olympics, the World Media Summit is the brainchild of Li Congjun, president of the

Protesting the Beijing Olympics

Protesting the Beijing Olympics

state-run Xinhua News Agency and formerly deputy chief of China’s Central Propaganda Department.  With many using the Beijing Games as an opportunity to criticize China’s human rights record, 2008 was the year that the Chinese government was made painfully aware of its image problem in the Western press.

Enter Li Congjun.  According to the Summit’s English website, Li held conversations with many of the top movers and shakers of the Western media who were in town for the Games: Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, Tom Curley, President of the Associated Press, David Schlesinger, Editor-in-Chief of Reuters and Mark Thompson, Director of BBC.  These conversations allegedly resulted in everyone agreeing to “enhance cooperation in a win-win context” and the creation of the World Media Summit.

Since those first formative talks, there have been two World Media Summits, with the list of significant media outlets in attendance increasing.  This past October, the World Media Summit’s presiding members, which according to Chinese news reports include executives from News Corporation, the Associated Press, Reuters, ITAR-TASS News Agency, Kyodo News, BBC, Turner Broadcasting, Google, Al Jazeera, the New York Times Company, NBC News, MIH Group, and Kasturi & Sons Limited, held a meeting in Hangzhou, China to discuss the next summit and the possibility of creating an international prize for journalism.

China's World Media Summit

China’s World Media Summit

It not out of the ordinary for the Chinese government to create an alternative reality, a sort of cocoon world.  Largely its internet is sealed off from the rest of the world – while everyone else is on Twitter, the Chinese are on Weibo – and in response to some of the Nobel Peace Prize committee’s choices, in particular the selection of human rights activist and current prisoner Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government created the Confucius Peace Prize.  Vladimir Putin was the 2011 winner.

Thus, the idea of creating an international journalism prize without acknowledging the existence of already established journalist prizes is not necessarily bizarre for China.  But it is a bit curious that media outlets like the New York Times and the Associated Press, would be on board with such a prize.  And who would determine the criteria?  Unfortunately  the World Media Summit is not a transparent event, at least not in the Western press.  Agendas, agreements or any other outcomes are not made public.

But what was made public – at least by Xinhua News – is that the New York Times will host the 2014 World Media Summit followed by Al Jazeera in 2016.  Not surprisingly, other than Bloomberg, these two media companies have faced some of the harshest journalist visa treatment.  As recounted in Part 1, two New York Times reporters have been waiting for over a year for their journalist visas.  Al Jazeera’s situation is even worse.  In 2012, it had to completely shut down its China operations when the Chinese government conveniently failed to renew its sole reporter, Melissa Chan’s, journalist visa before it expired.  Chan, who had been covering sensitive subjects like China’s use of “black jails” to quash dissent, fled China in May 2012.

Is hosting the World Media Summit the quid pro quo for positive visa treatment?  Will the New York Times and Al Jazeera reporters now be

Melissa Chan, no longer reporting from China

Melissa Chan, no longer reporting from China

able to get into China?  If Manseau’s tale is correct, the answer is no.  His Falun Gong piece was killed but Andrew Higgins never got his journalist visa.  Similarly, Bloomberg’s recent actions – if true – have not put its journalists in a better position.  At Tuesday’s no-questions press conference between  U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, Bloomberg reporter and U.K. citizen Robert Hutton was blocked from attending.  The Chinese government has denied that this was intentional.

Why does this keep happening?  Why does each media company think that it will be the exception?  It is the lack of unity among the major media outlets in dealing with the Chinese government about their journalists’ visas that is a weakness.  Each thinks it can make its own compromise with Beijing.  And that is their second fallacy: seeking compromise.  Compromise is not usually what authoritarian regimes do.  Control and domination – like the Chinese government’s relationship with its domestic media – is the usual end game.  Even with a united front, this is likely not a battle that the Western media can win on its own.

For Part 3, which examines the U.S. government’s present response and what it can do to change this situation, is posted here.

Another American Reporter Banned From Beijing

By , December 3, 2013

Part 1 of a three part series on American journalists’ difficulty in obtaining visas to China

china media pressIn less than two years, China has effectively banned four journalists – either American citizens or those working for American media companies – from entering and reporting on the country.  Their crime?  None that the Chinese government cares to explain.  But most outside of China believe that it was these reporters’ – or their colleagues’ – critical coverage of China that proved to be their sin.

As China rises, its government has come to realize that it has a bit of a problem: its image.  While the Chinese government can effectively censor its domestic media from reporting on human rights violations, political unrest, corruption, or anything it deems sensitive, its control of the foreign media has long proven less successful.  Until more recently.  For the past few years, Beijing has increasingly used the journalist visa process to try to influence foreign reportage and to signal to foreign media outlets that they better tone down critical coverage.  Unfortunately, it appears that some U.S. news organizations are getting the message and towing the line.

To date, the U.S. government has remained silent about China’s assault on foreign journalists, even as U.S. citizens and news outlets are increasingly targeted.   Last month, when China denied Reuters‘ visa request for veteran China journalist Paul Mooney, the Administration again failed to issue any public statement.

