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Heard on Weibo 1/29-2/4 – I have a dream, political reform, and the poem that may cost Zhu Yufu his freedom
You know things are going wrong in Tibet and other Tibetan areas when CCTV tells you that Tibetans are living happily as never before, Global Times hits hard on “lawless Tibetans”, and Wumaos (五毛) are swarming Twitter accounts of Woeser and other sources of Tibetan news and spitting hate. On Weibo, there are loose items by travelers, local Chinese, or even one or two members of the armed police, about what they see and do. Otherwise they do a pretty good job making sure there isn’t much news. Click to see a set of pictures taken in Lhasa, Tibet, on Jan. 31. In this issue we have items about the makeup of China’s new leadership, political reform or the absence of it, a reminiscence about a young couple from 23 years ago, I Have a Dream—the Chinese version, and more. Click date below for link to the original.
- 斯伟江/Si Weijiang/(A well-known defense lawyer based in Shanghai)/: Across the country, communist aristocratic former red guards have now assumed high-level leadership. Many of them were involved in the violence against ordinary people at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping didn’t want to promote them, and as a result, they didn’t have much room to maneuver in the era of Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. But Chen Yun [陈云, a party elder] supported them. Chen said, “These are our own descendants and they alone can be trusted.” via Qin Hui (秦晖, professor at Qinghua University)
- 韩志国/Han Zhiguo/(Economist)/: 【Why am I increasingly concerned with political reform? 】 My opining about political reform has brought me unimaginable pressure. It’s there all the time and it’s everywhere. It even threatens the safety of my life. Political reform is the confluence of all conflicting interests in Chinese society now. Without it, the country will be heading downward, reforms will halt, and 1.3 billion people will be walking toward a cliff with their eyes blindfolded. Time is running out, and there aren’t that many opportunities anymore!
- yangpigui许晖/Xu Hui/: In Xinxiang, Henan (河南新乡) on June 6, 1989, I received a Nanjingese college student who had just fled Tian’anmen Square and was travelling southbound on the Beijing-Guangzhou railway. In blood stained clothes, he talked to people along the way about what had happened. Accompanying him was a beautiful college girl who had also fled the Square and, since meeting the young man, had been taking care of him. But she spoke of nothing. After the meal, I shook hands with them to say goodbye, and had someone else take them to the train station to broad a train to Anyang (安阳). I don’t know what became of them after that. I wish them the best.
- hanunyi寒君依/Han Jun Yi/: I have a dream that, one day, I will not have to go to Hong Kong to buy safe baby formula . I have a dream that, one day, I don’t have to drive myself crazy to try to go abroad for an equal education. I have a dream that, one day, I can write freely without being censored. I have one last dream that, if I dream any of these dreams, I will never wake up from it.
In response to comments made by Liu Xiaoming (刘晓明), Chinese ambassador in London, to BBC that China is not a communist country and the communist party is merely the ruling party:
- FifthDimen吾囗/: You can’t say a bandit fort is not a bandit fort just because there are hostages in it.
- 59-year-old poet Zhu Yufu (朱虞夫) is on trial right now in Hangzhou (杭州) on charges of “inciting to subvert state power”, and the main evidence presented by the prosecutors is a poem titled “It’s Time” which Zhu penned. Little known hitherto, the poem is now going viral on Weibo:
It’s time, Chinese!
The time is now
The square belongs to all, and the feet are yours
It’s time to walk to the square to make a choice
It’s time, Chinese!
The time is now
The song is for all, but the throat is yours
It’s time to sing the song from the bottom of your heart
It’s time, Chinese!
The time is now
China belongs to all of us, but the choice is yours
It’s time for you to choose the future of China
With the holidays I know that many of you have taken a break from the internet to spend time with your families, but the Chinese gov’t realizes this too, slipping 3 State subversion trials of dissidents into the final week of the year in the hopes that foreign media will miss the story (and one very mysterious broken probation). Due to the number of links this week, I’ve only added a few comments.
Draft law prohibits citizens who may endanger national interests from leaving country – This story has not been widely reported on outside of People’s Daily, but would essentially allow China to keep any dissidents from speaking out abroad without even pretending to press criminal charges.
