Posts tagged: Chinese Communist Party

The Trial of Gu Kailai – Did the CCP Bite Itself in the Butt?

By , August 19, 2012

Happy times - Gu Kailai, Bo Xilai & son Bo Guagua

On Monday morning (Beijing time) the Hefei Intermediate Court will announce its verdict in the murder trial of Gu Kailai (pronounced Goo Kai-lie), wife of Chongqing’s purged Party Secretary and former rising star, Bo Xilai (pronounced Bwo See-lie).   The world will be waiting but not because the verdict is uncertain (Gu will be found guilty) or because she will receive the death penalty (likely her sentences will be commuted to death penalty with 2 year reprieve, a.k.a. life sentence); the world will be watching more because this absurd tale of kangaroo justice mixed with seemingly bizarre and inconsistent facts will finally come to an end.

August 9, 2012: The Eight Hour Murder Trial

Gu is accused of murdering one-time family friend and British businessman Neil Heywood in order to protect her son, Bo Guagua (pronounced Bwo Gwa-gwa).  While the eight-hour trial was publicized in the Chinese press, the evidence against Gu is flimsy at best.  Even the prosecutor’s arguments seemingly contradict the facts and common sense.  At the trial, prosecutors argued that Gu was motivated by a motherly (and as presented to the court mentally unstable) need to protect her adult son.

Allegedly, Heywood kidnapped Bo Guagua, kept him in his basement in England, and threatened his safety after a business deal went bust.  To

Neil Heywood, allegedly murdered by Gu Kailai

protect her son, in November 2011, Gu allegedly hatched a Tudor-esqe plan to convince Heywood to come to Chongqing where she met him at his hotel room, had him drink copious amounts of wine and tea, watched him vomit and then gave him a glass of water mixed with cyanide.  When Heywood’s dead body was discovered two days later, on November 16, 2011, by hotel staff, Gu allegedly convinced his wife in Beijing to cremate the body.

None of this makes sense, at least in terms of justice and accountability.  Since 2010, Gu’s son has lived in the United States, attending Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and Politics (he graduated May 2012).  At the very latest, Bo Guagua’s “kidnapping” would have occurred in early 2010, when he was a student at Oxford.  But wouldn’t Oxford have been aware of a missing student?  Wouldn’t a protective mother call the British police at the time to alert them of the kidnapping of her son?  Other than Gu’s “confession” and other witnesses’ statements read into the record by prosecutors, no tangible evidence was presented.

Gu Kailai – A Pawn in Her Husband’s Purge?

But this trial is not about sense, justice or accountability.  Instead, with its lack of evidence and with its fantastical soap-opera explanations, it is a song-and-dance number put on by the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) to explain the downfall of Gu’s husband, Bo Xilai.

Since 2007, Bo has had a successful run as Chongqing Party Secretary.  Starting in 2009, Bo lead a popular crack-down on corruption, prosecuting thousands of black market operatives.  Under Bo’s leadership, no one was safe; even corrupt politicians were prosecuted.   Chongqing, once the bastion of organized crime, had been cleaned up under Bo and its people were very happy.

As Chongqing Party Secretary, Bo also began efforts to revitalize Maoism.  Calling on the people to sing “red songs” and for the young to go to the countryside, Bo harkened back to the days of the Cultural Revolution.  Bo’s neo-Maoism was criticized in the Western press but was not opposed by all in Chongqing.  Namely, the “losers” of China’s economic development benefitted from Bo’s focus on public work projects and subsidized housing for the poor.

In Chongqing, Bo was becoming a powerful politician with an already regal pedigree (Bo is known as a “princeling,” the son of one of Communist China’s founding leaders).  By the middle of 2011, Bo had positioned himself perfectly for a powerful, national position with China’s change in leadership set for October 2012.  A position on the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee was not out of reach.

But Bo’s downfall began, not with the November 14, 2011 death of Neil Heywood, but with Wang Lijun’s – Chongqing’s police chief and long-time Bo ally –  alleged attempted asylum at the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu.  On February 6, 2012, Wang fled to the U.S. Consulate, allegedly fearing for his life and confessing to U.S. Consulate staff the secrets of Bo Xilai’s reign.  The U.S. did not provide Wang with asylum; once he left the consulate, Chinese officials boarded Wang on a flight to Beijing to be disciplined by the Party.

On March 15, 2012, Bo was dismissed as Chongqing Party Secretary although retained his position on the Politburo (but not yet the Standing Committee).  On April 10, 2012, the Chinese government announced its investigation of Gu Kailai for the November 14, 2011 murder of Neil Heywood and dismissed Bo from his remaining Party positions, effectively purging him.