The U.S. government’s silence is not without its costs.  As the world’s second largest economy and an increasingly bellicose nation, accurate reporting on the country is imperative to the United States.  If Beijing is permitted to continue to trifle with foreign journalists’ visas, frank reporting on China will become a relic of the past.  But it is the U.S. government that can prevent this outcome if it chooses to act and not wait for the situation to get worse.  Which it will if the past year is any guide.

Paul Mooney’s Experience Epitomizes Foreign Journalists’ Visa Anguish

Soft-spoken  and unassuming, Paul Mooney is not what you would expect from a former soldier who saw some of the worst fighting of the

Paul Mooney, now in San Francisco

Paul Mooney, now in San Francisco

Vietnam War.  But those familiar with his hard-hitting news reports on China, have little difficulty understanding why he’s been called the bane of Beijing.

Mooney, a freelance journalist in China for the past 18 years, moved back to the United States when his contract with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post expired.  With his in-depth knowledge of China, understanding of its people and politics, and fluency in Mandarin, Reuters quickly picked up Mooney as one of their China correspondents.  Mooney is the type of reporter you want on the ground in China if you want accurate and interesting reporting.  Reuters submitted Mooney’s journalist visa application in March 2013.

In a phone interview with China Law & Policy, Mooney said he figured the Chinese government would make him jump through some hoops to get the visa since some of his articles in the past few years covered more sensitive topics.  In fact, during his last two visa renewal cycles in Beijing – in 2010 and 2011 – the Public Security Bureau (“PSB” – the organization that renews the actual visa) had him meet with officers in an interrogation room in the back of the visa application hall.  In 2010 – in what Mooney interpreted as a power play – the PSB demanded that his wife attend the visa renewal interview with him.

If the 2010 and 2011 renewal processes were difficult, applying for a new journalist visa from abroad just added to Mooney’s struggle.  In April 2013, Mooney was summoned to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco for an interview.  But again what should have been a routine affair proved to be a 90 minute interrogation.  Familiar with his articles and prior visa interviews, the consular officer grilled Mooney on some of his more critical articles such as the suppression of Chinese rights activists and the Chinese government’s treatment of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.  According to Mooney, the official ended the interview telling him that if China let him back in he hoped that his reporting would prove more “objective.”  “It is outrageous and unacceptable that they can call you in and tell you how to report” Mooney told China Law & Policy.  “Imagine a U.S. official calling in a German reporter and telling him what to write about?”

According to Mooney, another Reuters China correspondent who applied for a new visa around the same time Mooney did and whose focus was solely economic, received her journalist visa approval in May.  But for Mooney, the wait continued for another seven months. Then on November 8, 2013, Reuters informed Mooney that China had denied his visa application.  According to Mooney, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MOFA”) did not explain its decision providing only a cryptic written statement to other journalists covering his visa denial that its determination was made in accordance with Chinese law and regulations.  “If they want to reject you, they should give a reason” Mooney said.  “This is not the behavior of a country that wants to be a superpower or a respected power.  It’s childish.”

Mooney believes the Chinese government’s real reason to deny him a visa was to censor his China reporting and potentially chill other foreign correspondents’ China coverage.  Calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington went unanswered.

Harassment of Resident Foreign Journalists in the Visa Renewal Process

visa0309What Mooney labels “childish” behavior – the use of the visa process to ostensibly chill the foreign press – appears to have become a strategy that the Chinese government is more quick to employ.  Which it can do on an annual basis.  For resident journalists in China, the journalist visa (“J-1 visa”) is only good for a year, expiring every December.  Beginning in November, every resident foreign journalist begins the renewal process, first re-applying with MOFA for a press card and then, once obtaining the press card, renewing her J-1 visa with the PSB.  But what should be a routine event has turned into an anxiety-ridden affair.

In the past three years, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (“FCCC”) has documented an increasing number of incidents where the Chinese government threatens not to renew a visa or unnecessarily delays the visa renewal process.

In its November 2012 survey,[1] the FCCC found that since the end of 2011, at least 29 resident foreign correspondents were threatened with a visa non-renewal.  The respondents’ quotes (119 FCCC members responded to the survey) show that some of these threats were linked to specific reporting or journalists’ “attitude.”

Currently, all of China’s resident foreign correspondents are undergoing the visa renewal process.  In a phone interview with China Law & Policy, Peter Ford, president of the FCCC, said that it was just too early to draw any conclusions from the 2013 process as it is ongoing but he did note that “reporters for media which have displeased the authorities appear to be facing unexpected delays.”

Who displeases the authorities is anyone’s guess although some topics are touchier than others on the Chinese government’s revolving list of sensitive subjects.  But as Ford told China Law & Policy, “it would seem that the red line the government has drawn in the last 18 months concerns finances of senior government officials.”  In line with that assessment is the fact that for the two foreign media outlets that covered that issue – Bloomberg and the New York Times – both have had their websites blocked in China since publishing their reports.  In January 2013, the New York Times reported that Chinese hackers – hackers possibly related to the Chinese military – had attacked its website for many months. Those attacks began on the eve of the Times‘ publication of the first of David Barboza’s Pultizer Prize-winning series on Premier Wen Jiabao’s role in preventing the legally-mandated break-up of one of his family’s lucrative holdings – Ping An Insurance.

