Posts tagged: Rule of Law

Wagging the Dog? The Chinese Government Response to the New Citizen Movement

Prof. Eva Pils

Prof. Eva Pils

In Part 1 of this interview series with Prof. Eva Pils, an associate professor of law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and research fellow at NYU’s U.S.-Asia Law Institute, Prof. Pils described the “weiquan” (rights defense) movement in China.  Here in Part 2, Prof. Pils continues by discussing the emergence of one of the most significant and organized aspects of the weiquan movement, the New Citizen Movement.  What is it these New Citizens want and what is it that causes the government to violently suppress some of the Movement’s leaders?  Prof. Pils answered these questions and more when China Law & Policy sat down with her last month.

 

 

 

Read the transcript below of Part 2 of this three-part interview or click on the media player to listen:

Length: 13:38 minutes

To read or listen to Part 1 of this three-part interview series with Prof. Pils, click here

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

EL:  So just to get a little bit more specific, I want to turn now to focus on Xu Zhiyong who just received in January four years in

Emblem of the New Citizens Movement - calligraphy of Sun Yatsen

Emblem of the New Citizens Movement – calligraphy of Sun Yatsen

prison.  He is a part of this “New Citizen Movement.”  Can you describe what that movement is a little bit?  Where did it emerge from and what its platform is?

EP:  So the New Citizen Movement, it emerged in 2012, around May 2012.  I think that it can be seen as in some ways a response to the problems that we have just been discussing, the [social] grievances, and also the problem of repression of civil society.  In some ways it is also due to changes that have come about because of new communication technologies – the social media – that have enabled a new form of activism to emerge not only in China but also in other parts of the world.  Think of the various Occupy movements and the Arab Spring.

That’s I think  one the reasons why the New Citizen Movement emerged.  Obviously it focuses on the idea of the citizen. When you look at what Xu Zhiyong in particular has provided as an analysis of citizenship, the concept of the citizen, you can see that it is a very strong, richly normative political conception of the citizen; a sort of 18th-century-Europe notion of the individual who has rights against the state.  I think that looking at the history of the human rights movement [in China] that we just discussed, you could perhaps also say that Xu Zhiyong,  having tried for ten years to introduce beneficial changes in China through case-by-case legal rights advocacy, comes to the conclusion, around 2011- 2012, that now a new method of advocacy has to be tried; that rights advocacy in a way has to move beyond working on individual cases, and become more issue-focused and more explicitly political.

Teng Biao, organizing without organizations

Teng Biao, organizing without organizations

So how do you do that in the context of a political system that very clearly does not allow a political opposition?  Like in other places in the world, the answer that seems to be emerging in China right now, as I see it, is to adopt forms of organization that are significantly different from what we’ve seen before.  Teng Biao, another very important scholar and rights advocate, has used Clay Shirky’s idea of organizing without organizations to describe what is going on here.  The idea is basically that you could achieve a high degree of coordination and  initiate various types of actions, civil society actions, without having a visible traditional organizational structure.  It’s also that in a new civil society political movement of this kind, you have to be very open.   You have to be the opposite of what characterizes, for instance, the rise of the Chinese Communist Party from its sort of underground years, to this moment when  it manages to control power.

An example of that [openness] would be, for instance, these so-called gongmin jucan [公民聚餐], the citizen meals that were organized by the New Citizen Movement.  The idea was really that you would somehow get people to distribute information about venue and time and so on online.  At some of the gongmin jucan, the new citizens meals that I have observed, it really was possible for people who simply had come across this information online to come along and join the meal.  It was entirely open towards anyone who wanted to show up.  That’s remarkable in the context of a system that, as you just said a while ago, scrutinizes everybody so much and has so much surveillance.  But the idea really was that this sort of openness represented a new form of political power that could be used to initiate some sort of change.  Along with that of course goes the idea that the activism of the New Citizen Movement must be non-violent.

EL:  Just in terms of numbers, what are we looking at in terms…how big would you estimate the movement is if you can even do that?  If you can, if you can. 