New real name rule for bloggers – As everyone expected, the real name registration requirements have quickly spread beyond Beijing, and people could be charged for simply re-posting someone else’s offending comments.
Initial probe supports villagers’ requests – It seems that the handling of the demonstrations in Wukan are being reported as a “success” of the Guangdong system (a more liberal approach to gov’t).
China restaurateur finds retention in overlooked corner: Intellectually disabled – An excellent reason to eat at Papa John’s and Dairy Queen while in China.
Gov’t orders limit on Cantonese – The gov’t has tried this before, but it lead to numerous protests and demonstrations. We’ll see what happens this time.
Where the mornings taste grey: living under a cloud of smog in Beijing – Peter Foster’s farewell column that wonderfully captures just how intrusive pollution is in daily life.
Finally I would like to recommend a very cool new website called “Weiboscope” which allows visitors to browse through the most popular images on Weibo. Most of it is completely understandable without reading Chinese!
My office’s usually chipper intern (the same one whose budget we looked at last week) surprised me on the way to lunch today when she told me she was in a bad mood.
“Our society has too many problems everywhere,” she told me in English before launching into Chinese, she had seen an old woman pick food out of the garbage can on her way to work this morning. Later she told me of seeing a patient fight with a doctor over a medical bill that he couldn’t afford. The metro crash to her wasn’t so much a wake up call as it was a painful reminder of all the problems facing Chinese society.
“In society, we are powerless to change,” she said loudly enough to cause me to check to see if anyone was eavesdropping. Usually such sentiments are whispered here at work, but that didn’t seem necessary today. It was upsetting to see a soon to be college graduate without hope for the future. It seems at times the Party maintains power not by gaining the favor of the people, but by making change appear impossible.
Everyone I talked with today seemed to be in agreement that the subway crash never should have happened (I’m not sure if that is an actual fact, but my Chinese friends seem to think it is). The line was rushed in order to be operational ahead of the Shanghai Expo, and the faulty signal that led to yesterday’s crash was manufactured by the same company that had built the faulty signal that was behind the Wenzhou train crash just two months ago (read: Infrastructure follow up: Nanjing’s brand new station needs repairs). There had been enough time to check if other signals were malfunctioning, but nothing had been done to address the actual problem. “After the train crash, people only focused on who should be punished, but nothing was actually done about the problem,” the intern groaned.
“270 people were injured, it’s so sad,” I said to another co-worker. “At least 270,” she corrected, “The gov’t numbers aren’t always correct.” She went on to explain that most people don’t believe much of what they hear from official state media. According to her, the only real source of information is Weibo. I find it funny how often I quote gov’t statistics in my medical English course only to be met with eye rolling and head shaking. I understand their skepticism better after seeing this still from last night’s CCTV coverage of the crash:
To which some netizens replied, “I am angered to a low degree.” Unfortunately in modern China, 270 (or more) injuries isn’t a shocking aberration, but simply another story that will pass through the papers in a few days, much like the rash of food poisoning cases happening in school cafeterias I reported on a few weeks ago. As long as the public sees the situation as hopeless, and feels that nothing can be changed, the Party will continue to gloss over these incidents instead of addressing the actual problems.
Several months ago Hillary Clinton described the efforts of the Chinese Communist Party to maintain their firm grasp on power as a “fool’s errand.” I think her succinct statement was right on target. The gov’t’s attempts to limit freedom of speech only seem to be accelerating the causes pushed by China’s activists. Today we’ll be looking at how the Great Firewall is likely to create more problems than it solves.
First just a touch of history. Despite popular belief, the Great Wall as we know it (the brick one built after the Yuan dynasty), was built largely due to gov’t inaction. While the national gov’t bickered over whether or not military action should be taken directly against the northern nomads, local gov’ts began to reinforce the ancient fortifications. Ultimately the “barbarians” managed to breech the wall, and once they were inland, they dispatched the ruler, and established the Qing Dynasty.
The Great Firewall is not so different. The gov’t seems to be using it in an effort to keep information from beyond the borders from wrecking havoc on the masses, while the Party bickers over whether or not China should ever democratize (which many believe would address the country’s underlying problems). Ultimately, once information breeches the wall, it becomes increasingly difficult to contain.
