Posts tagged: corruption

Rule of Law at China’s 19th Party Congress – Oh No Xi Didn’t!*

By , October 16, 2017

Every five years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) holds a Party Congress, a week-long, rather formulaic meeting of Party members that is more about palace intrigue — who in the Party advances, who is left behind — than it is about anything substantive.  At most, broad policies for the direction of the Party, and hence direction of the country in this one-party state, are announced.  The world media usually looks on with feigned interest.

But, as the CCP opens its 19th Party Congress this Wednesday, this year will be different.  For the first time, the Party Congress comes as China’s global star is truly on the rise, with the United States pretty much on retreat in the region, at least as a reliable, predictable partner. As a result, the future of China’s leadership has become more important to the world, especially as the current leader, Xi Jinping, seeks to consolidate his power.

Since taking over leadership of both the Party and the State in 2012 and 2013 respectively, Xi has moved China’s governing model away from the collective Party approach of his immediate predecessors, an approach where he would merely be the first among equals; an approach that was largely put in place in response to the excesses of the one-man leadership of the Cultural Revolution. Instead, with Xi, all power increasingly resides with him and he has sought to fill the inner rankings of the Party with his supporters.

Party Man Wang Qishan (Photo Courtesy of the Epoch Times)

In that regards, this week’s 19th Party Congress will largely be watched to see who will replace five members of the seven-member Standing Committee of the CCP’s Politburo, each of whom will hit the retirement age of 68.  Who takes over the reins, and whether they are considered Xi’s people, will foretell the depths of Xi’s power over the Party, and thus the state. But it is the future of one person on the Politburo Standing Committee that will be most revealing: Wang Qishan, the current Secretary of the Party’s Central Committee for Discipline Inspection, the committee responsible for policing Party members.  Wang, who is already 69, should be replaced during this Party Congress under the Party’s unwritten rule of forced retirement at the age of 68.  But there is speculation that this rule will be broken so that Xi can keep his right-hand man on his anti-corruption campaign, a campaign that for sure has exposed corruption at the highest levels but has also allowed Xi to easily purge his rivals. If Xi is willing to break this unspoken rule for Wang, then there is good chance that in five years, he will break the rule for himself and continue on for an unprecedented third term as Party head and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the two posts that hold real power in China.[1]

But the other thing to watch for at the 19th Party Congress is Xi Jinping’s doubling down on his anti-corruption campaign.  And not just because Xi has used the campaign to purge high-level officials who he considers a threat to his one-man rule — think Bo Xilai, Zhou Yongkang,and now, Sun Zhengcai, a man slated to be Xi’s successor until he was expelled from the Party. Instead, the anti-corruption campaign has been an affront to the rule of law in China.  Expect the 19th Party Congress to signal the codification of the abuses of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.

Currently, the anti-corruption campaign is largely conducted through the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), a commission ostensibly responsible for investigating Party members’ violation of Party rules and of which Xi’s right hand man, Wang Qishan is still the head.  Theoretically, the police and procuratorate are responsible for investigating and prosecuting any corruption or bribery that rises to the level of a crime.  But in practice, the police, prosecutor and courts are a mere after thought to the CCDI.  That is largely because, outside of the confines of the law, the CCDI is able to secretly detain Party members, deny them access to a lawyer and interrogate them in secret locations.  According to Human Rights Watch, torture and ill-treatment during these secret Party detentions, known colloquially in China as shuanggui, are prevalent.  Instead of there being two separate systems, the Party and the State, the two are intertwined according to HRW: the prosecutor is a part of the shuanggui process, using the confession obtained through that investigation in the prosecution of the case.  In the Bo Xilai case, Bo attempted to retract his confession at his trial, stating that it was made under duress.  In the end, the court ruled against him and he received a life sentence on charges of corruption and bribery.

Bo Xilai on trial in 2013

But having the shuanggui system in place, a system that exists in the shadows of the law, has not been enough for Xi.  Last November, the Party announced a new pilot program for Beijing, Shanxi and Zhejiang provinces where the Party would create a new government body, a Supervision Commission.  As the Party doesn’t really have the full authority to create new governmental bodies, a month later, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), adopted the Supervision Commission pilot project.  That Supervision Commission would be the sole entity responsible for corruption and bribery by Party members, state officials, the legislature, the courts and state employees, taking away that responsibility from the Procuratorate and the Anti-Corruption Bureau.  The Supervision Commission will also have the power to interrogate and detain individuals as well as freeze their assets; it is unclear what role the courts will play – if any – in oversight of the Supervision Commission’s broad powers.  According to Prof. Zhiqiong June Wang, while much is still unknown about these Supervision Commission, what is known is that they will share personnel with the Party’s CCDI.  Prof. Wang anticipates that the NPC will seek to adopt the pilot project nationwide in March 2018.