EP:  On the numbers, I have to say I don’t know.  Of course we have asked those various questions.  There is no very clear answer.

A New Citizen Dinner - From left to right: Guo Feixiong, Yang Zili, Xiao Guozhen, and Xu Zhiyong in a dinner gathering in Beijing. Photo Courtesy of Chinachange.org

A New Citizen Dinner – From left to right: Guo Feixiong, Yang Zili, Xiao Guozhen, and Xu Zhiyong in a dinner gathering in Beijing. Photo Courtesy of Chinachange.org

Perhaps one could say that in 2013 we had in a number of say in around 30 or so different Chinese cities you had a total of a couple hundred people who were essentially initiating and organizing these meals.  And by the way the idea was basically that you had a meal being held at the same time in different locations all over China potentially.  So you had a couple hundred people.  Perhaps that means a few thousand people who would be willing to show up for one or two or more of those who would be in some way supporting the New Citizens Movement.  Perhaps it would be good if we had access to (I have not) the list of people signing the so-called gongmin chengnuo [公民承诺] – the citizens pledge – that was issued in 2010 and was kind of an appeal to citizens from all walks of life to essentially pledge to be a good citizen using this political idea that Xu Zhiyong stands for and others stand for.

Something else that perhaps you could consider would be the level of support that Gongmeng [Open Constitution Initiative], the organization co-founded by Xu Zhiyong, got for its activism for educational rights for migrant worker children.  As I recall, at the time it was said that in Beijing they would be able to essentially reach tens of thousands of migrant worker parents.  So, certainly they were thinking big.  They were thinking that they could reach out to potentially everyone.  And if you look at the composition of the citizen meals, it wasn’t just lawyers; it was not just scholars, lawyers, people with legal education or that sort of background.  It was also people who were petitioners or people who just took an interest in what was going on there.

Education of migrant children - major political issue in China

Education of migrant children – major political issue in China

EL:  You raised the issue of education for migrant children as one of the issues, which would require a change to the hukou system.  And some of the other things of the New Citizen Movement advocates like more transparency of Chinese officials and their assets.  These are in fact the reforms that in the past year the Chinese government has stated that they are looking to examine or to adopt.  So it is seems like the Chinese government is sort of listening to the New Citizen Movement or at least their complaints.  But then, how do you mesh that with the fact that they’re arresting the advocates of that movement for disrupting public order.  What gives here?

EP:  I’m not so sure about that analysis.  I think that when you look at what the New Citizen Movement has advocated, yes of course you have some similarities to these reform policies announced by the Chinese government.  But, I don’t think that is by itself evidence that the government is following suggestions from the New Citizen Movement.  For one thing, these reform ideas were around long before the New Citizen Movement even emerged.

But perhaps more important is that you could also see this the other way around, and this is how it was analyzed by people involved in the various movements that you currently have in China.  People were saying that in some ways the New Citizen Movement had chosen to talk about causes that the government had already said it had adopted. That might be a way of coming across as a little bit less provocative than if you do what very clearly and visibly was done in the south of China  [in the context of] various movements around Guo Feixiong, another very important right advocate who is based in Guangzhou.  What you had there was really the use of much more aspiring and much more abstract political slogans: constitutional government, democracy, human rights — in those words.

So you have this very interesting discussion within these smaller sub-movements if you like, these groups within the human rights movement.  Some people were critical of the New Citizen Movement, saying that essentially it was not a good strategy to choose government slogans.  I remember one person saying basically that you shouldn’t think that the government is that stupid – those are his words – that ‘[you shouldn’t think that] just because you shout the government slogans they won’t come after you’   — they are not going to let you off just because you shout the identical slogans.

President Xi Jinping of China - listening to the New Citizens?

President Xi Jinping of China – listening to the New Citizens?

The reason for that [according to my interlocutor was that] as long as you make political demands of any kind they [the Chinese government] will assume that you want a share of the political power and that’s what the government won’t accept.  From that perspective, we were seeing an attempt to be a little bit less provocative by using campaign causes that were similar to the government, but that strategy essentially is not really working.  And I think that there is a whole lot more to say about the differences between what the New Citizen Movement, what other movements were calling for, and what the government has so far delivered.  For instance, when it comes to anti-corruption and so on.

EL:  So you wouldn’t say the government is co-opting the movement?

EP:  Oh no, no, no.  I don’t think so.

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

To read Part 3 of this three-part interview, please click here.

For Part 1 in this series, please click here.

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

Prof. Eva Pils

Prof. Eva Pils

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

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

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

Length: 14:49 minutes

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

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

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

Bringing back the law - Deng Xiaoping

Bringing back the law – Deng Xiaoping

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

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

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

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

The Jiansanjiang Four - from L to R: Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Junjie, Wang Cheng & Tang Jitian

The Jiansanjiang Four – from L to R: Jiang Tianyong, Zhang Junjie, Wang Cheng & Tang Jitian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Locked Up for Four Years - Human Rights Lawyer Xu Zhiyong

Locked Up for Four Years – Human Rights Lawyer Xu Zhiyong

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

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

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

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

"Social Stability" at all costs

“Social Stability” at all costs

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

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

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

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. 

Why Was There a Trial When Gu Kailai Confessed – China’s “Plea Bargaining”

By , August 29, 2012

As China Law & Policy reported last week, the guilty verdict issued against Gu Kailai for the murder of Neil Heywood came as no surprise, even with the slim evidence – much of it hearsay – presented at the August 9th trial.

One central piece of evidence at the eight hour trial was Gu’s own confession.  According to the Chinese state-run media, Gu openly confessed to intentionally killing Heywood.  But for some, this raises the question – do you need to have a trial at all if the defendant confesses?  Can’t she just plea to the murder and avoid the trial?

But does China even have plea bargaining?

China’s Summary Procedure – Not Exactly Plea Bargaining

Even in the United States, plea bargaining was not a welcomed occurrence.  Plea bargaining emerged as a grass-roots response by the actors in the criminal justice system – the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys – to the rapidly growing criminal docket.  Although first documented as widespread as early as the 1920s, it wasn’t until 1970, when the Supreme Court declared plea bargaining constitutional, that it became embraced, even if awkwardly.  Today, over 95% of all felony convictions in the United States result from plea bargaining.

In the adversarial system – where the prosecution and the defense battle it out to ultimately determine the truth and the judge plays a more passive role – plea bargaining has its place.  But in an the inquisitorial system – where the judge plays an active role in determining the facts – plea bargaining is not as openly accepted.  But criminal justice systems in civil law countries suffer from the same demands – too many case, too few lawyers and too little time.  As a result, even countries like Germany have developed a type of plea bargaining.  In Germany today, a remarkably high average of 20% to 30% of all convictions are the result of a confession.

In China, the story of plea bargaining has taken a similar path.  Innovation has come from the bottom up and its increasing use is a response to

Bargaining in the market - same as bargaining justice?

the exploding criminal caseload in most courts.   Beginning in 1996, with the first amended Criminal Procedure Law, China first introduced Summary Procedure – a form of plea bargaining where the trial is reduced in cases where the defendant confesses and agrees to summary procedure.  Under the 1996 CPL Summary Procedure could only be used in “minor” criminal cases, where the sentence was limited to three years or less.

But as China instituted another “strike hard campaign” and criminal dockets further ballooned, local courts began experimenting with Summary Procedure in major criminal cases (sentence of more than three years).  Eventually, most courts began issuing extending the use of Summary Procedure to major criminal cases, and most criminal cases, regardless of the sentence, were subject to Summary Procedure (these regulations referred to the use of plea bargaining-like procedures in major criminal cases as “Simplified Procedure“).  For further analysis of the development of Summary and Simplified Procedure, see Maybe a Plea But is It a Bargain: An Initial Study of the Use of Simplified Procedure in China.”

In amending the CPL in 2012, the Chinese government officially sponsored the use of Summary Procedure by extending the use of Summary Procedure to almost all criminal cases.  See Articles 208 to 214.

Summary Procedure is Not Allowed in Death Penalty Cases

Gu Kailai could not avail herself of Summary Procedure because the CPL does not permit the use of such procedures in capital cases.  The 2012 CPL Amendments don’t specifically spell this out.  Instead, Article 208 limits the use of summary procedure to those cases within the jurisdiction of the basic-level people’s court (基层人民法院).  However, under Article 20 of the CPL, the intermediate people’s court (中级人民法院) has jurisdiction in the first instance of all cases punishable by life in prison or death.

As a result of these two provisions, Gu Kailai, even if she wanted to use Summary Procedure, could not as her case was heard in an intermediate level court, and not a basic level court.

Summary Procedure Does Not Eliminate the Trial

But even if a crime is eligible for Summary Procedure, there is still a lot more judicial oversight than what you would see in the U.S.  This is a remnant of China’s civil law system where, due to the central role of the judge, the defendant cannot avoid a trial just by admitting guilt.

Under Summary Procedure, the “trial” is not eliminated, just shortened.  The judge will still review the prosecution’s file, call the parties to court, allow the parties to argue certain points and provide the defendant with the last word prior to judgment.  Under the current amendments, someone from the prosecutor’s office should attend the Summary Procedure trial.  This is an important change from the prior CPL which permitted the absence of the prosecutor, demonstrating that Summary Procedure is not just some rubber stamp of the defendant’s confession.  Cf. 1996 CPL Article 175 with 2012 CPL Article 210.

Thus, even if Gu’s trial was not a capital trial and she was able to avail herself of Summary Procedure, much of what was seen in court – the presentation of some evidence, her confession as the last word – would still have occurred.

Summary Procedure – Interesting Developments in the 2012 CPL Amendments

In addition to death penalty cases, the 2012 CPL Amendments list other situations where Summary Procedure is not prohibit.  Not surprisingly, in cases with a vulnerable defendant (blind, mute, deaf, or mentally ill) or in cases where there are multiple defendants and not all defendants have confessed.  See CPL Article 209(1) & (3).

But the 2012 CPL Amendments limits the use of Summary Procedure in one additional instance: where the case has a strong societal impact.  See Article 209(2).  This exception did not exist in the 1996 CPL articles governing Summary Procedure.  In adding this exception, it appears that the Chinese government acknowledges the potential political use of certain criminal trials.  Not surprisingly, that appears to be what happened in the case of Gu Kailai.

China Law & Policy Turns 2!

By , July 24, 2011

Birthday Wishes from Chuck Norris!

Last week marked the second anniversary of China Law & Policy’s founding – happy birthday China Law & Policy!

So how has year two been going?  One of the greatest challenges of this past year has been balancing working a full-time, non-China job with blogging.  It has not been easy and our goal of publishing at least one article a week sometimes was not met; in year two, we published 36 original blog posts.  But we continue to keep the scholarship level high, allowing for our readers to rely on the accuracy of the information in our posts.

In terms of readership, year two saw a marked growth.  China Law & Policy can now boast over 350 subscribers, over 200 Twitter followers and over 3,000 hits per month.

In year two we also experimented with Twitter, creating an automatic weekly blog post of our tweets.  We used this to recommend other articles our readership might find interesting.  In general, this Weekly Digest has not proved popular (although if your opinion differs, please let me know).  Instead, we have now have our tweets appearing in real-time on the left sidebar under “Recommended Articles.”

Our three most popular articles are more recent pieces.  By far, the overwhelming favorite article was “In Defense of Dylan in China: Come Writers and Critics Who Prophesize with Your Pen,” a critique of Maureen Dowd’s Bob Dylan in China op-ed piece.  Of more substance perhaps was our second most popular piece, “Don Clarke & Li Tiantian: Two Takes on the Jasmine Revolution in China,” comparing two pieces on the Jasmine Revolution in China.  Rounding out the top three was “Reality or Myth: China’s Rule of Law & Its Recent Assault on Lawyers,” an article alerting the world of China’s random abduction, abductions that still continue, of rights-defending lawyers.

One of my personal favorite posts was the book review of Nien Cheng’s Cultural Revolution memoir “Life & Death in Shanghai.”  Just discovering Cheng’s book was a pleasure, reading her story of survival was inspiring, but soon after the post, one of Cheng’s good friends in the U.S. emailed me to tell me that he was moved by my review.  He believed that if Cheng was still alive, she would have been happy to know that her book was still moving people.

When I created China Law & Policy, the goal was to provide a different voice to the China debate and to explain in easy to understand terms, why non-China people should care about some of the underlying issues about China’s rule of law development.  For the past few months, with the arrest, detention and abduction of rights-defending lawyers, human rights and rule of law has largely been a focus of this blog.  I will likely continue to focus on these issues as on some level, rule of law cannot be said to exist if rights-defending lawyers, those lawyers who keep the government in check, are continuously harassed.  However, in year three we will seek to cover other areas of legal development in China.

Also, to provide our readership with a more diversity of voices, in year three China Law & Policy will resume its podcast series and interview others on their thoughts of China’s legal development.

Most of all on our second anniversary, China Law & Policy would like to thank all those friends and colleagues who have continued to support our efforts.  To those who provide article ideas, edits, and challenges to some of our arguments, your advice, criticism and encouragement are always appreciated and we hope that you continue to engage us.

As always, China Law & Policy encourages readers to participate in the creation of this blog, either through writing blog posts or giving us ideas on what areas or issues to cover.  Have an idea?  An article?  Feel free to email: elynch@chinalawandpolicy.com

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.

Why So Secretive? US-China Legal Experts Dialogue

Who received the invitation to the Legal Experts Dialogue?

One would think that after a six-year hiatus, the resumption of the U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue would receive a little more fanfare than a cursory four-sentence press release from the Department of State (“DOS”), issued on June 6, a mere two days before the big event.

For the past two years, almost every high-level discussion between the U.S. and China has raised the issue of the Legal Experts Dialogue (“LED”), with the goal of resuming the talks (last held in 2005).  When President Obama visited China in November 2009, the two countries’ Joint Statement directly stated that “[t]he United States and China decided to convene the U.S.-China Legal Experts Dialogue at an early date.”  Ditto for the Joint Statement after President Hu’s visit to Washington, D.C. in January 2011.

It wasn’t until April 28, 2011, at the Human Rights Dialogue, that anyone provided somewhat more of a hard date.  At a press conference, Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner announced that the U.S. and China finally agreed to convene the LED in “June 2011.”  This vague date was reiterated a few weeks later in the statement issued at the conclusion of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue.

So why the lame press release about the LED?  It’s been a priority item in the U.S.’s negotiations with China.  One would think that finally being able to achieve the goal of actually having the LED and especially of hosting it in the midst of the Chinese government’s crackdown on rights-defending lawyers, would be a feather in DOS’s cap; something that they would want the world to know about.

Why remain mum on who these “experts” are and what they will be discussing?  Instead, DOS only states that there will be “government and non-government experts” who will “explore key legal issues of mutual interest.”  Could DOS be more vague?

There are occasions when the U.S. might achieve more by pressuring China behind the scenes.  In the case of Xu Zhiyong in 2009, it looks like that approached worked.  But the LED is a completely different beast – the existence of the Dialogue has long been made public and given that there will be non-government experts, it does not appear that there will be high-level discussions here on par with Hu-Obama talks.  It sounds like it is one group of lawyers talking to another.  Given some of the issues that have sprung up in the past few months, including the assault on public interest lawyers, China’s indigenous innovation policy, various WTO cases, and the criminal trials of U.S. citizens, it would be interesting to know what is on the agenda.

But in general, I do not hold out hope that the LED will produce any earth-shattering results, if it produces results at all.  While DOS has stated that there will be “in-depth discussions and practical cooperation on the rule of law” (yeah, I don’t know what that means either), it’s basically two days of meetings among strangers with translators in between.  How much can really be achieved?

And maybe that’s why the U.S. hasn’t given the LED the credit one would think it is due.  Maybe even DOS realizes that bringing over a delegation of Chinese lawyers and legal experts for a mere two days is likely a waste of taxpayer’s money.

I do think that more open dialogue between the U.S. and China is a good thing.  But there are better ways to increase the lines of communication between the legal communities in the two nations and assist China with improving upon its commitment to a rule of law.  Identifying and inviting reform-minded Chinese lawyers to the United States for a longer period of time – anywhere between three months to a year – is a better use of money.  Through that experience, a Chinese lawyer can see how our legal system functions, see the good and the bad, interact with U.S. lawyers, and determine which aspects if any should be replicated in China.

These types of sustained contact are what can best assist China with implementing a rule of law.  A two-day conference likely cannot.  But unfortunately, we won’t really know because nothing about the LED is publicly available.

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.

Book Review: Nien Cheng – Life & Death in Shanghai

When Nien Cheng passed away on November 2, 2009, I did not know who she was.  Chinese studies listserves were abuzz about her passing, but as someone who started in the Chinese studies field in the late 1990s, I was unfamiliar with her work.  A quick Wikepedia search revealed that in 1987, she wrote a book about her time in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – Life & Death in Shanghai – but her book didn’t seem any different than the many other memoirs I had read about the Cultural Revolution.

Fast forward a year and a half and I found myself in a soon-to-be-closed Borders Bookstore in lower Manhattan staring at a pile of Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai on the “Ultra Bargain Books” table and stamped with a $1.99 price tag.  Even at two bucks, I hesitated in purchasing the book, but Ms. Cheng’s picture on the cover – a grandmotherly woman, with big pearl earrings and make-up perfectly in place – refined, older and  beautiful Chinese woman wistfully gazing out – caught my attention.  And thankfully it did because Ms. Cheng’s memoir is decidedly different from the others I had read.  It is a must read for anyone who wants to truly understand both on an intellectual and emotional level, the personal and physical costs of China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Ms. Cheng’s story starts on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, a hot, steamy morning in her lavish Shanghai home.  Although the Chinese Communists had been in power for more than 15 years, three servants continue to wait on Ms. Cheng and her daughter.  But as the Cultural Revolution begins to heat up, her lifestyle, her life abroad, and her former employer in Shanghai – Shell Oil Company which only shut down its office in China in 1965 – make her the perfect target for Mao Zedong’s new campaign against the remaining vestiges of “capitalist privilege” in China.  On that fateful morning, Ms. Cheng is dragged away by low-level Chinese officials, all the while lamenting about their ill treatment and their improper manners.

Ms. Cheng’s complaints – of missed meals, the oppressive heat, the disrespect, ignorance and bad manners of the

Picture of a typical struggle session during the Cultural Revolution

Communist officials – continue for months during the summer of 1966 as the struggle sessions against her former Shell colleagues, and eventually her, increase in intensity.  At first, it’s hard to have much pity for Ms. Cheng – her grievances seem trivial, and – for lack of a better word – bourgeois.  Seventeen years into the Communist Party’s reign, how could Ms. Cheng expect to maintain such a lifestyle and it comes to a shock that she did.  But that is what makes Ms. Cheng’s memoir interesting and an essential read.  Most memoirs of the Cultural Revolution (at least in English) are written by former Red Guards – individuals who would have been in high school or college during the time.  Ms. Cheng was much older, much more experienced in life, and much more politically aware when the Cultural Revolution began.

Because of her age and experiences, Ms. Chung’s memoir does one of the best jobs in placing the Cultural Revolution in its historical context, questioning many people’s simple perception that the Chinese Party’s rule from 1949 until 1976 was a simple lineal progression to communism.  In fact, Ms. Cheng’s story shows that there were differing voices in the CCP leadership that at times held sway – Shell was allowed, even encouraged, to maintain a presence in China because by the early 1960s, certain market reformers had significant power in the Chinese leadership; at one point Ms. Cheng’s life was saved because she defended Liu Shaoqi – a senior leader who fell out of Mao Zedong’s favor but was still supported by certain Red Guard factions.