Gu at her murder trial.

But did Gu actually kill Neil Heywood?  With the minimal “evidence” presented at trial, it’s unclear.  It could be that Heywood unexpectedly died while in Chongqing or that someone else killed Heywood and that pinning the murder of Gu is a more pleasant way for the Party to explain Bo’s purge than the actual truth.

Does a One-Party Authoritarian Dictatorship Need to Explain Its Purge?

In the past, the CCP has purged Party leaders without any explanation.  But in the case of Bo – with his international stature, relative popularity among the people, good looks, and money – purging him without any explanation would raise eyebrows to say the least.  One thing the CCP cannot have as it jockeys its leadership transition, is a public who questions its legitimacy.

The internet, fervent micro-blogging and greater access to information (even if it is government-censored), leaves the CCP susceptible to rumors (or in some cases, to uncovering the truth).  Some Party-approved narrative is necessary to explain a popular politician’s purge.  Here, Bo’s downfall is his wife’s alleged murder of Neil Heywood.   The criminal trial – held in a Hefei, not Chongqing court – adds further legitimacy to the Party’s narrative.

But even more importantly, the trial serves as an important signaling device for China’s internet users.  By leaking some information to the government-controlled press from the trial regarding the Party-approved narrative, the Party puts Chinese society on notice as to the acceptable dialogue surrounding Bo’s purge.

But Will the Trial of Gu Kailai Ultimately Bite the CCP in the Butt? 

It could be that Gu killed Heywood.  It could also be that she didn’t and that her trial is being used to mask the real reasons for Bo’s purge.  But

Yes, some more so than others.

regardless, the flimsy manner in which Gu will likely be convicted gives the appearance of her innocence.  The facts just don’t make sense and not just to the Western audience.  Likely many in the Chinese audience see this as well (they just know that they can’t talk about it).

The Party put on this show trial to bolster its legitimacy.  But ultimately it’s this trial that will undermine the Party’s legitimacy.  The CCP has a serious trust problem with its people – its people know that food safety is flouted with abandon, that government officials’ children get away with murder, that government statistics on air pollution are a lie, and now that something weird is going on within the Party over Bo Xilai.  But a people’s trust of its own government is necessary to its ultimate success.  Yes, in every country, people question some aspect of their government or their history, but not to the extent that happens in China.  Without trust, at some point the government won’t be able to function. So the question emerges, how many lies can the CCP continue to tell before its house of cards comes tumbling down?

Tipping Point in Censorship?

Have we hit a tipping point?

Last November I attended a fascinating talk by Rebecca MacKinnon, guru on all things censored and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. At the talk, MacKinnon’s focus was on the Chinese corporations that do China’s censorship bidding. MacKinnon noted that China’s internet regulations are not enforced by the government; rather the companies that manage China’s various and extremely active blogs and microblogs are responsible for enforcing China’s online censorship laws and regulations. Yes such censorship leaves these companies’ customers angry, but its worth it for what they get in exchange: an exclusive monopoly that keeps out more sophisticated players like Facebook and Twitter.

But MacKinnon hypothesized that at some point it won’t be economically worth it for these companies to continue to censor. MacKinnon highlighted the complete internet shutdown that occurred in Xinjiang province in 2009 for the entire year. That shut down harmed the local and regional economy. But even that wasn’t enough to cause these internet companies to push back against the government’s internet censorship and control. Instead, MacKinnon mused about the impact that such efforts would have in a more populous region or city, say like Shanghai.

And on Monday it looked like perhaps China reached that tipping point. Monday, June 4, marked the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, a sensitive date for China’s Communist Party. On Monday, the Shanghai stock market closed 64.89 points down. But 64.89 is not just any number, it’s the numerical translation of June 4, 1989. As reported in the New York Times, searches for “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market” and “index” were censored in response to this coincidence.

But can you imagine a country that censors words that are important for commerce? These aren’t searches for “Chen Guangcheng” or other Chinese activists; those searches would pull results that are obviously about human rights. But searches for business terms? To censor that in a market relies on the speed and effectiveness of the internet is not just plain wacky but bad for business.

Obviously the Shanghai stock market censorship is not yet the tipping point as internet censorship is still alive and well. But it makes me wonder, are we getting closer? Is what MacKinnon speculated – that eventually the goals of the Chinese government and of the Chinese internet companies will diverge – inevitable? To the extent that you buy into the hypothesis that the Chinese people have “made a deal” with their government – that in exchange for economic security the Chinese will give up some of their political freedoms – is it inevitable that that deal will be broken? The Shanghai stock market debacle hints that maybe in the end its the Party’s own paranoid censorship that will be its death knell.