Corruption is a serious problem in China  and there might be an argument that bringing the anti-corruption campaign into a strong, unified government body will be good for transparency and legal protections for the suspects, something that is currently ignored by the CCDI.  But the question remains – will codifying this campaign bring it out of the shadows of the CCDI or will it just bring more shadows to the law?  It seems like the latter is the more likely outcome.  First, even if the Supervision Commission were to follow the law, China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL) still allows the Commission to legally hold suspects incommunicado under “residential surveillance at a designated location” for six months without access to a lawyer.  This is because the provisions of  the CPL that the police currently use to do this to political activists under the guise of national security – Articles 37, 73 and 77 – apply where there are suspicions of “especially serious bribery.”  In a way, the CCDI’s methods have already been codified – and are actively being used with little reprimand – in the current CPL.

And with Xi only consolidating his power further at the 19th Party Congress, don’t expect there to be any divergent voices – anyone who cares about the Party and the government being subject to the law – in the Supervision Commission. The Party-State being subject to the law is not really Xi’s thing.  As if to demonstrate this further, this past weekend, the current head of the Ministry of Justice, Wu Aiying, was expelled from the Party.  Who replaced her as Justice Minister?  Zhang Jun, a former deputy chief of the CCDI.

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[1] China’s Constitution limits the President, a state position, not a Party one, to two terms.  But it is the two Party positions where real power lies.  Deng continued on as China’s paramount leader as a force within the Party.

* Hattip to Jeremy Daum at China Law Translate for the title pun.

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

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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. 

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

By , August 1, 2013

Tom Friedman

Tom Friedman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of China Human Rights Defenders, chrdnet.com

Courtesy of China Human Rights Defenders, chrdnet.com

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

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

The Future of China – An Interview with Peter Hessler

By , February 10, 2010

Excerpts of this Interview Originally Posted on the Huffington Post.

I read lots of books about China, it’s what I do.   But there are few that I anxiously await for as much as Peter Hessler’s new

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

book Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip. His last book – Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China – was brilliant and is usually the book I recommend people read when they want to learn more about China.  But now there is Country Driving which equals, if not surpasses the elegance of Oracle Bones.  In focusing on everyday life in the villages and factory towns for the past ten years, Hessler watches a China transform before his eyes, and in the areas most impacted by its modernization.  While Oracle Bones showed a China dealing with the ghosts of its past, Country Driving shows a China wrestling with the demons of its own development.  If you want to understand today’s China, and the forces changing it, you need to read Country Driving.

I sat down with Hessler to discuss his new book and his thoughts on China – its problems, its future, its people.  How have things changed?  How have the people responded to these changes?  What is the impact of rule of law in China?  Is China the overwhelming power that the West currently makes it out to be?  Below is an excerpt of my interview with Hessler.

To listen to the interview, click here.

For a PDF version of the transcript, click here.

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Hi, this is Elizabeth Lynch of China Law & Policy.com and welcome to our podcast.  Today we are here with author Peter Hessler to discuss the release of his new book, Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.  This is the third book Peter has written about China.  The first, River Town, tells the story of his two years teaching English in a small city in Sichuan, China.  His second book, Oracle Bones: A Journey through Time in China was a 2006 National Book Award finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Thank you for joining us today.

EL: My first question is just about your stay in China.  You first arrived in China in 1996 to teach English in the Peace Corp and you ended up staying there for 10 years.  What is it about China that kept you there?

PH: I guess it’s a surprise to me because it wasn’t a place I was interested in growing up and when I was in high school and college I certainly never studied Chinese or anything about Chinese history.  And actually when I was in college, it wasn’t that common for people to study Chinese in the late 80s, early 90s.  Actually, the first time I went to China was 1994.  I finished graduate school in England and I decided to go home to the east and take a long trip around the world.  I was really interested in seeing Eastern Europe and Russia and I was with a friend and we figured we would go through China and to Southeast Asia. Really I didn’t have much interest in China; I hoped to get through China quickly in that trip; people that were coming in the other direction said bad things about it – it wasn’t very easy to travel in – so it really wasn’t a place I was looking forward to.

We took the train from Moscow to Beijing and I arrived in Beijing and I was really sort of blown away by the place.  There was just a very tangible energy on the street; you could just tell that things were happening, people seemed motivated.  It was quite a contrast to what I’d seen in Russia which at that time – this was in 1994 – I found a little bit depressing.  So it really surprised me and so I ended up extending that trip.  I think my friend and I spent maybe close to two months total in China.  We didn’t speak any Chinese; we were just bumbling through as backpackers basically.  But it really did grab me.