Many of you might be thinking, “But Tom, what about the blocking of Facebook, Youtube and Twitter (along with countless other sites)?” While it is true that China has managed to keep these specific websites out of China, it hasn’t been able to stop similar formats from popping up on the Chinese web. The most influential of these now is Weibo.
While these sites are forced to employ censors to monitor the content that is posted on their pages, netizens are becoming increasingly clever in how they avoid the regulations, and are managing to spread information faster than the censors can press delete. My favorite example was when supporters of the Jasmine revolution were posting copies of former leaders singing the traditional folk song also known as “Jasmine”. Censors were unsure whether or not it was a sign of patriotism or rebellion.
The power of Twitter and Facebook-like sites isn’t that they provide an easy way of spreading information, their power lies in their speed. A post that “goes viral” can be shared thousands of times in a matter of minutes, forcing the gov’t to attempt to apply clumsy blocks, like banning the word “tomorrow” (which was the case before the first Jasmine protest). However, Chinese is an incredibly nimble language, full of homonyms and synonyms, which is far more agile than the operators behind the GFW. The wall provides a false sense of security, in the same way the original Great Wall did.
In spite of gov’t efforts to keep Weibo sterile, it has become an increasingly important source of information for those who don’t believe CCTV or the People’s Daily (in Nanjing it seems that few people believe much of anything from those sources). Recently there has been some signs that seem to imply that the gov’t has become fed up with this social site, but it is far more popular than the three big western sites I mentioned above.
They can’t simply block the site, instead they will have to apply increasingly tight restrictions on Weibo, and hope to kill interest in it. This is a fool’s errand, whenever a website dies, a new one steps in to fill its place. There is such clear demand for a Weibo type product in China that dozens of companies would fight for its market share. Once the new platform opened, netizens would again find a new way around the much tighter restrictions.
China has yet to completely kill a web service, but to cover up their increasingly apparent corruption, they would have to make a massively unpopular move. The Great Firewall may already be breached, now it’s time to see if the gov’t can actually try to close Pandora’s box now that it’s been opened.
This weekend will feature an interview with digital dissident 小米2020, and the daring jokes that poke fun at China’s problems.
After looking at the effects of Weibo on the Chinese justice system yesterday, I thought it was important to take a closer look.
The Chinese Courts
Until 1949 there was very little litigation in China. If someone wronged you, you would have to appear in front of the local leader. There you, and the person you accused were usually beaten before your testimony would even be heard. The leader would then decide, based on anything from your moral character to the ugliness of your face which party deserved the punishment. That person would then be tortured until they confessed, and the common folk would marvel at the leader’s wisdom. This is paraphrased from the book “From the Soil” which I will be reviewing shortly.
Not enough has changed in the last 60 years.
Judges in China still use their own “reason” to decide whom is guilty or innocent, irrespective of the evidence or precedence. Like the now infamous story of a man from Nanjing, who on seeing an old woman fall out of a bus brought her to a nearby hospital. When the bill arrived, he gladly paid it. The old woman later sought damages in the accident and sued the man who had cared for her. After considering the case the judge concluded that the man must be guilty, after all, why would an innocent man help a stranger? (This case is often cited as a reason for inaction among the Chinese when it comes to helping those you don’t know).
Torture, sadly, is still a part of the Chinese legal system, even though it has been illegal for years. This was highlighted by a case in which a man was arrested for murder, and confessed the crime while being tortured. He spent 7 years in jail, only to be released when the man he had supposedly murdered returned to town. A law is now being revised that states not only is torture illegal, but confessions given after torture will also be inadmissible.
Equality in legal proceedings is also frequently absent. I had a co-worker tell me that she wanted to leave China for fear that someday her or her husband may have a problem with an official, and would have no hope of ever winning in a trial against them. She said it was because they had no guanxi (special connections), but it is also a systemic problem.
The gov’t also frequently holds closed-door trials for those accused of political crimes, which makes the system seem even more suspect. Ai Weiwei is still awaiting his day in court for tax evasion. The gov’t will insist on his guilt, but will likely have no proof to show the world.
Here justice is still largely based on the concept of an “eye for an eye”, which partially explains why China executes more prisoners than the rest of the world combined. Thankfully the number of crimes making a person eligible for the death penalty is slowly being reduced, but the list of capital offences still includes many non-violent crimes, most notably corruption.
Another common practice is to harshly punish an individual as a sign to the other offenders. This is often seen in corruption cases and other scandals. In the melamine powder scandal, which killed several infants, the farmers linked to this incident were executed, and some directors were forced to step down. This was seen as just, even though there must have been hundreds of people who knew that the practice was happening.
Police are also in favor of allowing the two parties to fight out personal matters instead of getting involved. While this might be ideal for small claims, that it has been seen as acceptable for manslaughter cases, seems to be beyond reason.
China now claims to be a country under the rule of law, and yet its legal system still seems to be full of loop holes and favors. Yet, progress is being made, and as more people leave their hometowns, where the judge could rule on past knowledge of their behavior, a more equal system will emerge.
An interesting discussion about the influence of religion on the courts of imperial China can be found over at The China Beat. The following pictures are from my trip to a Daoist temple in Beijing, and show trials, torture and punishment as they would happen in the afterlife (which explains the demons and ghosts). A bit unsettling.
People’s daily and other state news sources have been pointing to the influence of Weibo as a sign of China’s shift toward democracy (here and here), but is social media really creating a more just China?
Note: Weibo is a Chinese networking site, something like a combination of Twitter, Facebook and a blog. It is also carefully monitored by gov’t censors (a.k.a. internet police) for stories on sensitive topics, and imposes keyword bans.
One way that Weibo is contributing to the development of democracy in China, is that it has helped introduce the idea that the gov’t should actually listen to its people. Weibo has accomplished this largely because it has given common people a way of airing grievances in a public forum.
In the past people had to appear in person to submit a petition if there was corruption or abuse in their local gov’t. Petitioners were, and still are, regularly arrested by extra-judicial police and held in black jails. So while Weibo is not a place of completely free speech, it could be called a free-er speech zone (a man was sentenced to a year of labor for insulting a gov’t official).
There have also been dozens, and possibly hundreds, of cases brought to light by Weibo that would have otherwise been completely covered up by local governments.
A typical example of how this works, can be seen in one recent disturbing case. A woman was raped by a local official, and on reporting this crime to the police she was told that it was not rape because “he was wearing a condom.” Nearly a month passed after the incident, and the police made no effort to correct this disgusting decision. However only a few days after the story spread across Weibo, the man was arrested, and “justice” was done.
This too is being heralded as one of the achievements of Weibo, but this is not true justice, it is what I will call “Viral Justice”. I chose this term because not every injustice is remedied by Weibo, only the most sensational crimes actually become widely known enough to avoid the censors wrath.
From what I have seen stories from Weibo can end up in one of four results:
- The story quickly becomes so popular that the national gov’t/local gov’t is forced to take some kind of action to remedy the problem. (e.g. the rape case I discussed earlier)
- The story starts to become popular, but after 1 or 2 days censors delete all posts before it becomes widely known to require action. (e.g. a collective complaint against a large manufacturer)
- The story is so sensitive, that despite being widely known it is completely blocked. (e.g. the Wenzhou train crash, Sichuan earthquake)
- The story is not sensational enough to draw the critical mass of attention required for action or censorship, and quietly fades away. (e.g. home demolitions are so common that they no longer cause much of a stir on Weibo)
Recently there has been strong enough popular opinion in a few trials, that somewhat questionable verdicts have been reached.
For example the college student who murdered a woman after he hit her with his car. The boy’s parents were supposedly very rich, which was evident when a psychologist testified that the stabbing motion he used was related to him being forced to practice piano, and a “jury” was assembled that consisted almost entirely of his classmates. Public opinion though turned so strongly against the boy though, that he was sentenced to death. While it was a heinous crime, I do not believe that the punishment fit the crime.
So with Weibo we have the start of something new and potentially wonderful, but for now its main “value” seems to be mob rule.
Tomorrow we’ll be looking briefly at China’s justice system, and Chinese ideas of “Justice”.