I Pledge Allegiance to the CCP….Chinese Lawyers’ New Oath Requirements

By , March 22, 2012

I Pledge Allegiance....

In its ongoing efforts to tie the Chinese legal profession as tight as possible to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the government agency that oversees the legal profession, announced its new initiative on Wednesday: every new lawyer in China must pledge allegiance to the CCP.

Lawyers’ oaths are not unique to China: almost every state in the United States requires newly-admitted attorneys to recite an oath to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the state.  And this is not the first time that a lawyers’ oath has been required in China.  In 2000, the All China Lawyer’s Association (ACLA), the national bar association that all lawyers must be members of, first instituted an oath of office for all lawyers.  But in a Wednesday Legal Daily interview with an unnamed MOJ official, the MOJ determined that the ACLA oath was too general and ineffective.  As a result, the MOJ issued a new oath that must be sworn to in a formal ceremony (translation courtesy of Siweiluozi Blog):

I volunteer to become a practicing lawyer of the People’s Republic of China and promise to faithfully perform the sacred duties of a socialist-with-Chinese-characteristics legal worker (中国特色社会主义法律工作者); to be faithful to the motherland and the people; to uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and the socialist system; to safeguard the dignity of the constitution and the law; to practice on behalf of the people; to be diligent, professional honest, and corruption-free; to protect the legitimate rights and interests of clients, the correct implementation of the law, and social fairness and justice; and diligently strive for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics!

Compare this with the New York State oath taken by newly-admitted lawyers:

I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the New York Constitution, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of attorney and counselor at law of the Supreme Court of the state of New York according to the best of my ability.”

There are aspects of the Chinese oath that are laudable: to be professionally honest, to be corruption-free, to serve the people, and to properly implement the law.  All of these requirements are ostensibly value-neutral and are good for the profession.  But what is decidedly different between the New York oath and the China one is that allegiance to the CCP is required.  According to the MOJ official, this was intentional.  One of the major reasons that the MOJ issued the new oath was to increase the quality of lawyers’ political thought as well as their professionalism.

That alone would not necessarily be problematic in a country where the Party is the State and let’s face it, people take oaths all the time and rarely listen to or abide by their words.  But this new oath comes in the midst of a major crackdown on China’s public interest lawyers and presumably will be used as a warning signal to this portion of the profession.

The CCP’s Increased Use of Socialist Rhetoric to Police Lawyers

Last fall, I published a law review article discussing the use of increased socialist rhetoric to step up the CCP’s control of China’s growing public

The Three Supremes

interest lawyers (China’s Rule of Law Mirage: The Regression of the Legal Profession Since the Adoption of the 2007 Lawyers Law).  The beefed-up socialist rhetoric began quietly with a speech given by President Hu Jintao at a Chinese Communist Party conference in December 2007.  In his speech, Hu announced the doctrine of “the Three Supremes:” “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 and if the doctrine was even applicable to lawyers, Justice Minister Wu Aiying addressed the issue in August 2009.  Calling upon lawyers to “above all obey the Communist Party and help foster a harmonious society”(emphasis added),Wu stressed the need for lawyers to “pay attention to politics, take into consideration the big picture, and observe proper discipline.” Absent is any mention of “law” or the need to develop the institutions—such as an independent judiciary or a competent legal profession—integral to a rule of law society.

Further confirmation of this shift in rhetoric is found in the October 2008 MOJ pronouncement opening the new government-sponsored campaign of lawyers as “Chinese-style socialist legal professionals.”  In 2010, the MOJ went further with its rhetoric by directly stating the need for greater Party leadership of the legal profession.  In an interview with an unnamed MOJ official, the Legal Daily reported the forthcoming pronouncement of MOJ “Opinion Regarding the Further Strengthening and Improvement of Lawyers’ Work.” Like prior pronouncements, the 2010 MOJ Opinion contains flowery language detailing the need for lawyers to “always hold high the banner of socialism” and to “strengthen [their] political thought.”  But unlike previous statements, the 2010 MOJ Opinion candidly states the role that the Party will play in leading the legal profession.

Through the Party and the MOJ, the 2010 MOJ Opinion states the need for daily supervision and management of the profession, the need for standardization in how cases are handled, and the need to consider “political quality,” “professional quality,” and “ethical quality” in the yearly license renewal procedures

The CCP Re-institutes Party Cells

Party Cells in Law Firms....How Retro!