But more than the historical context is the strength that Ms. Cheng shows in her six years of solitary confinement, suffering the abuse, torture, and near death experience at the hands of the Red Guards.  Many a Cultural Revolution memoir is more of a mea culpa for the author’s betrayals – turning on a father or a close friend in order to preserve his or her own life.  But Ms. Cheng has no reason to offer such an apology for she never succumbs to what must have been intense pressures on the intellectual class.  Before being taken away to prison, Ms. Cheng is visited by a close friend of her dead husband who gives her one piece of advice – do not make a false confession, no matter how heavy the pressure.  These are words she ends up living by and which not only eventually save her, but save many others who the Red Guards attempted to implicate during Ms. Cheng’s various “interrogations.”  As Ms. Cheng points out in her book – although rule of law was largely non-existent during the Cultural Revolution, the procedures of a legal system were still in place – there was a deep need for her interrogators to obtain “evidence” in order to “convict” her and others of political missteps.

Nien Cheng (right) with her daughter Meiping

Ms. Cheng is finally freed in 1973 but it is questionable if her life improves.  [ATTENTION PLOT SPOLIER]  Upon her release, Ms. Cheng finds out that her daughter – her only child – has died.  The revelation takes the reader by surprise as one has been so focused on Ms. Cheng’s survival that one has forgotten about her life outside of prison.  Interestingly, Ms. Cheng’s memoir does not dwell on her daughter’s death nor does it describe the deep and visceral pain Ms. Cheng must have suffered in eventually learning that her daughter was killed by an overzealous Red Guard that attempted to pressure her to turn on her mother.  It is the murder of her daughter, and what is eventually the denial of justice for her daughter, that makes Ms. Cheng’s survival all the more tragic.  There will be no Hollywood ending for Ms. Cheng, where she is happily reunited with her daughter; instead, Ms. Cheng must live the remainder of her life with this hole in her heart, and while Ms. Cheng never precisely states it, the reader is left wondering why; why this gentle, strong woman had to lose her beautiful child; why any of this had to happen at all; and how could these experiences not still resonate in most Chinese people’s minds.

In 1983, Ms. Cheng left China for Canada and finally the United States.  But before leaving, Ms. Cheng donated her antique Chinese porcelain to the Shanghai museum.  When the Red Guards first ransacked her home in 1966, Ms. Cheng pleaded with the immature high school students to save her valuable pieces of porcelain, pieces that today fetch millions in auctions throughout the world by Chinese buyers attempting to reclaim their history.  But while Ms. Cheng still respects the beauty of these pieces, she no longer seems to care.

China changed much between Ms. Cheng’s departure and her death in 2009 – economic reforms ushered in a flourishing market economy, there was greater openness in thought and speech, and the political indoctrination of the Cultural Revolution ceased.  But Ms. Cheng never returned to her homeland.  Not surprisingly, her death was not widely reported on the mainland.  And this is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all – that the Chinese people are not afford the opportunity to celebrate this strong, kind, brave, and wonderful woman.  Instead, the Chinese Communist

Nien Cheng in her new homeland, the United States (1988)

Party insists on white-washing its history and denying its people the choice of what to remember and who to celebrate.  The newly renovated National Museum of History in Beijing barely mentions the Cultural Revolution, providing only one picture from that time period and three lines of text, reflecting a government intent on suppressing its own history.

Life and Death in Shanghai is one of the best Cultural Revolution memoirs I have read and is a must read for anyone who wants to understand China.  It is also a must read for the Chinese people as well, for them to know that during one of the darkest periods of their history, there were individuals who never lost sight of their moral convictions and who in their individual ways helped to guide their country through such a tumultuous period; even in the darkest days, there is still a history that the Chinese people can be proud of.  Hopefully one day, the Chinese people will be able to celebrate these people, like the rest of the world already has.

Rating: ★★★★★
Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Chang (Penguin Books, 1987), 543 pages.
 

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….”

Panorama Theme by Themocracy

%d bloggers like this: