Posts tagged: detention

To Arrest or Not to Arrest – Prosecutors Have to Today to Determine Fate of Five Female Activists

By , April 13, 2015
P1010037

Women Hold Up Half the Sky? And Half the Detention Centers?

On Thursday, the New York Times reported that the Beijing police requested that the local prosecutor formally arrest the five Chinese women detained for planning an anti-sexual harassment demonstration on Intentional Women’s Day (March 8).  According to the detained women’s lawyers, the recommended charges are “organizing a crowd to disturb public order” (Article 291 of  China’s Criminal Law), a charge different than the initial basis for detention: “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (Article 293(4) of China’s Criminal Law). 

Since the inception of these detentions on March 6, 2015, little has been transparent, even to the lawyers for the women.  In fact, according to the New York Times, the women’s lawyers were not even informed that a request for arrest had been made to the prosecutors on April 6, 2015.  According to a phone interview with Liang Xiaojun, one of the detained women’s attorneys, the police’s April 6 request for arrest means that the prosecutors must decide by today if there is enough evidence for such an arrest.  (see also Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”) Art. 89 requiring that the prosecutor’s office determine within 7 days whether to formally arrest the suspect).  But like everything else that has been happening in this case, likely the detained’s lawyers will continue to be kept in the dark of today’s decision.   

Two years ago the Chinese government heralded the passing of its amended

Clockwise from top left: Zheng Churan, Li Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Wei Tingting

Clockwise from top left: Zheng Churan, Li Tingting, Wang Man, Wu Rongrong, and Wei Tingting

Criminal Procedure Law, which was intended to bring China more inline with the international community.  Scholars and government officials praised the law for its greater protection of criminal suspects’ rights and improved access to defense lawyers early in the process.  But the detention of these five women, exemplifies the continued weaknesses of the Criminal Procedure Law and its failure to protect suspects’ rights.  Where it does offer some protections, what’s happened to these five women, demonstrate that Chinese police and prosecutors continue to skirt the law with impunity.  This post will review some of the major issues with the detention of China’s five women activists.

The Police Have Not Issued Any Document with the Charges. Is That Legal?

China's Amended Criminal Procedure Law

China’s Amended Criminal Procedure Law

No.  In a phone interview with Liang Xiaobin, Wu Rongrong’s attorney, Mr. Liang informed China Law & Policy that the police have yet to issue any formal document regarding the detention or potential charges against his client.  But Art. 123 of the Ministry of Public Security’s “Procedural Regulations on the Handling of Criminal Cases by Public Security Organs (revised 2012)” (“MPS Regulations” or “Regs”) which implements the CPL, a detention notice must be issued to the family of the detained within 24 hours of detention.  That detention notice would list the charges being investigated. Presumably if such a notice was provided to Wu’s family, it would be transmitted to Liang.  But Liang has yet to obtain any verification of any charges other than those verbally communicated to him.

The Police Did Not Inform the Five Women’s Lawyers that it Had Recommended Arrest.  Is This Legal?

Yes, and this is where one of the major weaknesses in the new Criminal

Will the five women be formally arrested?

Will the five women be formally arrested?

Procedure Law and its implementing regulations is obvious.  During the pre-arrest phase, even when a suspect has retained a lawyer, that lawyer has very little ability to access any of the police or prosecution documents.  In fact, neither the CPL nor the MPS Regulations require that the police or prosecutor inform the lawyer of what is happening in the case.  There is some information that has to be told to the detained’s family (that the suspect has been detained (CPL Art. 83 & MPS Reg Art. 123); that the suspect has been formally arrested (MPS Reg. 141)), but the police do not have to affirmatively inform the family that the police have recommended arrest to the prosecutor, even though there is a paper trail for all of this (see CPL Art. 85 & MPS Reg. Art. 133 both requiring a written formal request be made by the police to the prosecutor)  Without this information, it becomes difficult to hold the prosecutor to the 7-day limit to decide whether to arrest (CPL Art. 89).

Chinese defense lawyers kept in the dark

Chinese defense lawyers kept in the dark

But no where in the CPL or the MPS Regulations does anyone have to inform the retained lawyers of anything.  It is not until the prosecutor begins to investigate for indictment (审查起诉) do rights attach to the defense lawyer.  When that occurs – and again, the law is unclear if anyone has to be affirmatively informed that such a review is occurring – can defense counsel access information from the state.  At that point, the prosecutor’s office is required to share the case file (CPL Art. 38).  But up until that point, keeping the defense attorney in the dark is completely legal.   

Allegedly, the Women Were Denied Easy Access to their Lawyers & When Able to Meet, Conversations Were Recorded.  Is this legal?