Finally, the CCP – as reported in a Legal Daily article – has successfully infiltrated most law firms, instituting Party cells in a throwback to the Cultural Revolution days when loyal party members set up “cells” within each work unit to guarantee the proper political ideology of the workers and to report any infractions in thought to the local Party.  While the 1980s saw a decline in Party cells, a 1995 Party Opinion called for the creation of more Party organizations within law firms.   In 2002, President Hu Jintao stressed that the legal profession could only become strong through Party leadership.  But in general, such efforts were met with strong resistance from the profession and law firms largely ignored the directives. However, all of that changed in 2008.

In March 2008, the CCP’s Organization Department and the MOJ’s corresponding Party organization issued a joint opinion announcing the need to improve and strengthen the Party apparatus in the legal profession. As if to indicate to the legal profession that this time the Party was serious about a greater Party presence in law firm life, Justice Minister Wu Aiying declared in July 2008 that more Party cells needed to be created within law firms as a way to better indoctrinate the profession.  This effort has largely succeeded.  Between April 2008 and April 2009, the number of Party cells found in law firms more than doubled.  Today, over 90 percent of all law firms in China maintain a Party cell.(all information can be found in the Legal Daily article).

The Oath Fits the Pattern of Greater CCP Control Over the Legal Profession

In 2007, China amended its Law on Lawyers, ostensibly to give greater independence to the profession.  As my article China’s Rule of Law Mirage points out, on paper, the amendments did in fact give the profession greater control and reduced the supervision of the MOJ.  However, as the article goes on to demonstrate, as public interest lawyers have had more success in their cases, the CCP has exerted greater control of the profession, undermining whatever promises of greater professional independence that is found in the 2007 Law on Lawyers.

Ironically, and as if to give the new oath requirement some sort of semblance of legality, the unnamed MOJ official in Wednesday’s Legal Daily interview attempts to argue that the new oath requirement is in-line with the edicts of the 2007’s amended Law on Lawyers.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Compared to recent CCP pronouncements, the 2007 Law on Layers is largely devoid of Party allegiance.  Article 1 does require a commitment to a “building of a socialist legal system” but that is sort of like requiring U.S. lawyers to assist in building a democratic legal system.  Additionally, the new structure of law firms and the establishment of solo practitioners were both perceived as an effort of MOJ to relinquish some of its supervisory role in exchange for greater supervision by the bar associations (see China’s Rule of Law Mirage for a more detailed explanation of these provisions).

But MOJ’s new oath, which overrides ACLA’s oath, reflects its effort to maintain control of the profession.  And its requirement that lawyers pledge allegiance to the CCP is eerily reminiscent of Nazi Germany where lawyers took a similar Party allegiance oath: “I swear to remain loyal to the Fuehrer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, and to fulfill conscientiously the duties of a German attorney, so help me God” (See Matthew Lippman, Law, Lawyers, and Legality in the Third Reich: The Perversion of Principle and Professionalism, 11 Temp. Int’l & Comp. L.J. 199, 218 n. 185 (1997)).

Ultimately, the oath won’t impact the daily work of most of China’s lawyers.  In fact, it is only applicable to new lawyers or those who are re-applying for their licenses (首次取 得或者重新申请取得律师执业证书的人员); MOJ’s announcement makes no mention of its applicability to current lawyers at their yearly re-registration (年度注册); presumably current lawyers will not be subject to the oath.  But in a society where rhetoric has served as important signaling device as to what behavior is politically acceptable, the new oath could potentially have a chilling effect on current public interest lawyer’s work and could discourage new lawyers from representing individuals and issues that are perceived as politically dangerous.  It’s this chilling effect of the new oath that is the greatest threat to a rule of law in China.

Translation: Speech by Mo Shaoping Discussing the Dangers for China’s Lawyers

By , February 16, 2011

Human Rights Lawyer, Mo Shaoping

Last July, Caijing Magazine – an independent, hard-hitting financial news outlet in Beijing – convened its first ever conference on the status of lawyers in Chinese society.  Titled “China’s Lawyers at a Crossroads” (summary of the conference can be found here – in Chinese), the conference featured notable criminal defense and human rights lawyers and professors such as Professors Jiang Ping and Chen Guangzhong of the prestigious China University of Politics and Law.

Through a series of speeches (conference website here – in Chinese), the panelists seemed to agree that the road China’s lawyers have been forced to walk in recent years has been rough and full of pot holes.  Rights-defending lawyer (or in Chinese weiquan lawyer), Mo Shaoping, known more recently for representing Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, provided a clear analysis of the regression of the legal profession these past few years.  Below is an English translation of his fascinating, if not depressing, speech.  The Chinese original can be found here.

