Posts tagged: Li Tiantian

Don Clarke & Li Tiantian: Two Takes on the Jasmine Revolution in China

China's Jasmine Revolution?

In February 2011, the Chinese government began a quick and widespread crackdown on Chinese rights-defending (“weiquan”) lawyers and activists, abducting many for days to months on end, some subject to torture while in government custody.  The general narrative that has emerged to explain this recent crackdown is the Chinese government’s fear that an Egypt-like democratic revolution could occur in China, overturning the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party rule.

Make no mistake these extrajudicial abductions are not permissible under Chinese criminal law and like other countries, there are laws in China that restrict the government.  Under Chinese Criminal Procedure Law (“CPL”), a detention warrant issued by a public security organ must be presented when an individual is taken into custody (CPL Art. 64); either the family members or the employer of the detained individual must be informed of the reasons for the detention within 24 hours (CPL Art. 64); the first interrogation of the detained person must be conducted within the first 24 hours (CPL Art. 65); after the first interrogation, the detained person has the right to retain a lawyer and the lawyer has a right to meet with his or her client (CPL Art. 96 – note that this provision makes it legal for the first interrogation to be conducted without a lawyer present); and after 37 days in custody, the detained individual must either be arrested or released (CPL Art. 69).  Additionally, Article 238 of the Chinese Criminal Law criminalizes any unlawful detention or deprivation of personal liberty, imposing a harsher criminal sanction on state functionaries.

So the question remains, if the Chinese government just flouts these laws, why does it bother?

Rule of Law in China?

And what does this say about its progression toward a rule of law, a progression the Chinese government maintains is its goal?

Prof. Donald Clarke of George Washington University Law School came out with a rather thought-provoking essay last Thursday, seeking to answer some of these questions, and put China’s ‘rule of law’ development in some sort of perspective.  In “China’s Jasmine Crackdown and the Legal System,” Prof. Clarke dispenses with the conventional idea that China was ever on the path toward a rule of law.  Defining a rule of law as a system “where there are meaningful restraints on the powers of government” and that “those in power cannot do simply as they please,” Prof. Clarke maintains that the Chinese government never had the intention to be held accountable; its quest toward a “rule of law” for the past 30-odd years has just been about creating government efficiencies.  In 1978, to become a successful market economy, the Chinese leadership had to create some legal system since Mao had all but dispensed with law by the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  But while these developments in the economic-legal sphere might have the looks of a rule of law, scholars are wrong to think that it was ever the government’s intention to be held accountable under a true rule of law system.  Many of the Chinese government’s recent actions, including the crackdown on rights-defending lawyers, exemplify the leadership’s anti-commitment to a rule of law.

Rights-defending Lawyer Li Tiantian

There is something to be said for Prof. Clarke’s assessment and in many ways it is accurate: the leadership appears unwilling to allow anything it deems “political” to be handled by the legal system and this appears to explain its harsh assault the past few years on rights-defending lawyers.  It’s commitment to a “rule of law,” a commitment it repeatedly states in various US-China dialogues, seems specious if it does not allow a space for rights-defending lawyers.  But Prof. Clarke’s analysis is very top-down and doesn’t take into effect the rights-defending lawyers themselves.  And this is where the other fascinating essay from last Thursday comes into play, Li Tiantian’s blog post “I was Discharged from the Hospital” (translation courtesy of Siweiliozi’s Blog).  Li Tiantian is a Shanghai-based rights-defending lawyer, taken into custody on February 19, 2011 and held incommunicado for three months, finally released on May 24, 2011.  In a highly allegorical essay, Li Tiantian recounts her captivity:

It’s been a while since I’ve been in touch. First, let me tell you a story.

One day, a hornet worried unreasonably that a little bird would stir up its nest. (As it happened, some distant hornet nests had recently been stirred up.) The hornet grabbed the little bird and began stinging it frenziedly. Unable to bear the hornet’s stings and thinking there was no point to suffering this ordeal, the bird realized that no one would gain anything and that there was no way to change the hornet’s ways. So, the bird kneeled down to the hornet and kowtowed in order to extricate itself. The hornet, knowing that the force of justice was on the increase in the animal world, didn’t dare do anything rash to the bird and came up with a plan that would satisfy everyone. It agreed to release the little bird, but only if the bird promised: (1) not to speak of the past few months; (2) not to damage the hornet’s reputation; and (3) not to urge other animals to stir up the hornet’s nest. Finally the bird was free. (…read more here…)

Li Tiantian’s publication of this blog post soon after her release belies her commitment to any kind of silence concerning her unlawful detention.  The fact that her blog post was pulled – likely by the Chinese government – a few days later is not surprising.  But her brazenness is.  After three months in custody, unable to communicate to the outside world, and subject to heaven’s knows what, Li still feels the need to speak; still feels the need to give push back to the government.

Prof. Clarke presents a government that doesn’t want to give people like Li Tiantian any space; but Li Tiantian has no plans to give up that easily.  True that since many of the lawyers’ release, most have kept out of the spotlight, but will they continue to do so?  And how can the Chinese government expect them to?

Prof. Clarke is right to contend that the Chinese Communist Party is not interested in a “rule of law” if it means that it will contain the Party.  But after 30 years of constantly reiterating – both domestically and abroad – the idea of a rule of law, sending lawyers, judges, and academics abroad to study Western countries’ legal systems, and inviting various foreign legal NGOs to establish offices in China and work with Chinese layers, some belief in a rule of law must have permeated  society, especially for academics and rights-defending lawyers, the beneficiaries of much of China’s rule of law programs.

Prof. Clarke compares the Chinese government to a well organized army: sure there are lots of bureaucratic rules that must be followed, but those rules are not intended to be followed by the commander.  For Prof. Clarke, an army, with all the rules that help it function, is in no way a rule of law society.

But running a society is different from running an army; unquestionable allegiance to hierarchy is not naturally found in society like it is among foot soldiers in an army.  Ultimately, Prof. Clarke’s essay raises another question: while the Chinese government has little interest in rule of law, will these rights-defending lawyers succumb and just disappear?  Li Tiantian’s essay upon her release heavily implies that the answer is no and that among some in China, there is a true commitment to a greater rule of law, even if not found within the ruling party.

In Defense of Dylan in China: Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesize with Your Pen

By , April 10, 2011

Originally posted on The Huffington Post

Bob Dylan performed in concert in Beijing on April 6 and Shanghai on April 8

Maureen Dowd’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times – Blowin’ in the Idiot Wind – lambasts singer-songwriter/protest-singer/civil-rights-activist/voice-of-a-generation/whatever-he-is-to-you Bob Dylan for his recent concert in Beijing, China.  For Dowd, Dylan’s acceptance of the Chinese government’s approval of his set list is anathema to everything he represents.  Dropping his famous protest songs of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A’Changin’” from the set list during China’s most severe crackdown on its own citizens since 1989 and ignoring the recent detention of Chinese rights activists shows, for Dowd, that Dylan is nothing more than a sellout, willing to auction his morals to the highest bidder.

But Dowd’s virulent critique of Dylan makes one wonder, where has she been in all of this?  Dowd is an obvious Dylan fan, likely even a disciple, with her skilled use of Dylan quotes and understanding of the man’s extremely tangled and uncomfortable history with fame.  But China’s “harshest crackdown on artists, lawyers, writers and dissidents in a decade” and its “dispatching the secret police to arrest willy-nilly, including Ai Weiwei” as Dowd notes, didn’t just start this weekend and didn’t just start with the detention of Ai Weiwei.

Since the middle of February, the Chinese government has been illegally abducting Chinese rights activists, preventing them from contacting their family let alone a lawyer, and subjecting them to torture and abuse.  This siege on rights activists in China is done as a pre-emptive strike on the nascent civil society that has been developing and is an attempt for the Chinese Communist Party to avoid the fate of Mubarak and Ben Ali and maintain its one-party authoritarian rule, especially as a change of leadership comes in 2012.

Tang Jitian was abducted from his home on February 16, 2011, starting what has proved to be a wide-cast net of illegal abductions and abuse (abuse of both China’s own laws and the individuals that remain in custody).  Since then, Dowd has written 13 columns, not a single one dealing with the issue of the Chinese government’s harsh and violent crackdown on its citizens.  Today’s column barely touches upon the issue and instead focuses on Dylan’s “selling out.”

Let’s face it, Dylan is unable to sell out because he never bought in in the first place.  Dylan never fully engaged the civil rights movement.  While his songs did become a motivating force for many of the great civil rights activists and moments in U.S. history, by 1965, he was done with folk and had plugged in.  And since the 1980s, Dylan has been on a non-stop tour, selling the rights of his iconic protest songs to commercial entities (the rights to Times They Are A Changin’ was first sold to accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand and in 1996 to the Bank of Montreal), appearing in a Victoria’s Secret ad, producing an abysmally bad Christmas album, and almost never including Blowin’ in the Wind and the Times They Are A’Changin’ in any set list anywhere in the world (review his set lists here: http://www.bobdylan.com/tour/calendar/2010).

Dylan’s lack of mentioning China’s recent crackdown on dissent isn’t shocking.  In fact, the old guy likely knows nothing of what is happening in China – why should we rely on him to be our voice and do all the work?  This isn’t his issue; in fact, the man likely has no issues other than himself.

Which brings us back to Maureen Dowd.  Unlike most of the people concerned about human rights abuses in China, Dowd has a powerful platform for her voice – her twice-a-week column in the N.Y. Times.  With a large and influential readership that likely reaches the halls of the White House and Congress, discussion of China’s recent abuse of its own citizens and its subversion of a rule of law in her column could influence important policy makers as well as the world-at-large.

To their credit, some of the world’s major newspapers have been reporting on China’s recent crackdown, but these articles have been cursory at best and do not fully explain why China’s recent assault goes above and beyond what traditionally occurs in an authoritarian regime.  But most individuals knowledgeable on the issue have had extreme difficulty in getting their voice out in the mainstream press (kudos though to The International Herald Tribune and the N.Y. Times for publishing opinion pieces in its print editions and kudos to  The Guardian and the Wall Street Journal for having opinion pieces on the issue in their online papers).

Dowd has the opportunity to expose what is happening in China and call for the freeing of, or at the very least the end of the abuse of, not just Ai Weiwei, but also rights-defending lawyers Tang Jitian, Jiang Tianyong, Teng Biao, Liu Shihui, Tang Jingling, Li Tiantian, and Gao Zhisheng.  The whereabouts of these lawyers, unlawfully abducted by Chinese authorities (even under Chinese law), remain unknown.  Their only offense: asking the Chinese government to uphold its promise of a rule of law and using the legal system to protect society’s most vulnerable.

Dowd’s disappointment in Dylan’s snub of China’s crackdown on dissent leads me to believe that this is an issue Dowd is concerned about.  But instead of asking Dylan to be the spokesperson for the issue, Dowd should practice what she herself appears to preach.  My challenge to Dowd is to use her sharp-witted pen and find a way to raise the plights of China’s rights-defenders in the American consciousness instead of relegating it to two sentences in a column that is otherwise a critique of Dylan.  If Dowd doesn’t, then I am left to think “you could have done better but I don’t mind, you just kinda wasted my precious time….”

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