Additionally, according to Ford, China’s changed visa regulations, which applies to all foreigners residing in China, makes renewal of the J-1 visa chine mediaprocedurally more difficult.  With the new regulations that went into effect in July 2013, the PSB (which is the entity that issues the visa; MOFA issues the press card which is necessary to obtain to apply for the visa) is now permitted to take 15 business days – basically three weeks – to issue the renewal. During that time period, the PSB holds on to the reporter’s passport, making international travel impossible.  Prior to those changes, the PSB only had 5 business days for the renewal process.  How these procedural changes will affect the J-1 visa renewal process is yet to be seen, but at the very least, it makes an already trying process more difficult.

Foreign Media Outlets Can’t Get Their Reporters In

For foreign journalists living in China, the visa renewal process is certainly distressing.  But for those journalists trying to get into China, the visa process can become a wall.  Included in the FCCC’s November 2012 report, 20 foreign reporters stated that they had to wait four months or more for their J-1 visas to be processed.  According to Ford, the FCCC considers waiting more than three months for a J-1 excessive.  For a temporary correspondent who receives a J-2 Visa, the FCCC believes it should only be a 30 day wait.

Presently, two individuals waiting an excessive period of time for a journalist visa are New York Times’ reporters Philip Pan and Chris Buckley.  Pan, who is ostensibly the New York Times‘ Beijing Bureau chief, has been in a Chinese government-imposed visa-limbo since March 2012.  His colleague Buckley, reporting on China from Hong Kong, has been waiting for his J-1 visa since at least December 2012.

nytBut the New York Times is not alone.  Andrew Higgins, the Washington Post‘s China correspondent waited in Hong Kong for over three years for his J-1 visa.  His crime?  Likely his 1991 expulsion from China for possession of confidential documents concerning the alleged suppression of a Mongolian nationalist movement.  Unable to obtain his J-1 visa, in September 2012, Higgins announced his resignation from the Washington Post.  He now reports for the New York Times from Brussels.

If Higgins’ experience and Mooney’s outright visa denial are any guide, the future does not look bright for Pan and Buckley.  Especially in light of the fact that the New York Times has more recently published another likely sensitive series -  J.P. Morgan Chase’s hiring of the Chinese leadership’s children, including the daughter of former Premier Wen Jiabao.  Luckily the New York Times hasn’t gotten the hint that its coverage isn’t particularly popular with the Chinese regime.

For Part 2, which examines various U.S. media outlet’s possible self-censorship, please click here.


[1] The FCCC’s “2012 FCCC Visa Survey Report” is on file with China Law & Policy.  To obtain a copy, please email fcccadmin@gmail.com.

Truth, Lies or Justice: Defamation in the Chen Yongzhou Affair

By , November 14, 2013
The crime of defamation

The crime of defamation

The detention of journalist Chen Yongzhou, his employer New Express’s front page editorial pleading that he be set free, and Chen’s subsequent televised confession to accepting bribes and writing false articles against Changsha’s Zoomlion, all the while in Changsha police custody, is, even for China, unusual.  But the question is – was it all legal?

Last week, China Law & Policy examined whether Changsha police followed proper procedures in detaining Chen, especially since they went to Guangzhou to find him.  Today, we look to the underlying charges – mainly the claim that Chen defamed Zoomlion and thus is subject to arrest.  Is defamation a crime?

Watch What You Say…..Criminal Defamation is Legal in China

Like it or not, China’s criminal law covers defamation.  Article 246 makes it criminal to “publicly humiliate another person or invent stories to defame,” providing a potential prison term of not more than three years.  But as Mei Ning Yan stated in Criminal Defamation in the New Media Environment – the Case of the People’s Republic of China, Article 246 covers defamations of actual persons, not corporations.

That is why immediately following Chen’s apprehension, state-run news outlets like Xinhua stated that Changsha police had detained Chen on suspicion of “damaging business reputation,” a defamation-like charge found in Article 221 of the Criminal Law which subjects the defendant to up to two years in prison.

According to Chinese news reports, on September 9, 2013, after over a year of alleged defamatory articles published by New Express, representatives of Zoomlion complained to the Changsha police about the articles.  The Changsha police investigated the charges and on October 18, 2013, went to Guangzhou to apprehend Chen (see Stealing Suspects to understand the law surrounding cross-province detention).  On October 30, 2013, Chen was formally arrested on charges of damaging Zoomlion’s reputation.  The allegations and the charges are all legal under Chinese law

People in Glass Houses…..the U.S.’ Use of Criminal Defamation

The rise of commercial media in China

The rise of commercial media in China

While many Americans are surprised to learn that defamation can carry prison time in China, China is not alone in criminalizing defamation.  As of 2006, seventeen states in the U.S. still maintain active criminal defamation or criminal libel statutes.  While in most states the charge is a mere misdemeanor, one state – Massachusetts – provides for a prison sentence of up to one year.  In 1966, in Ashton v. Kentucky, the United States Supreme Court examined Kentucky’s criminal defamation statute and although held it unconstitutional, it was only on the grounds that the use of “disturbing  the peace” to define the crime was too vague to pass muster.   The crime itself was not a problem; just the way it was defined, or more aptly not defined.  The seventeen states that retain a criminal defamation or libel statute have much more clearly defined laws that could potentially pass the Ashton test.