I had always intended to apply to the Peace Corp but this changed my plans in that I applied to the Peace Corp but I really wanted to go to China.  I think that in the end, that energy that I sensed from the first week I was there was what ended up keeping me in China so long.  When I did join the Peace Corp in ‘96, I had a sense that it might be longer than two years.  Because I had been there and because I knew it’s a big deal to try to learn a language like that and to try to understand a place like that, I knew that it would take more than two years basically.  So I wasn’t surprised in some ways that it ended up being longer; I guess I wouldn’t have expected it to be a decade, but there was never a time…I never got tired of the place.  You certainly never feel like you know everything; for one thing, everything is change so even if you did by some miracle you know everything, it’s going to be different next week.

EL: In your new book, Country Driving, a lot of your stories focus upon you driving around China, getting your driver’s license, and the car plays a very significant role in your stories.  How did you decide to focus on the car and driving in China?  Was it a purposeful choice or was that just how the story developed?

 

Elizabeth Lynch interviewing Peter Hessler; Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Elizabeth Lynch interviewing Peter Hessler; Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

PH:  Usually when I do projects, I try to keep them very open-ended.  Actually with all of my books I’ve actually written a book and worked out a contract afterwards.  So I don’t like the idea of having to propose something before I do it because basically you don’t know what’s going to be there.  I like to respond to the material.

Basically this started as a magazine story while I was doing a piece for National Geographic on the Great Wall of China and I decided I wanted to drive along the Great Wall.  The trip became more and more ambitious as I was planning because I liked the idea of doing it.  I thought it would be interesting, I had just gotten my license.  And then that journey was just a great experience; it was probably the best trip I have every taken in China.  And after taking that trip I started to think, I would like to write about this in a book but I really feel like there are these other issues I would like to explore.  One of the things I noticed while I was driving across is that you go through all these little villages, where people are leaving and life is obviously really different from what it was 10,15,20 years ago.  I wanted to get a deeper sense of what that meant to people and how people respond to that.

Around the same time I was renting a house outside of Beijing in the countryside mostly just for personal reasons, just because I wanted to escape from the city, but I eventually started writing about that place and how people cope with the changes.

And as time moved on and I had these two parts of the book, I was thinking about, I realized I need also to give people a sense of where all this is going, all these people are leaving the villages, young people are migrating, they are going to these factory towns, I want to write something about a factory town as well and have this in the book.  You know, for me this is the way projects have generally developed.  You sort of feel your way along and you get to a point and you can sort of see the whole thing in the sense of what you need and what you would like to do.  And for me that was at the moment when I said okay, I want to go to a factory town and write about development there.  And once I got into that last project, which was in Lishui, I could see that that would be the book basically.

As far as the automobile, there was a link to all of them because the first one was a driving trip that kind of gave me an introduction to the north and to some of these rural issues; the second journey was to a village where they didn’t have a paved road when I started going out there and renting a house, and eventually they paved the road, there was a car boom in Beijing and this place responded very dramatically, people’s lives changed in enormous ways.  And then for the last section, about the factory town, I chose a town in Zhejiang province that was along the route of a new expressway because I knew that this was a highway that linked them to the coast.  That has a huge impact on your local economy if you have a road that goes to a port.

EL: The first part of Country Driving, you describe your drive along the Great Wall and you go through a lot of these villages that are, that seem like they are just closing down and they are mostly poor, you talk about them being depopulated, barren, no longer farm-able, and you even talk about some of the aid work there that is subject to a lot of corruption, in your mind, what do you think is the future for these villages?  If you go back 10 years from now, will they exist?  What do you see for these villages?

PH: It was very striking because China has been in the midst of this incredible migration.  Most of the figures now are 130 million, 140 million people have left the countryside – mostly young people looking for jobs in the cities.  When I was traveling, it’s amazing how this is the other side of migration; you’ve been to the factory towns or the cities where you see all these people, but where are they coming from?  You go to these villages, and I’d drive through, and you talk to people and they would usually say the population is decreased by half, roughly.  That was generally the number I would get from talking to people.  I never met anybody in a place who said, oh we haven’t lost population.  It was every single town.

RoadOften it’s really striking that you just do not see people in their late teens and twenties in these towns, and thirties.  They’re either older people, elderly, or you see disabled people or you see small children because children are still being raised by their grandparents often in these villages.  So, it was something as I drove….In a way they are quite poor, they’ve always been poor, but they’re also incredibly open and friendly.  I never had a single bad experience in these little towns and people were incredibly generous – they would invite me in, they were totally trusting.  So it did make me sad to think about that, that these places are really changing.  And I don’t know who is going to be there in a generation.  It’s hard to envision who, why would someone stay basically, and people often told me that.  Along the way I was picking up hitchhikers, which is mostly because I had an empty car and I found that it was interesting, and most of those hitchhikers were young people migrating, and you talk to them and they say ‘there’s no way I am going back, there’s nothing there for me.’

So I don’t know what happens.  I think maybe eventually if China reforms some of the land use laws perhaps people would consolidate farms and there would be some farmers who could make a better living because they have bigger holdings.  That’s what should logically happen.  In some ways it’s not a bad thing, because a country….When they started the reforms they had like 900 million farmers or something in ‘78.  You don’t really need 900 million farmers in a country.  It’s inevitable that this is going to happen.  And we’ve been through it, Europe went through it.  If you look at 19thcentury literature, there are all these poems, English poems, about villages that are dying and don’t exist anymore.  So this is an old story in that sense.  I think eventually you will see this consolidation and there will be some who remain as farmers but for this particular moment it is very hard to see the future.

EL: In terms of the law, you brought up some reforms to land use laws.  And in certain parts of Country Driving I know you mention, just in passing, the Chinese law and the legal system.  Your neighbor in Sancha, Wei Ziqi, he holds onto contracts dating back to the Qing dynasty, showing that he should have title to certain lands.  You describe how the law doesn’t protect the countryside and allows cities to buy farmland at cheap prices and then just flip it at a higher price.  And you also discuss the petitioning system.  When you bring up these interactions with the law, it seems like the law itself doesn’t really offer solutions for the people that you write about.  Do you think this is changing at all?  Do you see the law or the legal system developing in a way to protect these people?  In the field I am in, we hope that the legal system is changing to better protect a lot of these people, but on the ground do you feel that is really happening?

PH: You know, like so many things in China, there are so many levels to this issue.  I think there is a huge amount of vitality and energy in the legal field right now in China and if you go to Qinghua University, at the upper end it’s quite vibrant.  There are a lot of people thinking very hard about these issues, working very hard on them, there is a lot of life to it.  So I do think in that sense it’s clear that there are people that are interested in making this a better system, no doubt.  And I think eventually, it will happen.

For this book, really my focus was much more on working class people.  A lot of these people were farmers.  Basically, most of the people I am writing about are people who are from the countryside but are making this transition in one way or another to urban life or to being entrepreneurs; in the last section, people who are becoming factory workers or managers and so on.  So I am sort of seeing their perspective which is going to be very different from a legal scholar.

But it’s interesting, when even in these places, the people have a deep faith in law really and quite an interest.  You mention Wei Ziqi, this is someone who had just about eight years of formal schooling but he’s very bright and when he was older and had been farming for a while, he took a correspondent course in law for example.  And he kept all of these books that he got from that course that taught him how to draw up contracts for example.  So when I rented a house there, he wrote up a very formal contract and had me and the person I was renting with sign it.  And it had all these clauses – one of the clauses was that you can’t store explosives in the house – very detailed stuff.  It really had no legal status; you couldn’t take that contract to court but he believed….To him it was important and it showed sort of an interest in it and a respect for the law.  So you do sort of see that a lot.

I guess my characterization of how….And for him in the village, he was aware of certain laws – like when he wasn’t getting a certain fee he was suppose to be getting, he would find some ways to make sure he did.  And he would say the law’s on my side.  It was important to him.

I think….One of my general conclusions on how people interact with the law in places like this and in the factory towns is that it is certainly not a fair system and it’s not a system that we would see as certainly as being anything close to finished, but it’s pretty functional to be honest.

You mention the land use issues, which are really unfair to people in the countryside, but it allows development to proceed in the way that it has.  In some ways they are at a stage now, it’s a weird stage in that there are huge problems clearly with the legal system.  But it works and the corruption even is sort of manageable – it’s almost like there are rules to it and people know how it works.  So their level of comfort is a lot higher than what you would expect.  As an outsider you think, this is just a bad system, these things are wrong and people shouldn’t tolerate it.  But from their perspective it’s different; it’s probably better, it is better than it was 20 years ago.  They also know basically how it works.  They find ways to make things work in their favor.  What they do is not what we would expect.

For example, in the factory town, where I spent a lot of time, there was really very little sense of the law there, in the sense I never met a lawyer there, I never got any sense of anybody doing any kind of NGO work, there’s no unions that I ever encountered.  The government had an official union and they would show movies on the street to factory workers – that was the only contact I had with them.  But it doesn’t mean that people were powerless.  It just meant that they didn’t find recourse in the law specifically.  If a worker had a problem, he didn’t talk to a union, he didn’t call a lawyer.  But he found other ways to do it.