Ultimately, Mo provides some hope for China’s lawyers – a far-off, distant hope, but hope none the less, echoing some of the sentiment found in Bob Dylan’s “Paths of Victory” (trails of trouble/roads of battle/paths of victory/we shall walk).  In all, his speech provides an interesting insight into how one of China’s most prominent lawyers views the development of the profession.

China’s Lawyers Confront Systemic Dangers
By Mo Shaoping
Speech presented at Caijing’s Forum on “China’s Lawyers at a Crossroads”
July 10, 2010

I think I will discuss the legal profession and the rule of law from a macro perspective.

First, what is the present situation concerning lawyers and the legal system?  I agree with both Prof. Jiang Ping’s and Ms. Jin Liping’s views: at present, there has been a regression for the legal profession and the rule of law.  And this is not an ordinary regression; the movement backwards has been very great.

You can see China’s current regression from a rule of law from several angles.

1.  Originally, the path and direction of judicial reform was for judicial independence.  Now, this isn’t mentioned; instead, “[The Doctrine of] the Three Supremes” is promoted.

2.  The original direction of reform was to bring professionalization and specialization to the judges, but now the emphasis is on the decades- old “Ma Xiwu” adjudication method of following the masses.

3.  Originally, there was emphasis on judicial neutrality and passivity: the judiciary should be passive and neutral.  Now, the emphasis is on the active initiative of the judiciary.  I myself consider this a step back; even though there are very intense and different opinions in this debate, I consider a more active judiciary a regression.

4.  Originally, there was the emphasis that lawyers associations would be self-regulating, autonomous organizations.  But now, the leaders of our Ministry of Justice want lawyers to “pay attention to politics, take into consideration the overall situation, and observe proper discipline;”there is no mention of the word “law,” there is no mention that lawyers should follow the Lawyers Law when providing service to clients.

Second, does the legal profession exist in an environment and system of rule of law?  I believe that the legal professional environment and system does not exist under a rule of law.  Even though we have emphasized rule of law for many, many years and have regarded a [creating] a rule of law country as the goal, I believe our current system and environment is not one that relies on rule of law, rather it relies on the law of the Party [the Chinese Communist Party].  From the selection and appointment of [Party] cadres, we are under the Department’s control.  Our armed forces are under the absolute leadership of the Military Commission of the Party and thus absolutely obeys Party leadership; our ideology is under the increasingly strict control of the Propaganda Department, including the judiciary’s ideology.  The Political and Legal Affairs Committee of the Party is in charge of the People’s Courts; of course, it’s not only just the courts, it also includes the People’s Procuracy, the public security bureaus and the judicial administration bodies.  From a theoretical legal perspective, China itself does not follow a principle of judicial independence in organizing its judicial system.  From a reading on the 126 articles of the [Chinese] Constitution, it’s the People’s Courts that exercise judicial power; administrative bodies, societal groups, and individuals are not suppose to interfere with the courts’ judicial power.  But you cannot say that about Party interference and thus we have a Party-run political-legal justice system.  China’s 1954 Constitution is better than this current regulation.  The 1954 Constitution was clear and simple: only the independent courts administered the judicial power, and the courts only answered to the “law.” It was very clear, there was no mention of administrative bodies’ interference, or society groups of individuals.  So did Party organs have the right to interfere [under the 1954 Constitution]?  No.

Third, under this system and environment, is the legal profession one with true freedom of speech?  My answer is similarly “no.”  Right now, criminalizing speech can be found everywhere.  Prof. Jiang Ping has paid particular attention to the case of Liu Xiaobo.  From hundreds of articles with over two million words, I can pick six articles and over 674 words to maintain that you are inciting subversion of state power [the crime Liu Xiaobo was convicted of].  A few days ago, I ran into a Hunan professor.  He requested that the Supreme People’s Court conduct an investigation of the lawyer perjury provision of Article 306 of the Criminal Law;  [the request] was signed jointly by other lawyers.  Allegedly, the local justice ministry and local lawyers association disciplined him.  From the perspective of the Legislation Law, not even a lawyer, but rather any regular person can request that the National People’s Congress conduct an official examination of any law, but when a lawyer, who has a closer relationship with the law, asks the people’s court to conduct an investigation, he is punished.  Thus, our profession is not one with freedom of speech and expression.