Since the 1966 Ashton case, criminal defamation has rarely been prosecuted.  But more recently, there has been a bit of a revival in the United States, at least in examining these statutes intellectually in light of the internet age.  Criminal libel and defamation statutes are seen as a possible to deterrent what has become a more common problem in the United States: cyberbullying.  In “Kiddie Crime: The Utility of Criminal Law in Controlling Cyberbullying,” Megan Rehberg and Susan W. Brenner note the recent rise in the call to use current criminal law, including criminal defamation statues, to criminalize cyberbullying.

While Legal, the Use of Criminal Defamation is an Odd Choice in this Case

Criminal defamation is a rarely used tool in the United States because individuals and corporations have an alternate option: civil defamation claims.  Bringing the case civilly entitles the victim to compensation.  For most, especially for businesses, monetary compensation is a lot more rewarding than having the perpetrator sit in a jail cell.

Although an October 29, 2013 op-ed by Ku Ma in the English-language version of  the China Daily asserted that there is no ability to bring a civil defamation claim, that is just not true (and might explain why that op-ed has been pulled from the China Daily website although still available here).  Since the 1987 adoption of the General Principles of the Civil Law (“General Principles”), where reputation has been harmed, civil defamation claims are permissible under Article 120 for both citizens and “legal persons” (businesses).

Chinese policeUnder the General Principles, the victim can sue the perpetrator for the following remedies: (1) to stop the defamation; (2) to restore his reputation; (3) for an apology; and (4) for compensation, both economic and emotional.  These remedies are not available under the Chinese criminal law.

And the victim can bring the civil defamation claim in his home jurisdiction.  According to the Supreme People’s Court’s  1998 Interpretation of the General Principles, the “consequences of the crime” in defamation cases can be the plaintiff’s hometown.  So for a company like Zoomlion – where the provincial government as its controlling shareholder and it is an important economic force in Changsha – bringing a civil defamation charge in Changsha would likely have a close to 100% success rate.  According to a 2006 study by Prof. Benjamin Liebman examining defamation cases in China, cases brought in the plaintiff’s home jurisdiction have an 82% success rate.  That rate increases to 88% where the plaintiff is also a Party-State actor.

So if you are Zoomlion, why bring the criminal action?  Why not go for the civil claims and at least get paid?  Prison time for Chen doesn’t necessarily make you whole.  And Zoomlion gets the apology either way.

Only Zoomlion knows why it choose to go the criminal route and not the civil one.  But in trying to find some rational reason, one can’t help but wonder that maybe Zoomlion wanted to avoid a civil trial.  A confession from Chen, held incommunicado in Changsha, would mean that a court would only have a short criminal trial with little testing of the evidence (in China, “plea bargaining” doesn’t avoid a criminal trial, it just shortens it.  See here for a detailed explanation).   With Chen’s confession, Zoomlion would not have to worry about “truth” as a defense to defamation.

But with a civil defamation trial, New Express would likely play an active role and even though Zoomlion would likely win, New Express might want to bring them down with them, exposing even more evidence of Zoomlion’s corruption.

Another alternative theory is that the Party-State wants to send a signal to an increasingly aggressive media:  the government is still in charge; that under China’s new president, Xi Jinping, the commercial media will be reigned-in.  The years 2008 to 2012 witnessed the central government’s clamp down on a once increasingly vibrant public interest lawyer bar.  While still active, that bar is under constant assault.  Does 2013 begin the start of a similar and severe clamp down on the commercial media?

But these theories are speculation.  Perhaps Chen is guilty of accepting bribes from Zoomlion’s competitor and wrote false articles.  The only one thing we know for sure is that Chen’s televised confession and his “trial by television” (as Peter Ford has coined the term) does a disservice to a rule of law.  Instead, like the Gu Kailai trial and subsequent Bo Xilai one, the Chinese government has merely continued to demonstrate that for legal cases that would test the system and challenge vested powers, its merely sham justice.  Who the Chinese government thinks it is fooling is unclear.

Stealing Suspects? The Interesting Case of of Chen Yongzhou

By , November 7, 2013
New Express Headline asking for the release of their reporter, Chen Yongzhou

New Express Headline asking for the release of their reporter, Chen Yongzhou

Last month’s drama surrounding the detention of journalist Chen Yongzhou’s (pronounced Chen Young-joe) by Changsha police, and his employer’s  front page plea for Chen to be freed (“Please Release Him“), sent shock waves through the China-watching world.  Was a local, albeit scrappy newspaper really taking on another city’s public security forces?  Was it really publicly shaming them and essentially implying that the Changsha police were on the take?

But for many Americans watching these events unfold, the most puzzling aspects of the situation was not so much the David-and-Goliath narrative of the New Express newspaper confronting the Changsha public security bureau.  Rather, most Americans were probably confused about two things:  (1) police in one province can just go to another province and willy-nilly take someone away? and (2) defamation is a crime in China?  This post will focus on the former.

Cross-Border Journalism Leads to Cross-Border Detention in China?