No.  The amended CPL was specifically modified to rid the Chinese criminal justice system of these patently unfair practices.  But according emails issued by Yirenping, a Chinese-NGO that many of the women are affiliated with, many of the lawyers’ requests to meet with their clients have been ignored.  The few times the lawyers have been able to meet with their clients, according to Yirenping, the conversations have been recorded. 

Article 37 of the CPL clearly requires that detention centers promptly schedule meetings between lawyers and their clients when the suspected charges do not include national security; such meetings must be scheduled no later than 48 hours after the request.  The MPS Regulations reiterate that right (MPS Regs. Art. 48).  Further, Article 37 of the CPL plainly states that conversations between the lawyer and his or her client are not to be monitored (see also MPS Reg. Art. 52).

Is the Limit for Detention 30 days?

Detention in China

Detention in China

This is unclear.  Although the lawyers for the five women have stated that detention can only be for 30 days before moving to the next stage of the case (here, the police formally requesting that the prosecutors arrest the women) and the police have conveniently stated that it did in fact move the case forward on April 6 (approximately 30 days after the initial detentions), it is unclear whether there is in fact a 30 day limit to detention.  Article 89 of the CPL states that detention, without a request for arrest, is generally limited to three days.  But the police can unilaterally extended that limit for an additional four days (making for a total of seven days). 

But for suspects being investigated for “multiple crimes” (like the women here) or “crimes across multiple regions” (again, like the women here), the police may add an extra 30 days to the detention (CPL Art. 89).  In both the English and Chinese, it is unclear if that 30 days is added on top of the seven that was permissible or if 30 days is the outer limit of detention before request for arrest.  Although both the attorneys in this case and the police seem to maintain that 30 days is the limit, the law is not clear.  But at the most, 37 days is limit for detention. 

Was it legal to bring Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan to Beijing for detention?

One of the five detained, Wu Rongrong, founder and executive director of the Weizhiming Women’s Center in Hangzhou

One of the five detained, Wu Rongrong

Yes.  Of the five women detained, two – Wu Rongrong, director of the Hangzhou-based Weizhiming Women’s Center and Zheng Churan, staff member at Yirenping Guanzhou, live outside of Beijing.  Both  were planning their International Women’s Day demonstrations in their respective cities and both were initially detained by the public security officials in each city.  But both were eventually transferred to Beijing’s Haidian Detention Center where the other three women, Wang Man, Wei Tingting and Li Tingting, all residents of Beijing, were being held. 

Both the CPL and the MPS Regulations permit the easy movement of suspects between cities, counties and provinces when appropriate.  Although the default presumption is that jurisdiction of a criminal case is where the crime was committed (see CPL Art. 24; MPS Regs Art. 15), both the Criminal Procedure Law and the MPS Regulations contemplate instances where that might not be the case, especially when there are multiple crimes and/or multiple defendants.    

In fact, an entire Chapter of the MPS Regulations – entitled Cooperation in Case-

One of the detained, Zheng Churan, 25, and staff member of Yirenping based in Guangzhou

One of the detained, Zheng Churan

Handling (Chapter 11, encompassing Articles 335-344) – specifically deals with these situations.  Unlike in the United States, where extradition from one state to another is a formal affair, here the transfer of a criminal suspect is more informal (see MPS Regs Art. 335 requiring local public security bureaus to cooperate with a request to detain a suspect & Art. 336 requiring only a “letter of cooperation” to obtain the locality’s cooperation). Presumably the Beijing PSB provided such a letter to the Hangzhou and Guangzhou PSBs in order to detain and eventually transfer Wu Rongrong and Zheng Churan to Beijing. 

Will the Women Be Arrested?

Their Fate is in the Prosecutor's hands

Their Fate is in the Prosecutor’s hands

Increasingly likely.  The fact that the police have changed the charges and have added more incidents to the charge, such as the women’s street performance demonstration against domestic violence where they dressed up in wedding dresses with fake blood and their “occupy men’s toilets” day to demonstration the insufficiency of women’s toilets in public places, provides for more evidence for arrest.  Further, adding extra incidents and making this multi-crime case, arrest and continued detention is all but certain.  According to Article 139(1) of the People’s Procuratorate’s Criminal Procedural Regulation (revised 2012), the prosecutor’s implementing regulations of the CPL, arrest is necessary when the criminal suspect may commit a new crime.  What provides evidence that the suspect might commit another crime if not detained?  The fact that “the suspect has committed multiple crimes, changed locations in committing multiple crimes, committed related crimes…” 

Within 24 hours of the police’s decision to arrest, the police must inform the family (MPS Reg. Art. 141).  Under Chinese law, the world should know by Tuesday if an arrest was made.  But that’s assuming that anyone actually follows the law.

Without Committing a Crime, Five Female Activists Detained in China

By , March 15, 2015

International Women's DayWhile the rest of the world celebrated International Women’s Day (March 8) with gender equality marches, women empowerment conferences, and female-oriented concerts, the Chinese government opted for a decidedly different approach: detaining a number of Chinese women activists.