Fourth, are our lawyers associations self-regulated and autonomous?  That’s also not the case.  Prof. Zhang just mentioned that we are not able to have confidence in our lawyer associations, these lawyer associations sometimes, I myself think do not protect lawyers’ legal rights.  Instead they work to help judicial administration bureaus punish lawyers.  Of course, from another perspective, a country that uses a branch of its government to control lawyers’, this is rarely viewed as a true democratic, rule of law country; very, very rarely seen as such.

Just raising in passing the problem of lawyer fees, I hold a very negative view of the regulation concerning attorney fees.  The regulation on attorney fees lacks an adequate basis in law and violates the Price Law.  The Price Law includes nothing more than three kinds of prices: government-set prices, government-guided prices, and market-set prices.  There isn’t sufficient basis in the law to say that attorney fees are government-set or government-guided, but at the same time, [China’s] regulations standardizing attorney fees runs counter to the rest of the world.  In many countries, there is a limit on the lowest amount that can be charged – this prevents vicious competition – but there is no limit on the maximum that can be charged.  In practice, this method is difficult to operate.  Moreover, this causes some excellent lawyers [to leave], for example, criminal defense lawyers abandon the criminal defense bar.

Fifth, what should China’s lawyers’ next step be?  To be honest, I also don’t know what the next steps should be.  Of course, I still firmly believe that [China] will inevitably move toward democracy, rule of law and constitutionalism; this is the tide of history.  To borrow a phrase from Dr. Sun Yat-sen: in the majestic tide of history, those who follow the current shall flourish, those who go contrary to it shall perish.  Although the road will be very tortuous and dangerous, China will eventually become a democratic, rule of law, constitutional government and no one can stop it.

Imprisoned Chinese Dissident Wins Nobel Peace Prize

By , October 8, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

This morning, the Nobel Prize Committee announced the winner of its 2010 Nobel Peace Prize: Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (pronounced Leo See-ow Bwo).  But don’t expect Liu to be able to go to Norway to accept his prize; Liu is currently serving the first year of an 11-year prison term.

In all respects, Liu is perhaps the most famous of China’s human rights activists, at least internationally, and one of its longest serving.  Liu, an intellectual, literary critic, professor and writer, first emerged on the human rights scene in 1989 during the Tian’anmen student protests.  When the protests began in the Spring of 1989, Liu was at Columbia University in New York.  Immediately boarding a flight, Liu, a professor at Beijing Normal University, joined the students in hunger strikes on Tian’anmen Square.  But by June 3, sensing the danger of an impending crackdown, Liu encouraged the students to withdraw from the Square before the Chinese army was likely to violently suppress the student-led protests.  While many of the students did leave the Square, Liu’s pleas were for naught; on the streets surrounding the Square, an unknown number, likely reaching in the thousands, were killed.  After the suppression of the movement, Liu was tried for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement” and convicted although ultimately exempted from criminal punishment. 

During the 1990s, Liu’s commitment to greater human rights in China did not waiver.  In the long tradition of the Chinese dissident, Liu took up the pen and during the 1990s, wrote a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people.  With his essays receiving accolades from abroad and censure from those high up in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese government detained him and sent him to a labor camp through China’s “Re-education Through Labor” (RETL).  RETL is an administrative punishment, not a criminal one and has become an important tool of the Chinese government to suppress dissent.  Even if China amends its criminal laws to be more in line with international standards, as long as it keeps RETL, the CCP will always have a way to suppress those individuals it deems a threat to its rule.  Individuals like Liu Xiaobo. 

But Liu’s current trouble stems from a document he helped author in late 2008 known as “Charter 08.”  Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  The morning that Charter 08 was to be posted to the internet, Liu was detained by police.  Liu was eventually arrested, tried and in December 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years.  In general, the average dissident sentence in China is between 3 and 5 years. 

Given Liu’s current imprisonment doe this Nobel Peace Prize even matter?  Most certainly.  First, it brings attention to the weakness of the current Chinese regime. While most news stories in the Western press discuss China’s growing economic might and its increased military muscle and portray a China that is sure to achieve global dominance, Liu represents the very real flip-side of that story – a communist party that is increasingly fearful of any threats to its authority and that in many ways is retaining one-party rule on a shoe-string.  Second, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu after vigorous protest and threats from the Chinese government.  In fact, the Chinese government’s response has been shockingly quick – issuing a statement that Liu is a criminal and awarding him the prize is in contravention to the mission of the Nobel Committee.  Given that many governments have shirked from confronting China on its recent suppression of rights activists for fear of upsetting trade ties, the Nobel Committee’s action reflects its commitment to human rights and acknowledges the importance of human rights in Western diplomacy. 

But most importantly, the Nobel Committee’s actions will bring greater attention to Liu within China.  Although famous internationally, with media and internet censorship domestically, many Chinese are unfamiliar with Liu and his quest for greater human rights.  While censorship of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Liu will surely exist in China, because this news is so huge, stories will slip through the Great Firewall, and those Chinese with access to the internet will learn more of Liu’s work and the push for human rights in China. 

But the award does not come lightly.  If history is a guide, the Chinese government will likely increase repression on other rights activists in China in the immediate aftermath and abuse of Liu in prison is a very real possibility. 

And from the White House and last Year’s Noble Peace Prize Winner:                                          

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

______________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                            October 8, 2010

Statement by the President on the Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo 

I welcome the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo.  Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I.  That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs.  By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. 

As I said last year in Oslo, even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal to all human beings.  Over the last 30 years, China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.  But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected.  We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.

The Future of China – An Interview with Peter Hessler

By , February 10, 2010

Excerpts of this Interview Originally Posted on the Huffington Post.

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

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

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

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

To listen to the interview, click here.

For a PDF version of the transcript, click here.

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

Thank you for joining us today.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

Photo Credit: Robert Burnett of www.rburnettjr.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ★★★★☆

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

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

By , February 8, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ★★★½☆

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

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

Obama’s Town Hall in Shanghai – Reading Between the Lines

By , November 18, 2009

Chinese Students applaud after President Obama's Town Hall in Shanghai on Monday

Chinese Students applaud after President Obama's Town Hall in Shanghai on Monday

Originally Posted on the Huffington Post.

Beijing, China – With scripted questions from the audience and a speech lacking particulars, President Barack Obama’s Shanghai town hall on Monday likely looked like a flop to the American audience. At the very least, it was a far cry from the free-wheeling town halls during Obama’s primaries and general election battles.

But this is not Iowa or Virginia. This is China, where the concept of the people questioning their leaders, holding them accountable or even talking directly to them is so foreign that there isn’t even a word for it. Monday’s event was translated as “mian dui mian” or face-to-face, which seems more apt for a talk show than a discussion with a world leader.

The very fact that President Obama was able to host a town hall in China should be viewed as a huge accomplishment. But more than anything, the town hall should be seen as a coming attraction of the new Administration’s China policy and China’s likely response. Below are some important takeaways from President Obama’s Shanghai town hall.

Takeaway #1 – Hosting a Town Hall in China is, In and of Itself, a Success
Town halls just do not happen in China. In an authoritarian state, there is little need for the leadership to answer directly to the people. This is not to say, however, that China’s top officials are completely immune from the citizenry’s complaints. The fact that, after extensive uproar in online chatrooms, the Chinese government lifted its requirement to install the spyware software Green Dam on every computer, shows that it sometimes does respond to public demands, albeit in a rather circuitous way. But direct accountability or accessibility is not common.

But while the Chinese leadership would prefer to keep it this way, it is questionable if the Chinese people will continue to agree with this approach. Premier Wen Jiabao’s (pronounced When Geeah-bao) popularity among the Chinese people is unparalleled precisely because he has been more accessible and accountable (In January 2008, Premier Wen, after a fluke snowstorm in the south shut down the railroads, went to various train stations to apologize to the millions of people stranded during the Chinese new year festival).

Thus at such a critical juncture, President Obama’s town hall provides the Chinese people with a look at an alternative form of leadership. What’s more, President Obama chose to speak to the young and educated, the segment of society that likely feels the grip of the government the most and likely the most idealistic for change. It is no wonder that the Chinese side gave a tremendous amount of push back to the President’s request for a town hall, only agreeing to it a few days before the event. In a relationship where it is often just best to lead by example, a town hall with the President of the United States is perhaps the best example of accountable leadership.

Takeaway #2 – China’s Increasingly Tight Grip – Comparing the Obama & Clinton Visits
But it is questionable if the President achieved his goal of speaking to the Chinese public, showing the Chinese government’s continuing control over the people’s access to information. The Chinese government refused to

Watching the President's Shanghai Town Hall on the Internet in a Starbucks in Beijing

Watching the President's Shanghai Town Hall on the Internet in a Starbucks in Beijing

broadcast the event on the government run China Central Television (CCTV), and then reneged last minute on broadcasting it live on the Xinhua News Agency’s website (the Beijing morning papers on Monday all reported that the event would be broadcast late that morning live on Xinhua’s website). Even clips of the town hall have not been shown on Chinese evening news. Ultimately, the event could only be watched through the White House’s website, giving only those Chinese people who know there is a White House website access to the event (Youtube is a blocked site in China).

In 1998, when President Bill Clinton visited Beijing, his speech to the students of Peking University received top billing from the Chinese government. The state-run media discussed his Peking University appearance for days prior and the speech was broadcast live on CCTV as well as on radio. Additionally, President Clinton appeared on a radio show in Shanghai to answer questions directly from call-ins.

So why the change? Is it that the Chinese government fears Barack Obama’s popularity more than Bill Clinton’s? Maybe, but not likely. President Clinton was very popular in China during his presidency and remains extremely popular today. In some ways, President Clinton’s speech at Peking University focused more directly on the need for greater human rights in China than even President Obama’s recent town hall.

Bill Clinton's State Visit to China, June 1998

Bill Clinton's State Visit to China, June 1998

The change has more to do with the Chinese government’s increasing ambivalence toward moving forward on the fronts of access to information, development of a civil society and greater political freedom for its people. By now, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must realize that greater independence for its people means less control for them; the CCP remains afraid to give up this control and not just for selfish reasons. For the past 30 years, this control has enabled the Chinese government to lift hundreds of millions out of poverty, better the lives of a billion people and in record-breaking time become an economic power horse. Its formula has worked, there is no doubting that. But as its growth plateaus, which it inevitably will, as the gap between rich and poor continue to grow, and as certain segments of society press for greater freedoms, whether the CCP can continue with the current ruling philosophy of control remains to be seen.

Takeaway #3 – Obama’s Human Rights Agenda – It’s There but It’s Not What You Think
This brings us to the third and final takeaway from President Obama’s town hall – where the Administration stands on human rights in China and what the U.S. should being doing to promote these rights.

Obama discussed another great wall on Monday - China's internet firewallIn terms of human rights, President Obama discussed the source of America’s core values, the positive results of such core values to the American experience, and stated that he believed some of these values are universal. However, his focus on the American context of these values belied their universal nature. Many of the values President Obama listed, such as freedom of religion and of expression, are protected by the Chinese Constitution; the difference lies in each countries’ restrictions. President Obama likely could have made a stronger case for these principles’ universalities by pointing to the fact that China itself has stated its commitment to these values, but still has a ways to go to get there. In his speech in 1998, President Clinton did an excellent job of citing to the revered Chinese political philosopher Hu Shi (pronounced Who Shi) in his call for greater democratic freedom.

But in terms of specifics, President Obama went for a decidedly more modern human right – freedom of expression on the internet. First, some background. When the U.S. and China agreed to have a town hall, knowing that the students present at the town hall would likely be hand-selected by the government and would have scripted questions, the U.S. side requested that questions be submitted via the internet. The Chinese side agreed and Xinhua News Agency opened its website to questions for President Obama. However, internet chat rooms are often no less scripted in China, especially for politically-sensitive matters. The CCP hires a large number of people to police these chat rooms and steer the discussion in a direction more agreeable to the CCP.

And that is where the U.S. found itself when it allowed Xinhua news agency to organize the internet questions, a discussion of soft-ball questions like what was it like to win the Noble Peace Prize. As a result, the U.S. Embassy began its own webpage, encouraging Chinese people to send in their questions to their unregulated site. The vast majority of these questions pertained to the Chinese government’s censorship of the internet, blocking out politically sensitive information and shutting down social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook (this is not surprising since the Chinese people who knew to access the U.S. Embassy website are the most internet-savvy and thus likely the most frustrated with the Chinese government’s control.). Ambassador Huntsman’s question about President Obama’s stance on internet censorship came from the U.S. Embassy’s website.

President Obama’s response to the question, while veiled, was shockingly strong. In no uncertain terms, he expressed the belief that a free internet has made America a strong country, made him a better leader, and allows the people to hold their leaders accountable, thus implying that a censored internet has the opposite effect. The implication was likely not lost on the Chinese students.

It appears that the Obama Administration’s human rights agenda for China will focus around internet censorship. The Chinese government has spent a tremendous amount of time and resources in controlling the internet, and has largely been successful at stamping out content it deems objectionable, so it likely did not take too kindly to President Obama’s answer. But will this be enough to help China live up to many of its ideals? Can the internet solely replace the need for a functioning civil society, another area that the Chinese government is clamping down on? Or will it just be a place to shop like it is in many other countries? This remains to be seen. I for one would have very much liked it if President Obama, in answering the question about the path to being a Nobel Peace Prize winner, mentioned his role as a public interest attorney and acknowledged the importance of public interest law to a secure and functioning society. I only hope that this was mentioned at the very least behind closed doors in his meetings with President Hu.

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