Chen and his colleagues at New Express are part of a new breed of journalist in China – muckrackers looking to hold powerful interests responsible and seeking to expose the truth that is often kept hidden by the government.  For the past 18 months, Chen’s focus had been on Zoomlion,  a construction equipment maker located in Changsha, Hunan province.  Zoomlion is no ordinary construction equipment company; it is the country’s second largest construction company and in a country where construction is non-stop, that means wealth and power has accrued to the company.

Although Chen and New Express are located in Guangzhou – a city over 400 miles from Changsha and located in an entirely different province –

A Zoomlion product

A Zoomlion product

it is not peculiar that it chose to write and publish articles about Zoomlion.  In China, where the local governments and local businesses are often in a symbiotic relationship and where the local Party is the law, it is commonplace that the local newspaper does not write about the corruption in its midst.  Instead, it is an outsider newspaper – one as far away as Guangzhou – that will pick up the story.

Chen’s articles on Zoomlion fit this pattern.  According to Bloomberg, Zoomlion’s controlling shareholders are Hunan State-Owned Assets (holding 19.97% of all A shares traded on the Shenzen exchange) and the Hunan government (owner of 16.2% of all outstanding shares of the company).

By May 2013, Chen was writing hard-hitting articles uncovering facts about the company that suggested it falsified its sales figures and was committing fraud on the market; a serious allegation for a company that trades on both the Shenzhen and Hong Kong exchanges.  After his May 27, 2013 article, Zoomlion’s shares took a 5.4% hit on the Hong Kong stock market.  While it denied Chen’s allegations, Zoomlion could not have been happy.  But what is a Changsha company to do when the reporter and his newspaper are located in Guangzhou?

As far as the world knew, Zoomlion did nothing.  But then on October 23, 2013, New Express  stunned the world with its front page editorial acknowledging that the Changsha police had come to Guangzhou, detained Chen, and brought him back to Changsha where he remained in detention.  The allegations: that Chen’s articles were false and defamed Zoomlion.

But do the police in one city have the power to swoop into a city in a different province and take away a suspect back to their home city?  To Americans, this seems illegal.  In the United States, because each state is sovereign within its territory, New York City police cannot just go to Boston and arrest the suspect they think did the crime.  Rather, the New York City police must go through the legal proceeding of extradition:  the New York City police must present the indictment to the Governor of Massachusetts who then has little choice but to consent to the arrest and orders Massachusetts or Boston police to arrest the suspect and eventually hand him over to New York City police to bring back to New York City.

handcuffsIn China, things are not that different.  Like in the U.S., there is a recognition that at times, a criminal suspect might be living outside the confines of a local police bureau.  The new Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”)and its interpreting  and implementing regulations – in particular the Ministry of Public Security’s “Procedural Regulations on the Handling of Criminal Cases by Public Security Organs (revised 2012)” (“MPS Regulations” or “Regulations”) – do contemplates this fact.  Article 24 of the CPL makes it clear that by default jurisdiction of a criminal case is based on where the crime was committed.  The MPS Regulations re-affirms this.  Article 15 of the MPS regulations gives jurisdiction of a case to the public security bureau at the “site of the crime”, a term it defines as including  not just the site of the actual criminal acts, but also any location where the consequences of the crime occurred. For a newspaper or online article, the consequences of the crime might be felt in a great number of locations, and the first public security bureau to file the case will exercise jurisdiction.  The public security bureau at the place of the suspect’s residence can have jurisdiction when more appropriate, even if it isn’t a site of the crime.

As Jeremy Daum, research fellow at the Yale Law School’s China Law Center and founder of China Law Translate, pointed out recently, the Criminal Procedure Law and MPS Regulations clearly address activities by police  outside of their geographic area – what Americans would likely compare to extradition.

An entire Chapter of the Regulations – entitled Cooperation in Case-Handling (Chapter 11, encompassing Articles 335-344) – specifically deals with these situations.  As Daum noted, in terms of detaining a suspect, “Articles 339 and 340 [of the MPS Regulations] describe situations where police either take custody of someone in another jurisdiction or request that local police act on their behalf. Generally, the outside force has an obligation to contact the locals and to have the necessary authorizing paper work with them, and the locals have an obligation to facilitate.”

At this point, this pattern is not that different from what occurs in the United States when one state seeks to extradite a criminal suspect.

Seal for China's Ministry of Public Security

Seal for China’s Ministry of Public Security

Although there a few, technical grounds upon which a U.S. governor of one state can deny another state’s extradition request, in general, extradition is mandated by the  U.S. Constitution if the other state presents the indictment.  The requesting state can go to federal court and compel the governor to extradite the suspect if she refuses on illegitimate grounds.

But where China differs from the U.S. in its proceedings is that the requesting police physically go to the local police’s territory to take the suspect back to their city.  In accordance with Article 340, after the local police apprehend the suspect, the outside police must immediately pick up the suspect and bring him back to its territory.  In fact, Article 122 requires that the outside police do so within 24 hours.

Was Chen Yongzhou Properly Detained?

It does appear that Chen was in fact properly detained in accordance with the MPS Regulations.  Whether the Changsha public security bureau’s underlying claims against Chen are just is less apparent, but in terms of the procedure for cross-provincial transfers of a suspect, the Changsha public security officials likely complied with the Regulations.