On March 6 and 7, 2015, in various cities across China, public security officials rounded up at least 10 women, each of whom sought to mark International Women’s Day with a nation-wide campaign highlighting the increase in sexual harassment on public transportation.  Their goal?  To pass out leaflets and stickers calling for the end of such sexual harassment and for the police to take some action against sexual harassment on public transportation.

One of the five detained, Wu Rongrong, founder and executive director of the Weizhiming Women’s Center in Hangzhou

One of the five detained, Wu Rongrong, founder and executive director of the Weizhiming Women’s Center in Hangzhou

While five of these 10 women have been released, five were officially criminally detained on Friday allegedly under the Chinese government’s increasing catch-all for ideas and speech it does not like: “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” (Article 293(4) of China’s Criminal Law).

“It is extremely alarming that these five young women have been criminally detained for ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’” Dr. Leta Hong Fincher, author of Leftover Women: The Resurgence of Gender Inequality in China, wrote in an email to China Law & Policy.  “The women were merely planning to commemorate International Women’s Day by raising awareness about sexual harassment on public transportation – hardly an issue that would threaten the central government’s power or social stability in any way.”

In fact, the Chinese government itself has noted the growing problem of sexual harassment – including groping, rubbing and pictures taken under one’s skirt – on public transportation.  Unfortunately, instead of stepping up law enforcement of this quality-of-life crime, the Chinese government has largely left it to women to combat this harassment, urging female riders to forgo wearing mini-skirts or “hot pants” and looking to have women-only subway cars during rush hour.

Another of the detained, Wei Tingting (right), the director of Ji’ande, an LGBT rights organization based in Beijing

Another of the detained, Wei Tingting (right), 27 and director of Ji’ande, an LGBT rights organization based in Beijing

“The detention of these women reveals the hollowness of [the] Chinese government claims of commitment to gender equality, particularly as China prepares to co-host the 2015 Global Women’s Summit at the United Nations, and the world marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing” Dr. Hong Fincher wrote to China Law & Policy.

But if you think detaining people for leafleting an issue we can all get behind is scary, here is the real frightening part: these five women – Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wang Man and Li Tingting – never actually committed a crime, even under Chinese law.  By detaining these women prior to March 8 – when they were going to distribute their stickers and pamphlets – the women never caused a public disturbance as required by Article 293 of China’s Criminal LawPu Zhiqiang, Cao Shunli, Xu Zhiyong, all detained, arrested or jailed for “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” were at least able to partake in their “public disturbance” before the authorities took them away.  These women did not.  At most, in their attempt to make this a nation-wide campaign, they amassed an online following, all eager to partake in the March 8 events.

One of the detained, Zheng Churan, 25, and staff member of Yirenping based in Guangzhou

One of the detained, Zheng Churan, 25, and staff member of Yirenping based in Guangzhou

But, as Jeremy Daum at China Law Translate has noted, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) and Supreme People’s Procuratorate’s (SPP) Joint Interpretation of Article 293 (July 2013) makes it clear that causing a disturbance by picking quarrels must happen in some kind of public venue – a bus station, a market, a train station, a park, or “other public venue.” In prosectuting an Article 293(4) case, the courts are required to analyze the totality of the circumstances, including the type of public venue, the number of people attending the event, etc.  (See Article 5 of the Joint Interpretation of Article 293).

Further, as Daum has highlighted, even the SPC’s and SPP’s controversial Joint Interpretation on Internet Speech Crimes (Sept. 2013), which does interpret Article 293(4) of the Criminal Law, would only apply in situations where the individual has spread rumors on the internet or other online network.  The only public prosecution under Article 293(4) involving the internet – the case of blogger Qin Houhou – is precisely this situation.  In addition to being charged with violating Artcile 293(4) – the picking quarrels provision – Qin was also charged and convicted of criminal slander.

Another detained activist, Li Tingting, 25 and Beijing-based manager of the LGBT program at the Beijing Yirenping Center

Another detained activist, Li Tingting, 25 and Beijing-based manager of the LGBT program at the Beijing Yirenping Center

By criminally detaining these women, the Chinese police have stepped up this game, making a formal arrest and prosecution more likely.  While prosecution under Article 293(4) usually has a maximum prison sentence of five years, that sentence can be extended to 10 years where the defendant organizes others to commit the disturbance multiple times.  Given that these women likely were the organizers of the event, a 10 year prison term is a possibility.  Even though the current charge is groundless under Chinese law.

On Friday, the U.S.’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, tweeted her disgust with the Chinese government’s detention of Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan, Wei Tingting, Wang Man and Li Tingting.  But the United States, and the rest of the world, must maintain this rhetoric.

 

Fifth detained activist, Wang Man, Beijing-based coordinator for the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP).

Fifth detained activist, Wang Man, Beijing-based coordinator for the Global Call to Action Against Poverty (GCAP).

Twenty years ago, in Beijing China, Hillary Clinton ignored Chinese pressure to soften her remarks at United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women.  Instead, she rocked the world by forcefully stating that ” human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”  It’s time that Secretary Clinton, a potential presidential candidate, renew that sentiment and call for the release of these women – innocent even under Chinese law.

Just For Fun: Art Review – Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

For sure the best part of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition of Ai Weiwei‘s (pronounced Eye Way-Way) retrospective – “According to What?” – is that it was able to obtain the six dioramas Ai made of his 81-day detention by Chinese authorities. The dioramas visually demonstrates the utter absurdity of the Chinese police state. This alone mandates that this exhibit not be missed.

But the second best part? That the Brooklyn Museum did not place Ai’s works in a vacuum. Instead, Ai’s exhibit is one of four fascinating exhibits concerning art and social activism. Any visit to Ai’s exhibit should be accompanied by a viewing of at least one of these other shows. If you get there before July 13, definitely check out “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” as a contrasting exhibit to Ai’s and as a powerful reminder of America’s own checkered past and unclear future concerning civil and human rights.

“According to What?” is not just a retrospective of Ai’s art but also an explanation of

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

his activism. One of the most revealing parts of the exhibition is Ai’s photographs from 1980s New York City, covering the decade when Ai lived in the city. Through Ai’s photographs, we see what he saw: constant protests in various city parks, face-to-face confrontation with the police, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis and its activism, the grit of 1980s New York City. When later on in the exhibit you watch a video of Ai challenging the Chinese police and demanding accountability, you can’t help but think back to the photos of bloody protesters in Tompkins Square Park and wonder if this is what influences Ai to be the agitator that he has become.

But Ai wasn’t always such an agitator. Unfortunately the exhibition gives only short shrift to his prior – and government-accepted – work. In overlooking this aspect of Ai’s career, the exhibit also fails to fully explain the spark that radicalized his art – the Sichuan earthquake. After an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Sichuan province, Ai traveled to the region and saw the hundreds of shoddily-built schoolhouses that completely fell, killing the children in them. All the while surrounding government buildings remained standing. Seeing the thousands of children’s backpacks lying in the rubble and the fact that the government-controlled press was not acknowledging the “tofu-dreg construction,” Ai took matters into his own hands, undertaking a “Citizen’s Investigation” and uncovering the names of the 5,196 children killed.

The gallery with Ai's Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including "Straight"

The gallery with Ai’s Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including “Straight”

In “Sichuan Name List,” Ai lists the name, age, school and address of every single child killed.   It is the layout of this work – the 5,196 names line an entire wall of the gallery, from top of the ten foot wall to bottom – that forms the art work. Only in seeing this can one even begin to attempt to understand the enormity of the loss. The work is accompanied by “Remembrance” a three-and-a-half audio recording of strangers from around the world speaking the name of every single child that perished. Lying in the center of the gallery are the steel rebar from the shoddy construction – all of which have been straightened back to their original form.

Ai’s homage to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake is powerful. It is also the reason why Ai is so dangerous to the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).   To maintain its power, the CCP needs to retain its monopoly on Chinese history. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, it is the CCP that writes the country’s history; not its people. Tiananmen? Never happened. Mao Zedong? Only 10% wrong. The Cultural Revolution? Not a descent into madness, just a little blip on the radar screen. Here, Ai – who is an influential figure since his father, Ai Qing, was a well-known and respected poet – is attempting to write the people’s history. It’s that attempt that the CCP sees as an assault on its rule.

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

But if you think that is overreacting, then check out the six half-life size dioramas that Ai made of his 81 day detention. In 2011, Ai was detained by the public security bureau allegedly on tax fraud charges although the general consensus is that it was the government’s failed attempt to silence his activism. Ai designed each five-foot tall diorama with a window where the viewer can look in and see Ai in his room. In the first room, things don’t look so bad. It looks more like a hotel room than a jail cell. But as you progress and look into each scene, you begin to realize the absurdity of what is going on here. Two guards are with Ai at every moment, watching him. As he eats, as he sleeps, even when he showers. The guards are there, standing over him, watching his every move. Is this jolly, chubby man really that dangerous?

With so much of Ai’s art involving his interaction with the authorities, “According to What?” raises the question – has social activism become Ai’s art? And is this good for either: should activism merely be theater; should art be so much protest? By situating “According to What?” with other activist art, the Brooklyn Museum has largely answered those questions – art does not exist in a vacuum nor should we want it to.

Philip Guston's City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum's Witness Exhibit

Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum’s Witness Exhibit

For Americans, viewing “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” will demonstrate that art and activism go hand-and-hand and that we can and should respect the artist for both. It will also serve as an emotional reminder of our own dirty little past. But in the end, it will make you wonder – while these tactics worked in 1960s America, a largely democratic society, will they also work in Ai’s authoritarian China? One hopes that Ai’s art is not in vain, but, as China’s new regime even more violently cracks down on any purported challenge to its rule, only the future can tell.

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Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is only on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 13, 2014. “According to What?” is on view until August 10, 2014. This will be the exhibit’s final stop on its international tour. While entrance to the Brooklyn Museum is a suggested donation of $12, “According to What?” is a required $15 ticket (which includes price of general admission). Note that the dioramas of Ai’s detention are on the first floor before purchasing tickets and thus can be viewed for free.

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.

Ai Weiwei – Artist, Dissident and….Tax Evader?

By , June 30, 2011

Getting caught for tax evasion

Originally posted on the Huffington Post

Taxes are a tricky business in any country, let alone China.  Tax codes are usually overly complicated and let’s face it, if you are making money, you can afford to hire accountants who think “creatively.”  American country singer Willie Nelson owed close to $32 million dollars in back taxes when the IRS declared one of the tax shelters his accountant was using to be in violation of the U.S. tax code (he later settled for $16 million, raising the majority of that money through the sale of his album entitled “The IRS Tapes: Who Will Buy My Memories?”); Leona Helmsey, the billionaire New York City hotel operator, served four years in prison for tax fraud (Helmsey allegedly enlightened her staff on a regular basis that “We don’t pay taxes.  Only the little people pay taxes.”); and Al Capone, mafia hitman, bootlegger and perhaps the most famous tax evader of all time, served his longest sentence, seven years, for tax evasion.

When Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei was freed from police custody last Wednesday, the question was raised, most notably by Brian Lehrer in his interesting interview with Human Rights Watch’s Phelim Kine: “are you sure his detention was for being a critic of the government and not for evading taxes?”

Since his release, the Chinese government has vaguely issued more information about the investigation that landed Ai in criminal detention for the past two and a half months.  Although neither formally charged, arrested nor indicted, Chinese officials stated that Ai was held for “failure to pay a ‘huge amount’ of taxes and for willfully destroying financial documents.”  In particular, officials alleged that Ai’s company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. failed to pay 5 million RMB (USD 770,000) and owed an additional 7.3 million RMB (USD 1.1 million) in penalties.

But the question remains, what is Ai’s individual liability for a corporation’s tax evasion?  Is he financially liable?  Can

In 2008, Ai was a Chinese government darling, designing the acclaimed Birdsnest Stadium

he be criminally prosecuted?

The answer is….you betcha,  if it is determined that Ai had some form of “direct responsibility” over Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd.

Article 201 of China’s Criminal Law criminalizes tax evasion (Amendment VII to the Criminal Law Amends Article 201).  Like many laws in China, the actual law is not the end all and be all.  Because China is a civil law country, often the generalities of the national law are fleshed out in various agencies’ “interpretations.”  Here, Article 201, is further defined through the “Interpretation of the Supreme People’s Court on Some Issues concerning the Specific Application of Laws in the Trial of Criminal Cases for Tax Evasion and Refusal to Pay Tax” (“SPC Interpretation”).

The SPC Interpretation further defines tax evasion as: (a) forging, altering, concealing or destroying without authorization accounting books or supporting vouchers for the accounts; (b) overstating expenses or not stating or understating income in accounting books; (c) being notified by the tax authority to file tax returns but refusing to do so; (d) filing false tax returns; and(e) after paying the tax, fraudulently regaining the tax paid through the adoption of deceptive means such as fraudulently declaring the commodities it produces or operates as export goods.

But while Article 201 and the corresponding SPC Interpretation only uses the term “taxpayer,” Article 211 of the Criminal Law clarifies liability when the taxpayer is a corporation or business unit: “Units committing offenses under Articles 201, 203, 204, 207, 208, and 209 of this section shall be punished with fines, with personnel directly in charge and other directly responsible personnel being punished according to these articles, respectively.”

Thus if Ai Weiwei is determined to be a “personnel directly in charge” (直接负责的主管人员) of the Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. he could potentially be criminally and economically liable.  Ai’s family has maintained that Ai cannot be on the hook because he is not the company’s “chief executive or legal representative.”  However, the Chinese for “personnel directly in charge” is not limited to just the chief executive or legal representative; rather it is anyone in the company with management responsibility (主管人员 is better translated as executive officer).

Ai Weiwei - a directly responsible person?

Furthermore, the second category “other directly responsible personnel”(其他直接责任人员) contemplates a much broader group of people that could potentially be anyone affiliated with the company that has some type of vaguely-defined “direct responsibility” over the company.

Potentially, there could be some validity to the alleged charges against Ai for Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. if the company did in fact evade taxes.  The Chinese government has yet to offer any evidence of the company’s tax evasion.  The company’s attorneys have appealed the charges of tax evasion and have requested a hearing before the Beijing Tax Bureau.

But if there is tax evasion, Ai’s liability will ultimately be determined by defining what his precise role is within the company.  According to friends and family members, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd. merely dabbled in small design projects; the company was not involved in selling Ai’s work.  In fact, according to Ai’s family, it is his wife who is registered as the company’s legal representative not Ai; Ai was a mere consultant.

And while the Chinese government could potentially have a legitimate claim against Ai for the company’s tax evasion, it’s illegal detention of Ai, the fact that there is still no official indictment, the fact that the government continues to hold incommunicado the company’s accountant, the one person who could explain the company’s actual tax filings, and that the government went after Ai instead of his wife, the legal representative of the Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., makes one suspect that the potential charges against Ai are a legal long-shot.  Instead, political considerations – the need to silence one of Beijing’s most vocal and well-known critics – are the real reasons behind the prosecution of Ai.  Again, the rule of law in China takes a back seat to politics and Party supremacy.

Rights Lawyer Gao Zhisheng’s Wife on His Abduction

By , March 28, 2011

Gao Zhisheng is perhaps the most well-known of China’s rights-defending lawyers.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Gao began successfully representing victims of medical malpractice and farmers denied just compensation for their land.  In fact, in 2001, Gao was named by China’s Ministry of Justice as one of China’s most influential lawyers.  Spurred by his success and what appeared to be a Chinese government welcoming a stronger public interest law bar, Gao expanded his work to included practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious organization which the Chinese government has long feared as a threat to its one-party rule and has declared a cult.  Gao’s representation of Falun Gong practitioners did not just highlight the baseless accusations of “using superstitious sects [cults] to undermine the implementation of the law” (China’s Criminal Law, art. 300), but also the torture of Falun Gong practitioners while in police custody (for a seminal article on Gao’s work, see Eva Pils, Asking the Tiger for His Skin: Rights Activism in China, Fordham International Law Journal 2007. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1563706).

Gao’s zealous advocacy of Falun Gong practitioners did not go unnoticed by the Chinese government, and his status as a lawyer to be celebrated for representing society’s most vulnerable, quickly changed.  Gao was now viewed as a piranha of the state. In December 2006, Gao was convicted of subversion and was given five years probation to be served from his home.  However, in February 2009, Gao was abducted from his home by the police.  For over fourteen months, he was not heard from and no one knew where he was.  In April 2010, Gao emerged from seclusion only to be abducted again only two weeks later.  During the time he was free, he was able to report to the Associated Press the torture he underwent while in police custody.

Gao’s whereabouts, like recently abducted rights defending lawyers Tang Jitian, Teng Biao, and Jiang Tianyong, remain unknown.  In a plea for the world to pay attention to these random and lawless detentions, Gao’s wife, Geng He, who was able to flee to the United States with their two children in January 2009, published an op-ed in today’s New York Times.  Below is an excerpt with a link to the full article.  Geng begs that if her husband has been killed, that the Chinese government have the dignity to return his body so that his family can lay him to rest.

The Dissident’s Wife

By Geng He

Gao Zhisheng with his wife, Geng He, and their two children

Gao Zhisheng with his wife, Geng He, and their two children

San Francisco – WITH the world’s attention on the uprisings in the Middle East, repressive regimes elsewhere are taking the opportunity to tighten their grip on power. In China, human rights activists have been disappearing since a call went out last month for a Tunisian-style “Jasmine Revolution.” I know what their families are going through. Almost a year ago, the Chinese government seized my husband and since then, we have had no news of him. I don’t know where he is, or even if he is alive.

Click here for full article

Xu Zhiyong and What his Detention Means for Rule of Law in China

By , August 17, 2009

Originally posted on the Huffington Post

Just before dawn on July 29, 2009, the Beijing police apprehended leading Chinese public interest lawyer, Xu Zhiyong, allegedly to question him about possible tax evasion.  He has not been heard from since.  In an increasingly conservative political environment in China, Mr. Xu’s detention is far from an anomaly.  Many speculate that the Chinese government’s recent crackdown on public interest lawyers is merely a part of the preparations for the 60th

Xu Zhiyong; Photo by Shizhao

Xu Zhiyong; Photo by Shizhao

Anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China this fall.  But in looking beneath the surface of the government’s recent actions, a different narrative emerges.

The apprehension of Mr. Xu, the forced closure of his legal assistance organization, Gongmeng (in English the Open Constitution Initiative), the investigation of Yi Ren Ping, a non-profit law center that assists AIDS and hepatitis patients with anti-discrimination actions, the recent disbarment of over 20 public interest lawyers, the professional “exile” of a leading legal scholar and outspoken critic to a remote region of China, all of these actions paint the picture of a government that has become increasingly more alarmed by a more vocal and organized group of lawyers.  The government, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which ultimately controls all governmental bodies, has begun to view the development of these non-profit lawyers and legal reform as a threat to its authority and to the one-party rule of the CCP.  Recent governmental assaults on the public interest law field are not just a one-off affair.  Rather, they show a CCP not looking to embrace the “rule of law,” but instead seeking to contain it.

Development of Rule of Law in China from the US & Chinese Perspectives

Both China and the U.S. agree that greater rule of law in China is needed and can benefit China.  Virtually every conference between the two nations mentions the need for rule of law development. But what is never articulated is what each means by “rule of law.”  Many Western scholars claim that rule of law is value-neutral; it is merely a system where laws are enforced in a transparent manner by an independent judiciary and that rule of law can exist regardless of the political system of the country.

And while this is likely true, the U.S. government still largely views rule of law within the rubric of democracy; as the rule of law develops so does democracy and greater protection for human rights.  Of the $27 million the government appropriated to rule of law projects in China in 2008, $15 million were administered by the Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and another $2 million was designated for non-State Department rule of law projects (see CSR report, p. 2).

China, however, takes a different perspective.  While seeing the benefits of rule of law in terms of economic development, international acceptance and respect, and the ability for the central government to have greater control over the provinces, China has largely limited rule of law to the economic sphere and at times, a few other select areas.  If a case involves a politically sensitive issue, involves an organized group of plaintiffs, or could unmask government malfeasance, the government will either not allow a case to proceed or will determine the ultimate outcome.

Even with this limited development toward legal reform, many U.S. policymakers believe that rule of law will continue to spread and permeate lawyers’, judges’ and society’s consciousness.  This Trojan horse strategy assumes that legal reform in the economic sphere will inevitably spread to all areas of the law and to Chinese civil society.  Government will be held more accountable to the people, laws will be administered transparently and all rights, political, economic and social, will be able to be vindicated.  But proponents of this theory offer little to no evidence as to why.  Why is this inevitable? Why can’t China succeed in limiting legal reform to the economic sphere?  Why can’t rule of law be contained?

In other words, what if China is the black swan in the whole rule of law theory?

Emergence of a More Conservative Legal Ideology in China

Theory of the Three Supremes

The detention of Xu Zhiyong comes amid an increasing conservative political environment in China, at least in terms of legal reform.  In December 2007, President Hu Jintao attempted to reassert the importance of the CCP in legal interpretation and reform by announcing his theory of  “The Three Supremes:” judges and prosecutors should “always regard as supreme the Party’s cause, the people’s interest, and the Constitution and laws.”   Although initially unclear if the Three Supremes were listed in hierarchical order, a recent announcement in July 2009 by a justice minister confirmed the hierarchical nature of the Three Supremes and the preeminence of the CCP when he called upon lawyers to “above all obey the Communist Party and help foster a harmonious society.”

Wang Shengjun, President of the Supreme People's Court

Wang Shengjun, President of the Supreme People's Court

The Three Supremes is not just rhetoric.  In March 2008, the National People’s Congress named Wang Shengjun, a Party insider without any legal training, as head of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), replacing reform-minded and trained lawyer Xiao Yang.  Upon taking his position Wang has worked ardently to have the courts conform to the Three Supremes.

A More Organized Public Interest Law Movement

While the government expounds the Three Supremes and imposes this conservative ideology on the legal system, public interest lawyers have become increasingly organized and vocal.  In August 2008, a group of 35 public interest lawyers in Beijing issued an internet appeal that requested that the government-controlled Beijing Lawyers’ Association (BLA) to conduct free and direct elections of governing officials of the BLA.  In December 2008, human rights activists, many of whom are lawyers, signed Charter 08, a petition to the Chinese government calling for greater human rights, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  In addition, many of the non-profit lawyers, including Xu Zhiyong, have represented plaintiffs in politically sensitive cases, including cases pertaining to the Sichuan earthquake and the melamine milk scandal.  Last year, Xu’s organization issued a report blaming Chinese policies in Tibet for the 2008 uprising in that region.

China’s Recent Response

Under the doctrine of the Three Supremes, China has not responded kindly to these public interest lawyers.  Although the BLA slightly altered its voting rules by allowing for the direct election of representatives who then in-turn elected the governing officials, in February 2009, the local Judicial Bureau sought its revenge.  After withholding a license from Li Subin, one of the advocates of the new voting procedures at the BLA, the Bureau issued an order for Yitong Law Firm, which employed Li, to shut down for six months for permitting a non-licensed attorney to practice law.

Liu Xiaobo, a leading human rights activist in China and signatory to Charter 08 was detained by police just hours before the publication of Charter 08.  He remains in police custody.  He Weifang, a well-known law scholar at the prestigious Peking University has been sent into professional exile and now teaches law in China’s most western region, Xinjiang.

Xu Zhiyong has faced a similar fate.  In May 2009, tax authorities began to investigate Xu’s non-profit legal center, Gongmeng.  On July 14, the Beijing office of the National Tax Bureau and the Beijing Local Tax Bureau each issued a notice to Gongmeng for non-payment of taxes on funds donated by Yale University and levied the maximum penalty of five-times the amount owed, or $208,000.  On July 17, twenty officials from the Beijing Office of Civil Affairs barged into the Gongmeng offices, confiscating all materials including computers, case files, and furniture, and shut down Gongmeng.  On July 29, Xu was apprehended by police for suspicion of tax evasion; he remains in custody.

In a Kafkaesque turn of events, on August 5, after raising at least some funds to pay its fine, the Beijing Public Security Bureau froze all of Gongmeng’s accounts.  On August 10, in an attempt to discuss this matter with tax officials at the Beijing Local Tax Bureau and the National Tax Bureau, Gongmeng officials were escorted out.   Authorities have informed Gongmeng that their recently filed paperwork is invalid because it does not contain the signature of Gongmeng’s legal representative, Xu Zhiyong. As this back-and-forth continues, Xu Zhiyong remains in police custody and the fine of $208,000 accrues daily compounded interest of 3%.

Also on July 29, officials from Beijing Cultural Market Administrative Enforcement Unit inspected the offices of Yi Ren

Click on image to open a PDF version of the Timeline of Events

Click on image to open a PDF version of the Timeline of Events

Ping, a non-profit organization that files anti-discrimination lawsuits on behalf of people AIDS or hepatitis.  Claiming that their search was being conducted under the Measures to Manage Internal Material Publications, a law that was repealed in 2001, the officials seized 90 copies of Yi Ren Ping’s newsletter.

China’s Containment of Rule of Law

The Chinese Communist Party is unified by one principle – to remain in power.  Any organized effort, even if within the confines of the law, will be viewed as a threat to the CCP’s authority.  In recent months, Chinese public interest lawyers have been effectively organizing themselves, especially through the internet, to challenge the current system.  However, these lawyers are far from what the rest of the world would deem radical.  They are merely using the laws passed by the National People’s Congress to protect people, especially those in disadvantaged groups like rural parents in Sichuan or people with AIDS.  They are not looking to overturn underlying constitutional principles; they just want to enforce the law as written.

Even though these lawyers work within the system to improve Chinese society in a way that the law permits, as soon as they amass sufficient numbers, in the minds of the CCP, they are no longer operating within the legal system, but within the political one.  In these situations, the CCP will abandon the legal system in favor of the political one.

But this is not to say that rule of law has not taken hold in China.  Today, foreign corporations usually receive a fair hearing before arbitration commissions and the majority of cases handled by the courts are ordinary cases that involve little to no Party interference.  There has been a marked increase in the professionalism of many judges and lawyers, and there is a sincere effort by many in the profession to develop greater rule of law.

However, those few cases that involve large groups of people or involve issues sensitive to the CCP, often do not receive the same transparent and independent judgment.  In these situations, the outcome is ultimately determined by the CCP.

Thus far, China has been successful at confining rule of law development to non-political cases.  The actions that have been taken against public interest lawyers in the past two years show China’s commitment to maintaining this separation.  The government’s harassment and detention of public interest lawyers is intended to have a chilling effect on the profession.  The low numbers of lawyers who seek a career in the public interest can be seen as a reflection of this impact.

But can China succeed in containing rule of law to certain areas?  Many look to Taiwan and South Korea as an example of the inevitability of legal reform and democracy in an East Asian society.  Both were under authoritarian regimes but eventually developed vibrant legal systems.  However, China is in a very different place.  Taiwan and South Korea were still dependent on the U.S. for trade and for military protection, and thus heavily influenced by the U.S.  China, on the other hand, has become an economic and military powerhouse, beholden to few other nations.  One of those countries is, of course, the United States, but China has gained significant leverage in this bilateral relationship by stocking up over $700 billion in US treasury bonds. All the while, it has been able to develop its economy while limiting legal development in the political and human rights spheres.  Its continued rise only solidifies the need for this separation in the minds of the CCP leadership.

China’s future remains uncertain and only time will tell if rule of law does in fact permeate other areas of Chinese society.  However, at this juncture, where China has become an important global power, it is important for U.S. policymakers to re-evaluate their assumptions of the rule of law landscape in China; and to ask themselves, what if China is successful in containing rule of law to certain segments?  Can the U.S. live with that reality?  Will it have a choice?

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