I write for example about a family that works in a factory.  I’ve watched them over a period of years.  For example, Factorywhen they started working in the factory they sent their youngest daughter with the older daughter’s ID. The youngest one is 15, barely 15, and she isn’t legal to work.  But because she has the fake ID she gets a job and then she brings her sister in.  Soon enough, the whole family is there.  And they end up with quite a bit of power because they have a network of six workers or so who were a huge part of the labor force and they could negotiate as a group.  So it’s a place where people have agency, the type of agency they have is not traditional, it’s not necessarily legally based.  So as an outsider, it’s very hard to understand, but at the same time, you kind of respect it.  When I watch that family, the Tao family, when I watch them negotiate, I didn’t feel sorry for them.  They were really good at what they did.  I would not want to negotiate with them, I wouldn’t want to be the boss.  I almost felt more sorry for the boss sometimes because they were just really tough people.  So you sort of admire them, but again you realize that it is not a finished system.  But it’s functional.

So when you talk about corruption in China, it’s not Nigeria.  It’s not some country where you go and they just, you try to set up a business and they set up a system of bribes that make it just completely impossible to function.  It doesn’t work like that.  The other example I give in the book is when these guys are setting up their factory, and the officials from the tax bureau came – I was sitting there watching this whole interaction – these three officials came from the tax bureau.  They were intimidating, they let the factory owners know that they were in control, and they sort of had this conversation, this very tense conversation.  They asked them questions about the business because they were just starting business and they said ‘do you have an accountant?’ And the boss said ‘no we don’t, we haven’t started selling anything yet so we will get one eventually.’  ‘Well you should get an account.’  ‘Ok, we’ll get one once we start doing business.’  He said ‘no, you should get an accountant now.  I have a friend that runs a business that has an accountant and here’s his card.’  And the boss is like ‘oh maybe we should get an accountant now.’  That’s kind of the way it works.  That interaction is over and the guy makes a phone call and hires the account.  You realize it’s not fair, but it works.  It’s not an onerous cost in a way.  So he wasn’t angry about it, he’s just like ‘this is the way it is.’  It’s going to cost 80, 90 bucks a month, no big deal, he’ll deal with it.

So, I think that is kind of the stage that they’re at.  They do have some huge questions that remain to be answered and it is very hard to tell, especially that land use issue which is that people in the countryside can’t buy and sell their own land.  That has been a huge problem over the years and it continues to be.  There have been lots of signs and lots of discussions over reform but that hasn’t happened yet.

ELWhen you traveling through the countryside and the factory towns, you see a lot of people on the move and you do see these inequities, but amongst the people themselves, what was their biggest gripe?  I think a lot of foreign NGOs that are in China, a lot of the work I do, there is a focus on the inequities in society or the environmental damage, things like that.  But do you feel that people that are in the countryside and in the factory towns, what do you think is their biggest issue?

 

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

PH: It’s very localized and if you ask people, it tends to be corruption and what they mean is corruption of local officials.  That doesn’t mean that the top levels aren’t corrupt, they just don’t see it.  So often they continue to have a faith that the top levels of governments are better run and the people are more honest but the locals, because they know the locals, they see what is happening, they are very cynical about that.  It is incredibly localized.  One of the years, the year that I wrote about where I was following a dam project in this book, they reported something like 87,000 public disturbances, protests in China that year.  And you should see these figures.  Every year it’s a figure like that, close to 100,000 and you think my God, the country is about to explode.  But when you do sort of encounter one of these instances and look at it, it tends to be so incredibly localized and it’s not connected to larger issues.

So you meet someone in the countryside and you ask them what’s wrong and they won’t tell you the land or the Constitution just isn’t fair in terms of land use laws.  It’s hard to have that kind of vision, they’re not seeing these sort of huge issues.  What they would tell you is my piece of land, I didn’t get the market value for that piece of land, and that’s really all that they are going to care about, about their own situation.  So you don’t see people making these connections.  You see some of the outsiders and the NGOs, folks like that are in different positions.  But the people that are in the villages, the factory workers, that’s not their issue.

To be honest, it’s such a demanding society, everybody is coping with so much change I often feel like they just don’t have the energy to go after those big issues.  You can’t blame them; they’ve got a lot of stuff to take care of.  Wei Ziqi, he’s trying to shift from being a farmer to being a businessman, he’s trying to join the Party in the local village, he’s trying to get a solid political position in his village.  He has all of these things to worry about, the last thing he’s going to worry about is trying to reform the Constitution.  He has no way to do that and it’s just not going to be his natural response.

I think again this sort of contributes to the stability, the basic stability that I see in China.  There are a lot of complaints, but again, it’s sort of a pretty functional system.  And I never feel….My general sense is not that this place is about to explode.  I guess I don’t have that feeling.  I’m sort of going in more of a survey approach; I don’t look for problems and then focus, like, in the village.  I just went to the village and spent a lot of time there – and so you see what happens.  And the same thing in the factory town.  I went to this factory town and spent a lot of time there.  So I noticed what type of protest came up, but I wasn’t picking the biggest protest in the province – which really makes a big difference if you are a journalist or a social scientist.  China is a big country, you can find anything you want.  In some ways, this is a more representative approach in the sense of trying to just go to a place and see what’s happening there in a normal situation.  I noticed there are a lot of protesters.  One significant big issue in the factory town which was the new dam that they were building.  But the response to that was not very threatening.  People’s anger was very localized, they weren’t coordinated with any other kind of groups, it wasn’t like they were linked up with other anti-dam groups in China, there weren’t environmentalist down there.  So it kind of makes me feel that the system is basically sustainable for right now.

EL: In terms of those issues, in noting that there is some basic stability and even though there are these complaints, they are very localized and they’re not becoming a big issue.  But if every rural area is having similar complaints, even though they are not unified, do you think that perhaps maybe China is not as powerful as the West right now currently views it?  Do you see…Even though it is a stable system, there is a lot of I guess tension on the local level, do you see this as problematic and do you think the Chinese national government is going to deal with it in the future?  I guess what do you see for the future?

PH: It’s always a bad game to predict China’s future basically but I think basically, I suppose it’s en vogue to talk, we hear about how overwhelmingly powerful China is.  I tend to sort of temper that.  I don’t see China as on the verge of collapse, I’ve never felt that at all.  But I also don’t see it as this place that is an unbelievable juggernaut, that they are doing everything better than everybody else is doing.  There are a lot of problems with the system, there are a lot of flaws.  But there are still a lot of safety valves as well.

One of the things I write about in this books is what happens to people who could potentially be dangerous maybe to

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

the government, who could cause a lot of trouble.  You go to the villages, and the really bright people, the ones who would probably be the most angry about injustices and also the most capable of fighting something or resisting something, they leave, they become migrants because they’ve got opportunities.  So it’s like a pressure valve.  So you don’t see the really bright young person staying in the village and stirring up trouble.  That person is trying to find his way in a factory world.  So they have a whole other series of challenges to go.  They’re outside of their home community, they don’t have their networks anymore, so politically, they’re not in a position to do a lot.

In the village that I wrote about, the person I knew, Wei Ziqi, he’s one of the very few really bright people who stayed.  And what happens to him?  Well he has some power struggles with local authorities but he ends up becoming a Party member; he sort of becomes to some degree part of the local power structure.  This also happens – people get recruited.  So I think there are a lot of different pressure valves basically that sort of take some of the talented people out of the position where they would potentially cause trouble.

It’s sort of a hard thing because it can be very depressing in a way, like when I was in that dam community and I met a lot of folks there who were angry, petitioning, and bitter about it.  I noticed that they generally tended to be the lesser educated and they had the fewest financial resources, and this is partly because they were the ones who have been treated the worst, but they also were, I have to admit, also some of the least capable of really doing something basically.  And the people I met who were capable had either left or they were finding other ways to make their way.  There was one guy in that dam community that was really sharp.  When he talked to me he wanted to know what my journalist accreditation was, he had all kinds of questions about what kind of writing I do, he was the first one I met who was really sharp like that and really knew a lot of the issues and his vision was much broader in the sense that he’s like ‘they are moving people from these towns, there is nothing for them to do in these towns, they’re just building these towns and there’s no farming, there’s no business, there’s no factories.’  But he was well dressed, he had a cell phone so I asked ‘well what do you do, how do you get your money?’ and he’s like ‘well I sell building materials in the towns that they’re building.’ So he’s profiting in a way, he’s found a way, he’s kind of hedged his bets basically.  I just think there is still a level of opportunity that makes it hard for people to justify really, really devoting themselves to protesting.

I think eventually that changes.  But you have to reach a point in my opinion, where sort of the middle class, the upper class, the educated people, the ones with a lot of drive, when those people feel like they’re getting limited, because they have the tools.  Right now it’s like the people at the bottom I feel like are the ones that really get hammered.  And it’s a very sad situation but it’s very natural in the sense that those are also the people who are the least capable of affecting massive political change.

I think something will change with that but I think it is going to have to be when this other group starts to see it as being in their interest to be a little less self-oriented and a little more aware of ways in which the system can be improved.  Like I say, you have more and more energy going in this direction, but I think it is going to take time.  I never felt that we were going to see a political change in the next five years or something, a major political change.  I never had that feeling in China.

EL: On your road trip, as you were driving, when you were driving, were there any cities that you went through that reminded you of St. Louis or any other cities in the United States?

PH: I’m actually not from St. Louis, I grew up in Colombia, in the middle.  I’m trying to think.  The cities are totally different it feels like in China.  They always feel like they were just built yesterday basically a lot of these places, especially when you are in the factory towns because some of them were basically built yesterday – you can see them going up in front of your eyes.  So it’s a different world I guess.  Especially my driving trip I did, the first one, was in the north and the big city, I think the only really big city I passed through was called Baotou in Inner Mongolia.  Which is this weird place because they had they had a huge amount of money that came in from a government campaign, it just felt like a huge metropolis in the middle of the desert.  So they have a different feel and they feel like training grounds.  Everything is a trial basically in the sense that all of the people that come in from the outside, the buildings have just been built, the streets have just been built.  People need to figure it out on the fly.

ELAnd what about when you were driving, did you have any driving music that you listened to, anything like that?

Author Peter Hessler; Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Author Peter Hessler; Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

 

PH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I was on the road for days.  I guess I did two trips, this was in two parts.  The first part of this book was a journey in two parts and each of them more than a month, that is a lot of time on the road.  Yeah, I brought good driving music – Bruce Springsteen, the Clash, and a lot of rap music as well when I am trying to stay awake, to keep myself motivated.  It was very fun, I enjoyed it greatly.  Also I had no schedule which helps.  I think driving in China can be really tough if you go for like 8 hours a day or something.  But I stopped when I wanted to, I tried to be careful so I wouldn’t get too tired.  It was a blast.  I really, really enjoyed it.

EL: Definitely, it sounded like you had a lot of fun, especially on the trip with the Great Wall.  But now that you are back in the States and you are now in Colorado and Country Driving is out, what do you see that is next for you?

PH: I’m doing some projects in the States now where I am researching a couple of things around where I live.  I live in southwestern Colorado near New Mexico and Utah.  So I’m pursuing some things there which has been great.  It’s been nice to do a couple of U.S.-based projects, interview people in the States which I haven’t done for a long time.

So I am shifting away from China for a while and I think my wife and I will probably be moving overseas again in about a year or so.  We would like to study another language and live in another part of the world, and write about someplace else.  We are thinking about possibly the Middle East.  We know that we will go back to China eventually because we both really like it there, we’re comfortable there, we still have a house north of Beijing in the village.  But we felt like it’s nice to do something different for a while.

For me personally, this third book for me felt like the last, I felt like I was closing a chapter in the sense.  To me it was a great final project because I had all kinds of new challenges.  I was putting together a lot of the knowledge I had learned over the decade plus that I had spent in China.  It felt like a natural stopping point.  I never wanted to reach a point in China where I felt like I was repeating myself or using the same type of story or the same type of structures or the same type of research projects over and over.  And this to me, each of the three books feels quite different to me and they have different focuses, so it was a good stopping point.  And we will be back at some point and happy to do that.

EL: I know for me and I am sure for a lot of other people if this is the closing chapter on your journey with China, a lot of us might be a little bit disappointed.  You’re one of, I think, the greatest writers about modern China.  But I want to thank you for taking time to talk to us today.  Just for our listeners, Country Driving comes out on February 9 and can be purchased at your local bookstore or on Amazon dot com.  Thank you Peter.

PH: Thank you.  Thank you for talking to me.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip (P.S.), By Peter Hessler (Harper Perennial, February 8, 2011), 448 pages.
 

Movie Review: Zhao Liang’s “Petition: The Court of Complaints”

By , February 8, 2010

Petition - Poster2In Petition: The Court of Complaints, director Zhao Liang (pronounced Zhwow Le-ang) takes on a huge and important subject – the Chinese petitioning system.  While the documentary fails to produce a cohesive story, it does successfully portray vignettes of a society very much in turmoil and tells the story of the many people left behind by China’s progress.

In China, the petition system is a way for individuals to lodge complaints against corrupt government officials or corrupt governmental process to higher authorities.  Also known as “Letters and Visits” (from the Chinese xinfang and shangfang), it’s a form of extrajudicial action that can trace its origins to imperial days.   If an individual believes that a judicial case was decided not in accordance to law or local government officials illegally violated his rights, he can complain to officials in a higher level of government to hear his case, re-decide it and punish the lower level officials.  In some ways, every country has a similar process – if you don’t like the way a government official in New York City is treating you, you can complain to your city council member or write a letter to the mayor.  But what makes the petitioning system different in China is the fact that it is a formal process.  Every level and office in the Chinese government has a bureau of “Letters and Visits.”

The petitioning system is vital to the Chinese government’s success, be it today’s Communist government or to the

Beijing's new Letters & Visits Office - near the South 4th Ring Road

Beijing's new Letters & Visits Office - near the South 4th Ring Road

imperial courts of the past.  By ruling a large country through an authoritarian dictatorship, the Chinese central government inevitability leaves much discretion in the hands of local officials.  But through the petitioning system, complaints of local official corruption will eventually make its way to top levels of government and allow the government to solve the problem, satisfy the aggrieved individuals, and by getting rid of corruption, solidify its rule.  The petitioning system serves as a safety valve in a system that does not allow popular participation or protest.

But as Zhao’s documentary successfully shows, the petitioning system, which receives over 5 million petitions a year according to Chinese statistics (many outside of China speculate that the number is closer to 10 million), is largely a failure.  Zhao focuses on the thousands of petitioners who travel from the provinces to lodge their complaints in person with the highest petitioning body, the State Bureau of Letters and Calls in Beijing.  But many of these petitioners are there for years, repeatedly getting the brush-off by state officials.  With one petitioner, Qi, who is in Beijing to seek compensation for her husband’s death after local officials beat him, we watch her daughter, Ju’an, grow up before our eyes on the streets of Beijing.  Only twelve at the start of the movie, Ju’an eventually leaves Beijing with her boyfriend and returns years later with her husband and son only to find her mother still petitioning.

If all that was lost was time, the petitioning system might not be so bad.  But there is also violence, and a lot of it.  Zhao captures many of the “retrievers” beating petitioners.  Retrievers are thugs hired by the local officials whom petitions are being filed against.  Because each petition to the central government is a black mark on a local official’s advancement, these local officials are desperate to prevent the petition from being heard.  An easy way is through

A "lawyer" of sorts to help others with the petitioning process - Beijing, China

A "lawyer" of sorts to help others with the petitioning process - Beijing, China

intimidation and violence.  In one particularly troubling scene, Zhao films an overhead shot of a group of retrievers chasing and beating a single petitioner.  Zhao also juxtaposes one scene of a petitioner discussing his case with another scene where the petitioner has a black, bloody eye after a day of beatings.

Petition also raises the issue of forced psychiatric confinement of individuals the government deems “difficult,” something that is becoming more common in China.  Petitioner Qi is repeatedly detained and forcibly sent to a mental hospital.  Another petitioner describes the treatment at the psychiatric hospital – forced medication of drugs that have not been tested.  After a stint at a Chinese mental hospital and a diet of untested anti-psychotic drugs, one wonders if these women are still in fact sane.

While Zhao successful portrays many of the horrors of the petitioning system, he never describes if this system works for anyone or if there are any redeeming characteristics of the system.  If the petitioning system is abolished, would that mean the people would be better off if this is their only outlet?  At one point, Zhao shows a group of petitioners calling for democracy.  After a female petitioner is hit and killed by a train while running away from a group of retrievers, her neighbors in the petitioners’ tent village decide to launch a protest in her memory.  Zhao films the rhetoric of some of these protest-petitioners, with many of them discussing the prevalent corruption, the need for transparency, and the desire for democracy.

But these calls for democracy should not necessarily be seen as a new revolution in China.  The petitioning system relies on the average citizen’s belief that the government system has failed on the local level but that the highest levels in Beijing still work; each petitioner thinks the same thing – if only President Hu Jintao could hear what I have to say, he would understand that this isn’t just a violation of my rights but is also terrible for our country.  They have to believe this; if petitioners believed that the central government was just as corrupt as the local level, they wouldn’t petition.  Zhao’s focus on these protesting petitioners and their calls for democracy are certainly attractive to a Western audience.  But it’s unclear how these petitioners define their “democracy” and whether that democracy excludes a role of the Chinese Communist Party.

While there is room for improvement (especially the 2 hour length), in all, Petition: The Court of Complaints is worth the watch if only to feel the frustrations of a multitude of people and to allow them to finally be heard.

Rating: ★★★½☆

Unfortunately, as of March 3, 2012, Petition: The Court of Complaints is not available with English subtitles on DVD or for streaming. It appears that it may be forthcoming as part of a three-movie box set of Zhao Liang’s documentaries, however no pre-order option is yet available on Amazon: Zhao Liang Collection – 3-DVD Box Set (Petition / Crime and Punishment / Paper Airplane ).

For those who speak French, it appears that the three-movie box set is already available on the French Amazon website here (note that subtitles appear to be all in French).
 

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