Here, the Changsha police likely have a valid argument that the crime occurred in its jurisdiction or its consequences were the most strongly felt in its jurisdiction, giving it the right to assert its jurisdiction.  Zoomlion, the entity that was allegedly injured by Chen’s articles, is located in Changsha.

According to a Freedom House bulletin, on October 18, 2013, after being summoned, Chen went to the Guangzhou police station.  Once there, according to an article from the China Times News Group, Changsha police confronted Chen with a document listing his crimes and then placed him into its custody for transfer to Changsha.

Chen in the custody of Changsha police

Chen in the custody of Changsha police

It appears that the Changsha police complied with the MPS regulations concerning “Cooperation in Case Handling:” (1) Chen was summoned to the local police station by the Guangzhou police, (2) while in the Guaungzhou police station, the Changsha police presented him with a document listing his crime (perhaps the required authorizing paperwork), and (3) Chen was immediately transferred to the Changsha police and brought to a Changsha detention center within 24 hours.

Although the underlying criminal charges reek of corruption and a Changsha police department possibly at the beck and call of Zoomlion, it is still important to recognize that the Changsha police likely followed the law in obtaining custody of Chen.  To ignore this fact does a disservice in criticizing other aspects of this bizarre case.

One such bizarre aspect is Zoomlion turning to the criminal law for a charge of defamation.  Is this legal?  Find out in part 2 of this article posted here.

Book Review: Ian Buruma’s Bad Elements – Chinese Rebels From LA to Beijing

By , October 17, 2013

You can’t really be a dissident in an authoritarian regime without being a difficult character. These are individuals who for some reason – call it bravery, call it madness, call it no other choice – feel the need to speak out knowing, either consciously or not, that their cause is likely futile and the full force of the authoritarian regime will come down on them like a ton of bricks.  As a result, their life often becomes their cause.  What happens to these characters when things get so bad that they are forced to flee their country?  What happens to their causes?

These questions rose again this past June when Chen Guangcheng, the blind dissident who escaped his illegal house detention in 2012 and made it to the U.S., caused a stir in the media about his departure from NYU.   But answering these questions – or at least attempting to – isn’t untraveled ground as one China scholar pointed out in the wake of Chen’s NYU exodus.  Back in 2001, Ian Buruma, a Dutch China-hand and journalist, published Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing and this past summer seemed an appropriate time to pick up the book and read it.

Buruma’s Bad Elements begins by looking at the Chinese dissidents – starting with China’s 1978 Democracy Wall Movement through the 1989

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Chai Ling during the Tiananmen Protests

Tiananmen student activists – living a new life in the United States.  His survey from Wei Jingsheng to Wang Dan and Chai Ling shows a group of people out of sorts in their adopted land.  Without access to China, most have given up their cause.  Chai Ling, the famous female student leader of the Tiananmen protests is now a successful businesswoman with a Harvard Business School MBA.  Same is true of her former Tiananmen colleague Li Lu.  He now runs an investment company in New York.  Many of the other student leaders just seem lost and lonely.

The pre-Tiananmen/post-Cultural Revolution Chinese exiled in America do not fare any better.  Separated from their cause, most have failed to figure out how to remain relevant to the mission back home.  Fang Lizhi‘s wife, Li Shuxian, probably expressed the exiled dissident’s predicament best when she told Buruma “[n]ow I am finally free to talk, but there is no one for me to talk to.”  Even amongst the exiled dissident community itself, there is little conversation for as Buruma recounts, the splits within the community are cavernous with some dissidents refusing to be in the same room as others.  One would think the bonds within the community would be stronger, but as Buruma insightfully details, the personality traits that allows one to become a dissident are not those that allow them to create strong bonds with others.  But even in honestly observing the exiled dissidents, Buruma never loses respect for them, reminding the reader that these people had the courage to speak up and that their suffering is likely incomprehensible to anyone else.  These individuals carry the battle scars of seeking democracy in a dictatorship and Buruma is always cognizant of this fact.

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as "Disneyland with capital punishment"

Modern day Singapore; what Buruma refers to as “Disneyland with capital punishment”

But Bad Elements most fascinating aspect is Buruma’s attempt to breakdown “the Chinese Myth,” a key tenant of which is that the Chinese are just not made for or currently prepared for democracy; some form of an authoritarian rule is necessary.

Buruma begins this journey to deconstruct this myth in Singapore, a Chinese-based society where the post-colonial government took and maintained power in the most vicious of ways.  For those who have never been to Singapore or know little of the details of its history, this chapter is a must read.  Singapore is a scary society that holds tight to the belief that this type of rule is necessary in a “Confucian” and “Asian-valued” society.  But even with such pressure to conform and unfathomable methods of torture, there are still those in Singapore who choose to dissent.  Their very existence in Singapore demonstrates that the idea that democracy is too alien a notion for the Chinese is nonsense.

The experiences of Taiwan and Hong Kong further demonstrates that the Chinese can have democracy, with Taiwan offering the best hope that democracy can succeed in a Chinese society.  While Taiwanese democracy is often punctuated with physical assaults within parliament, as Buruma shows, after a period of abusive rule, it has become a rather thriving and real democracy.  Hong Kong is similar except that its reversion back to the Mainland and the change in leadership to more Mainland, business-focused executives threatens that democracy.  In fact, in Hong Kong, the Chinese myth is beginning to reassert itself, with some prominent leaders stating that perhaps the Chinese people cannot handle full democracy.

Buruma ends his journey of destroying the Chinese myth by visiting the Mainland where shockingly, the belief in the need for a strong

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

Beijing cab driver looking for democracy

government is not just prevalent amongst China’s intellectuals (who usually are the dissidents), but is a strongly held.  It is Buruma’s cab driver who most cogently expresses the desire for democracy, demonstrating that while the intellectual class believes China’s masses are not ready for democracy, those masses sure think they are.

Although Bad Elements is 12 years old, it is certainly not dated and raises issues that are still pertinent.  Twelve years later, the Chinese Myth is still very much alive and not just among the Chinese; at times Western businesses prefer to turn a blind eye to the Chinese government’s choice of leadership and instead are easily lulled by the belief of the Chinese Myth.

Buruma believes that democracy is inevitable in China and that it must be brought more quickly than the current (as of 2001) intellectuals appear to want.  Even as early as 2001, the Mainland intellectuals, perhaps reminded of what happened in Tiananmen Square, sought to more gradually change China.

But one wonders, who is Buruma – or any non-Chinese – to say that this approach is wrong?  Only the Chinese themselves can find their path.

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

Xu Zhiyong, a more gradual reformer finds himself in and out of jail

This theory of gradual reform within the system has only gotten stronger in the past twelve years, with current activists like Xu Zhiyong seeking to work within the system.

Unfortunately, the past four years have shown that perhaps Buruma was right to feel frustrated – the Chinese government has also crackdown

harshly on this set of reform-minded activists.  Buruma’s suggestion twelve years ago – that the “social stability” which the Chinese government and the intellectuals desire – can never be achieved where a people is ruled by an authoritarian regime – rings more true today than ever before.

Another prescient aspect of Bad Elements is Buruma’s observation that many of the dissidents, those in the US, Singapore, Tawain, Hong Kong and even China, are Christians.  This is an occurrence that has only increased over time.  Most of today’s Mainland activist profess the Christian faith.  Buruma speculates that Christianity is prevalent among Chinese dissidents as it replaces one religion – Maoism and the Party – with another.  It’s unclear if that is the reason or if the reason is more because many of the dissidents see Christian values (at least the ones that make it to China) are akin to the rights and democracy which they seek.

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group "All Girls Allowed"

Chai Ling today (to the left), working with her group “All Girls Allowed”

But there are aspects of Bad Elements that do show their age, mostly about the exile community.  Although slightly dismissive of Chai Ling in Bad Elements, she has re-engaged with China.  In 2010, Chai founded “All Girls Allowed,” a Christian-influenced non-profit that seeks to eliminate the injustices associated with the one-child policy in China.  Similarly, Xiao Qiang who is give short shrift in the book, has become an important force in communicating the stories of dissent from the Mainland through his website China Digital Times.  Xiao remains extremely relevant to China’s reform movement.  And that’s the aspect of the book that Buruma could not have fathomed at the time – the rise of the internet.  The internet certainly shapes the role of today’s exile differently than those of years past and perhaps allows the dissident community to continue their connections with activists on the Mainland.

Rating: ★★★½☆ — as a result of certain aspects of the book being outdated (which is too be expected from a 12 year old book about contemporary China)

Bad Elements: Chinese Rebels from Los Angeles to Beijing, by Ian Buruma (Vintage Books 2001), 341 pages.

Just For Fun – Movie Review: Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin

By , October 13, 2013

a_touch_of_sin_posterA Touch of Sin  (天注定), mainland director Jia Zhangke’s new movie, is certainly not a tourist flick.  While Jia’s cinematography in the movie lends itself to beautiful sweeping vistas of various parts of China, including the gorgeous Three Gorges area, the focus of the film is on the underbelly of China.  An underbelly that is increasingly prevalent across the country and as Jia vividly, artistically and intensely demonstrates, increasingly violent.  To understand present-day China and the pressures, challenges and threats it faces, that underbelly must be seen.

The four narratives that tell the story of A Touch of Sin are not mere embodiments of Jia’s mind. Rather they are ripped from the headlines or more aptly, from weibo, the Twitter-like microblog where news events are often first reported by average citizens, quickly spread throughout the country, and then suppressed by the central government.  Two of the narratives – the murder of an attempted rapist by his sauna worker victim and the suicide of a young factory worker in Dongguan – will be well known to many China watchers as the Deng Yujiao Incident from 2009 and the 2010 Li Hai suicide at Apple’s Foxconn factory in respectively.

The other two stories – that of Dahai (played by the teddy bear-looking Jiang Wu), a villager in a Shanxi coal mining town angry at the corruption that has allowed the selling of the state-owned mine to benefit a select few, and the story of Zhou San (well played by Wang Banqiang), a hitman returning to his less than grateful family in Chongqing for Chinese New Year – are perhaps less well known outside of China.  But, in the case of Dahai, the comparison between the shockingly savage beating which he experiences and that of real-life Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s assault can’t help but be made: both receive a beating by officials (or quasi-officials) in response to their attempts to seek transparency and accountability of “the people’s government” and both have eerily similar head wounds.

In an interview at Asia Society (a must watch before seeing this movie), Jia described his movie and the characters in it as on a quest for dignity -

Dahai seeks his revenge

Dahai seeks his revenge

dignity in a society that is increasingly unequal, dignity in a place that appears to have left so many behind, and dignity in a country where without the rule of law to objectively handle society’s strains, violence is the only answer.

But while Jia’s story certainly focuses on reclaiming that dignity, it is unclear if that is what motivates the individual characters.  For Dahai, does his murderous rage come from a true feeling of societal injustice or from a lack of opportunity to share in the wealth?  It is unclear that if Dahai was put in the same position as the corrupt local officials or his schoolmate, that he wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity.  Is Dahai a “hero” because he had nothing left to be?

The same questions emerge with Zhou San, the hitman.  Does he really choose this lifestyle because it is the only path he can take?  Or is he a lonely, degenerate unable to maintain healthy relationships even with his own son?  The innocently young Foxconn worker (played by Luo Lanshan) leaves you wondering what motivates his suicide – is it the pressures of the factory life or unrealistic expectations about what life is and what to expect?  Only the sauna worker, Xiao Yu (aptly played by Jia’s beautiful wife Zhao Tao), seems to regain her dignity in the traditional sense.  After receiving a beating from her boyfriend’s wife and her henchmen, Xiao Yu doesn’t take a second beating sitting down.  Instead, she kills the man trying to rape her with a fruit knife.  The movie closes with a return to Xiao Yu’s story, where she has had to flee her village and find a new life.  But even with her apparent restoration of dignity, her life still seems like a hopeless, lonely mess.

Xiao Yu in her murderous rage

Xiao Yu in her murderous rage

This lack of clarity concerning motivation is what makes A Touch of Sin a fascinating movie and ultimately leads the viewer to realize that the individual stories are less important for Jia than the overarching story of that harsh reality known as present-day China.

That is perhaps what will leave the Western viewer perplexed the most – is this really today’s China?  My movie companion and China-hand (who likes to refer to herself as “your good friend Cynthia Nixon”) questioned if Jia’s movie is in fact present day China and if A Touch of Sin is an accurate portrayal.  Definitely there is a lot of violence in contemporary China; but there always was.  It’s not like 1949 to 1976 was some walk in the park: first the killing of landlords, then the Great Leap Forward, then the Anti Rightist Campaign, and the finally the Cultural Revolution.

But Jia is not attempting to give us a complete perspective of modern day China; nor should he or his art be burdened to do so.  Instead, Jia is attempting to show us the future – that if the Chinese government doesn’t curb the rampant corruption that has corroded China, if it doesn’t deal with huge inequities in both wealth and power, if it doesn’t find a legitimate outlet for society’s inevitable anger (like an independent and functioning legal system), then the violence that permeates his movie will soon be more than just a story from weibo.  It will be destined to be a commonplace occurrence.

This premise might be the reason why Jia’s A Touch of Sin might not make it past the Chinese government censors.  According to Jia, the censors have okay’ed his film and rumor has it that it will begin to be shown in China in November.  There are reasons why the censors might be okay with A Touch of Sin.  Philana Woo over at Jing Daily does a great job of explaining why the film “bows” to censorship, namely by avoiding the obvious – an outright attack of the central government.  Dahai’s issues are local, the central government is never implicated in the decision to sell the mine to an insider who retained all the profits.   Even the story of Xiao Yu was toned down.  Deng Yujiao, the real-life sauna worker Xiao Yu’s character is based on, was attacked not by local businessmen (as Xiao Yu was in the movie), but rather by government officials.

But with its emphasis on China’s increasing violence, A Touch of Sin questions one of the central tenants of the Chinese Communist Party’s

Xiao Hui, an ardent Buddhist.

Xiao Hui, an ardent Buddhist.

(CCP) rule: that the Party’s specific type of leadership is necessary to promote “social stability.”  But with the Party’s inability to deal with the rampant corruption and the increasing inequities in Chinese societies that leave individuals with no other choice but to resort to violence, the myth that is the Party’s promise of social stability becomes apparent.  Jia is looking for an alternative.  Religion, including Catholicism and Buddhism, deftly punctuates key scenes.  Traditional Chinese culture including opera plays and old novels keep returning in each scene.  And Jia has repeatedly mentioned that without a fair legal system, people are left with vigilante justice.

It is this conclusion – that the Party’s version of social stability is a mirage and that there needs to be an alternative be it religious, cultural or legal – that ultimately makes A Touch of Sin subversive and could railroad its showing in China.  For our readers outside of China, make sure you see this one as it is a thought provoking, beautifully shot film.  For our readers in China, get the bootleg copy from your local VCD store.

Rating: ★★★★½

************************************************************************************************************************************

A Touch of Sin is currently showing in New York City through October 17 at IFC and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.  It will then travel throughout the United States.  For schedule, click hereA Touch of Sin will allegedly open in China in November.  For readers in China, we look forward to your feedback when (or if) this movie opens there. 

Panorama Theme by Themocracy

%d bloggers like this: