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Zhuang Liehong, January 5, 2017
Ten days ago on December 26, 2016, the Haifeng Court in Guangdong sentenced nine villagers from Wukan to between two and ten years imprisonment, as a means of punishing them for participating in protests. My father Zhuang Songkun (庄松坤) was among them. Through this article I hope readers outside China will gain an understanding of these arrests and the circumstances of the trial, and that the situation in Wukan will receive greater international attention.
From 2009 villagers in Wukan engaged in collective petitions and protests against collusion between government officials and businessmen, who were expropriating collectively-owned village land for personal profit. After years of being ignored by the government, mass protests broke out at the end of 2011. I was one of the organizers of the protests, and was arrested and temporarily jailed in 2011. Another protest leader, Xue Jinbo (薛锦波), was tortured to death in prison. Given the enormous international attention the protests attracted at the time, the then-Guangdong Party Secretary, Wang Yang (汪洋), made a number of positive overtures. He affirmed that the demands of Wukan villagers were legitimate and lawful, and promised that they would be resolved. In 2012, under the international spotlight, an election was held in Wukan to democratically form the village committee.
But retaliation was swift. From 2013 to 2016 the authorities arrested and sentenced respectively Zhang Dejia (张德家) and three rights defense leaders (Hong Ruichao 洪锐潮, Yang Semao 杨色茂, and Lin Zulian 林祖銮). As one of the seven elected village committee members, I fled China to the United States on January 27, 2014, to escape persecution and apply for political asylum.
Large-scale demonstrations erupted again in Wukan last year in protest against the authorities’ persecution of the head of the Wukan village committee, Lin Zulian. From June 19 to September 12, a total of 85 days, around 4,000 villagers took to the street every day in protest marches.
At about 3 a.m. on September 13, a large number of armed police moved on the village, raiding houses and arresting two dozen or so villagers that the government considered to be the most high-profile, including my father, Zhuang Songkun.
Come dawn, thousands of fully-armed People’s Armed Police locked down village street intersections, dividing the crowd and then crushing the protest. They fired countless rounds of rubber bullets, and volleyed canisters of tear gas and shock grenades into the unarmed villagers. Then they began surrounding and violently beating villagers, without regard to whether they were old, women, or children. Faced with this violent, armed suppression, villagers resorted to throwing rocks and bricks. Hundreds of villagers were injured during the conflict.
A few days later my mother received a “notice of criminal detention,” pertaining to my father. Twice my family sent cash and clothing to him, but they weren’t allowed to see him. Other detainees reported similar treatment. The nine have been detained in Haifeng County Detention Center (汕尾市海丰县看守所).
On December 14, a member of the village committee led government agents to my family home, telling my mother that my father would be tried between December 16 and 18, and that only two relatives could attend. My family had not yet received any notice that he was being indicted, neither was he, or any of the others, allowed to secure counsel.
On the morning of December 17 the government ferried the dozen-or-so family members of the nine defendants in a bus to the Haifeng County People’s Court for the trial. The entire day was spent with the judge reading aloud laws and statutes and enumerating the crimes of the nine villagers. Court sessions were frequently adjourned and then begun again.
All nine villagers pleaded not guilty, and the court said it would announce a verdict at a later date.
On December 25, family members were told that court would be in session the following day.
On December 26 at 8:00 a.m., relatives of the defendants were once again bused to the Haifeng People’s Court. Arriving sometime after 9:00 a.m, they were brought into court around 10:00 a.m. As they were led inside, they were told to sit in the second and third rows, separated from each other by government personnel on each side. The first few rows were filled with government people.
Before the court session, a harsh voice could be heard from an anteroom bawling the names of the nine villagers. At 10:10 a.m. the villagers were separately escorted by two police into the court. My mother could catch only the faint outline of my father’s head, given how far back she was sitting. When she craned her neck to the side and leaned in to try see him more clearly, immediately one of the government staff sitting beside her stopped her with his hand and ordered her not to move or say a word.
None of the nine defendants were allowed to speak through the proceedings.
The judge then began reading out sentences (now available on the court’s website), and the entire session lasted less than 30 minutes:
The judgement of the court has determined that: the defendants Wei Yonghan (魏永汉), Hong Yongzhong (洪永忠), Yang Jinzhen (杨锦贞), and Wu Fang (吴芳), disturbed public order with severe circumstances, forcing the cessation of production and business operations, and causing great damage; the defendants Wei Yonghan and Hong Yongzhong were the leaders, the defendants Yang Jinzhen and Wu Fang were active participants, and their actions constitute the crime of gathering a crowd to disturb public order.
Defendants Wei Yonghan, Hong Yongzhong, Yang Jinzhen, Wu Fang, Cai Jialin (蔡加麟), Zhuang Songkun, Li Chulu (李楚卢) and Chen Suzhuan (陈素转) failed to submit their petitions to the relevant authorities according to the law and gathered an assembly, performing marches and protests, without permission; after the admonishment of relevant government authorities, they refused to comply with an order to disperse, dealing severe damage to social order. They are all directly responsible parties, and their conduct constitutes the crime of illegal assembly, marching, and demonstration.
Defendants Zhuang Songkun and Cai Jialin gathered a crowd to block traffic with severe circumstances, they were both leaders, and their conduct constitutes the crime of gathering a crowd to disturb traffic order.
Defendants Wei Yonghan and Li Chulu used violent means to prevent officers of the state to carry out their duties according to the law, actions which constitute the crime of endangering public affairs.
Defendant Zhang Bingchai (张炳钗) deliberately promulgated information online that he clearly knew was false, severely disturbing social order; his actions constitute the crime of deliberately disseminating false information.
Defendants Wei Yonghan and Li Chulu violently attacked police officers who were discharging their duties, committing the crime of endangering public affairs, which demands severe punishment.
Defendants Wei Yonghan, Hong Yongzhong, Yang Jinzhen, Wu Fang, Zhuang Songkun, Cai Jialin and Li Chulu have committed multiple crimes, and should, according to the law, be punished for them concurrently.
With consideration to the defendants’ crimes, the criminal circumstances, and the damaging repercussions, the court makes the following sentences:
Wei Yonghan: Ten years, six months;
Yang Jinzhen: Six years;
Hong Yongzhong: Six years, six months;
Wu Fang: Five years;
Zhuang Songkun: Three years;
Cai Jialin: Three years;
Li Chulu: Three years;
Chen Suzhuan: Three years;
Zhang Bingchai: Two years.
After the sentences were announced, the judge asked the nine villagers whether they accepted the decisions and whether they would appeal. All nine said they would appeal. Then they were taken out of the courtroom. Again, their names were heard being called out loudly in the anteroom, while their relatives in the audience were taken to the hallway where they were made to stand and wait. The police siren sounded and the nine villagers were taken away. A bus then took the relatives back to Wukan.
From my father’s arrest to his sentence, my family received nothing from the authorities except for a notice of his criminal detention. The situation for the other eight was the same.
The Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer Sui Muqing (隋牧青) pointed out that the trial of the nine villagers violated procedural law in that: 1) based on relatives’ description of the courtroom scene, the trial was obviously not an open trial as it should have been; 2) it seems that none of the defendants had defense lawyers, and it was likely that the defendants were forcibly deprived of their rights to legal counsel.“Illegal procedure means an unjust trial,” said lawyer Sui Muqing. “I believe that the local authorities abused their power in trying the nine Wukan villagers, and similar to trials of Lin Zulian, Hong Ruichao, and other Wukan villagers, this trial is also a retaliation against the people of Wukan.”
In arresting and trying the villagers, the Chinese government once again demonstrated that it has no regard to the law when it comes to suppressing any form of dissent. It is unacceptable that such barbaric and fraudulent methods were used against the good people of Wukan. I will do everything I can to lead the relatives of the nine villagers to appeal the despicable sentences against them. We will do all we can to resist.
Thirteen more Wukan villagers are currently held at the Lufeng Detention Center (汕尾市陆丰看守所) awaiting trial.
Wukan nowadays is a ravaged place. The villagers have been facing more pressure on their livelihoods because they haven’t been able to recover their land lost to corruption. Since last September, Wukan’s streets and alleys have been patrolled by armed police day and night, and powerful floodlights have been set up around the entire village. Wukan villagers live in a big prison, and they need your attention and support.
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 1-(929) 500-1008
Special Report: Freedom fizzles out in China’s rebel town of Wukan, James Pomfret , Reuters, Feb. 2013.
For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, China Change, November, 2016.
Translated from Chinese (《抗议对九名乌坎村民的非法审判》) by China Change.
Zhuang Liehong, November 23, 2016
“Wukan is a big prison now. Scores of villagers have been detained, including my father. Police patrol the streets and roads, and life is difficult.” – Wukan villager Zhuang Liehong
Wukan, a fishing village in eastern Guangdong Province, occupies an area of about 5,765 acres and has a population of 13,000. Since 1993, corrupt officials have conspired with businessmen to secretly sell off the collectively-owned, arable village land, and pocket the proceeds.
This led to large-scale petitions and protests to defend villagers’ rights from 2009 to 2011. As they fought for their land and for democracy in their village, Wukan residents were faced with extreme hardship, and the local government did everything it could — including plots and conspiracies — to deny and block these demands. In 2011, the authorities launched a crackdown on the village, and a number of the key villagers involved in defending their rights, including myself, were arrested. Xue Jinbo (薛锦波) was treated particularly cruelly, and died in prison.
Under the gaze of international media, then-Party chief of Guangdong Province (and current Politburo member and vice premier), Wang Yang (汪洋), made a show of goodwill, sending Zhu Mingguo (朱明国), then-vice Party secretary of Guangdong, to the village to ease tensions, affirm that the villagers’ demands were legitimate, and promise that the demands would be met. Now, however, it appears that all this was simply the government buying time while the world was watching.
In 2012, after Wukan formed its own democratically-elected village committee, the government used a range of methods to sow discord among villagers, erode the bonds of trust between them, lay traps for the most active village rights defense activists, and manipulate and control public opinion. Four years on, the government has put overwhelming emphasis on “stability maintenance” (meaning police and other security forces), and has not met any of the villagers’ demands for the return of the stolen land. Between 2012 and 2016, the authorities arrested one villager, (Zhang Dejia [张德家]), and sentenced three others — Hong Ruichao (洪锐潮), Yang Semao (杨色茂), and Lin Zuluan (林祖銮) — to prison.
In order to avoid the same fate, I fled to the United States on January 27, 2014, and applied for political asylum. For 85 days between June 19 and September 12, 2016, Wukan villagers organized daily protest marches through the streets, with about 4,000 participants every day.
On September 13, they were violently suppressed by thousands of riot police.
At about 3 a.m. on September 13, a battalion of armed police moved on the village, raiding houses and arresting 13 villagers that the government considered to be the most high-profile, including my father, Zhuang Songkun (庄松坤). Come dawn, thousands of fully-armed People’s Armed Police locked down village street intersections, dividing the crowd and then crushing the protest. They fired countless rounds of rubber bullets, and volleyed canisters of tear gas and shock grenades into the unarmed villagers. Then they began surrounding and violently beating villagers, without regard to whether they were old, women, or children. Faced with this violent, armed suppression, villagers resorted to throwing rocks and bricks. Hundreds of villagers were injured during the conflict, and reports indicate that an old woman died after being shot twice with rubber bullets. Nearly 100 villagers are believed to have been arrested.
Following the incident a large number of armed police, SWAT teams, and plainclothes officers installed themselves on practically every street corner in the village, even organizing patrols along the thoroughfares and back alleys. They severed internet access to block news about what happened from getting out, and stopped Hong Kong and international media from getting in. While all this was taking place, official media published gravely false reports about the suppression of the village. In the nearly three months since then, Wukan has become one big prison. Heavily armed riot police patrol the streets and alleys, members of the village Party committee act as spies, and the arbitrary arrest of villagers continues.
There are multiple indications that the violent suppression of Wukan this time was carried out on the direct orders of the Guangdong provincial government. Reports say that the vice-secretary of Guangdong was commanding the suppression from the nearby city of Lufeng (陆丰市), and that the thousands of riot and SWAT police deployed had been mobilized from the Huizhou Military District (惠州军区). The only one authorized to bring this level of force to bear is the current Guangdong Party secretary, Hu Chunhua (胡春华), so I’m positive that the violent suppression of Wukan was ordered by him.
On September 19, activist Yao Cheng (姚诚), a friend, and I were on our way to the United Nations headquarters in New York City to protest, when we were accosted and harassed by over a dozen men in identical black suits and blue raincoats — apparently national security agents from Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s (李克强) security detail. After we all got into an argument, one of the men took an open letter I handed to him, addressed to the Chinese Consul General in New York. We proceeded to the designated area at the UN and held our protest as planned. The following morning, however, I was shocked to receive a telephone call from the Lufeng public security bureau, who had detained my father, and were forcing him to tell me to keep quiet. On the one hand I was so glad to be in America, yet also realized that my right to express myself freely here is still limited by the Chinese authorities, and my own personal safety is even put at risk.
Wukan is still fraught with tension and conflict: the villagers have had two thirds of their land stolen from them, and this already put their basic livelihood under enormous pressure. Now, the entire area has been turned into a jail. So many villagers have been badly injured and arrested, which is another severe blow. Many families don’t even have the money to pay for proper medical treatment, and now rely on relatives from nearby villages to send them rations just so they can survive.
For all these reasons, I make the following demands of the Chinese authorities:
I. Cease the suppression and detention of Wukan villagers;
II. Release Lin Zuluan, Hong Ruichao, Yang Semao, Wei Yonghan (魏永汉), Zhang Xiangkang (张向坑), Yang Jinzhen (杨锦贞), Yang Shaoji (杨少集), Liu Hanchai (刘汉钗), Hong Yongzhong (洪永忠), Zhuang Songkun, Lin Desheng (林德升) and all other Wukan villagers who sought to defend their legal rights to the village land, and release the body — or, if still alive, the person — of the 80-year-old grandmother who was shot twice at close range with rubber bullets and reportedly killed;
III. Arrange for the immediate medical care of the roughly 100 villagers who were severely injured by riot police, and who are now hiding in their homes attempting to recover;
IV. Return the stolen land to Wukan village;
V. Hold accountable the chief culprit that orchestrated the violent suppression of peaceful Wukan villagers on September 13: Guangdong Party Secretary Hu Chunhua.
Wukan villager Zhuang Liehong (庄烈宏)
November 22, 2016
(Tom is unable to post his piece at the moment. Yaxue substitutes.)
Xi Jinping created quite a stir with his recent trip to Guangdong province, which has been seen by many as a demonstration of his determination to continue with (economic) Reform and Opening up. On this trip he impressed many by proceeding in a much less flashy fashion than most expect from Chinese gov’t officials. While his recent promotion of waste-preventing guidelines and anti-corruption policies show a strong desire to limit these ills of the Party, there is little hope that these alone will make a difference.
Xi is right to focus on these issues early on in his leadership, as graft and abuse of power are widely seen as the biggest threats to the Party, but he fails to recognize that these are unavoidable consequences of the current political structure. As it stands in China, the flow of resources is still largely controlled by a massive bureaucratic system. This gives a large number of individuals power over very valuable, finite commodities; which provides them the opportunity to extract bribes and use their positions for their own personal benefit. Because these petty officials are only beholden to the Party, and not the people affected by their actions, there is little need for them to produce results that would help their communities (and the results they produce are generally in effort to further their own careers). Without massive reforms, corruption will continue to be major problem.
Furthermore, as we’ve seen time and again, China’s leaders are excellent at producing laws, edicts, speeches, and slogans; but are incapable of ensuring their enforcement. There is little reason to believe that Xi’s latest efforts will produce a different outcome than the dozens of similar speeches made during Hu Jintao’s time. The problem is that to date, anti-corruption efforts have relied heavily on gov’t investigators instead of public oversight. In reality, this is simply creating another opportunity for graft, as these investigators can use their power to extract bribes from other officials.
I believe that the current strategy of the Party is simply to present the appearance of a clean up. After all, if many people in China believe that the Communist Party of the 50’s and 60’s was incorruptible (even though officials feasted through Mao’s great famine), than it should be possible to convince them of this again while maintaining the “perks” of officialdom that produce the unquestioning loyalty that the Party requires of it servants.
Last week though an open letter to Xi Jinping outlined clear initiatives that could be taken if the Party was really serious about cleaning up corruption, instead of just giving the appearance of caring. Signed by 65 Chinese intellectuals, legal professionals, teachers, engineers, media professionals and people from other professions, the letter reads as follows:
“Corruption is a very serious social problem in China, as general secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Xi Jinping said on November 17, 2012, during a study session of the Political Bureau, “The problem of corruption is becoming increasingly severe, and could ultimately bring down the Party and the country.” On November 19, 2012, the head of the CPC Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang Qishan, gave a speech in the meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection and the Ministry of Supervision also stressing the importance of “steadfast opposition to corruption”.
But over the years, the anti-corruption slogans, campaign-style anti-corruption efforts have not been able to solve the increasingly serious problem of corruption. On July 11, 2010, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the CPC Central Organization Department, the Ministry of Supervision jointly issued “Rules Regarding Cadres Reporting Personal Matters” that stipulate that cadres at and above the division level (处级, lower-middle level officials) must report personal income, real estate holdings, and investments of his/her own, as well as that of the spouse and children living with them.” But the information has not been made public, and did not work toward eradicating corruption.
The fundamental way to solve the problem of corruption is transparency. In 1766, in order to limit the power of the king, the Swedish Parliament enacted “freedom of the press,” which gave the Swedish citizens the right to access information about the property of all officials. Over 240 years, the official property declaration system has proven to be an effective weapon in fighting corruption, and many of the countries in the world have emulated it, including China’s Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.
In the face of this grim situation, we demand that the official property publicity to be started from the top, not only because “high-level officials display better ideological and political quality, their job performance stands out, and they also enjoy a relatively high degree of respect by the masses,” but more importantly, because senior officials wield enormous public resources, and hold the power to affect the well-being of China’s 1.3 billion citizens.
During the 18th Party Congress, Shanghai Party Secretary Yu Zhengsheng said, as soon as the central authorities made the decision, he could easily make his information public, “because I do not have much property.” The same day, the Guangdong provincial party secretary Wang Yang said, answering questions about official property declarations, that Guangdong is implementing pilot official property declaration system, and will continue exploring it. During last year’s Two Meetings, the Xinjiang Autonomous Region Party Secretary Zhang Chunxian said that, if officials are to make public of their properties, he would be the first to do so. From these public statements, we see that the conditions are ripe for officials’ property holdings to be known to the public.
As prescribed in Article 41 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to put forward criticisms of, and suggestions for, anyone working in any state organ.” As citizens of the People’s Republic of China, we ask the 205 most senior officials of China, as listed below, set an example by publishing the income, real estate, investment and other holdings of their own, their spouses’ and their children’s to curb the corrupt behavior of officials from the source, and to build a better China.”
It seems as though Xi would benefit from the wisdom of his newly minted catch phrase, “empty talk harms the country,” as it stands, this trip to Guangdong is nothing more than another hollow gesture that is not substantially different than any of the anti-corruption measures that have come before. If he wants the country to benefit fully from the idea that “hard work prospers the nation,” his first step should be implementing a transparent system for reporting the wealth of officials.
I think to many observers of China, People’s Daily (PD) has little worth outside of restating the Party line. They pretend that it is a reconstruction of the Ministry of Truth from 1984, whose only purpose lies in creating “truth.” Some even go so far as to argue that reading and quoting such a paper does nothing but affirm the Party’s leadership. In fact, bloggers, activists, and dissidents should be reading the People’s Daily, and, as I’ll show, often the most damning evidence against the Party’s rule can be found within its pages.
Initially, I too was skeptical of the integrity of People’s Daily, but linked to it regularly, assuming that even the strongest proponents of China would find it difficult to argue with facts and figures from the Party mouth piece. After all, PD would have little interest in overstating China’s problems.
Overtime I started to realize that stories were usually innocent on their own, but when taken with the bigger picture often portrayed a hypocritical and unjust state. The strongest example of this comes from two stories that seem at first glance to be completely unrelated; a female teacher burning seven kindergartners with a hot iron, and a man smashing the windows of two Mercedes-Benz. However on closer reading, one sees the vastly different values placed on the children of the poor and the possessions of the rich; the woman was held by police for 10 days, while the man was sentenced for 20 months.
Intrigued by this discovery, I started combing the China Society page daily. The home page of the site interests me due to importance put on certain articles, but I have found the other sections reveal far fewer interesting stories. This is not to say that it is void of blatantly rosy accounts of China. The Politics section, is usually just pronouncements, where words like “urge” and “inspect” fill the headlines with little discussion of action (official reports appear here from time to time, which can be useful). Additionally, Foreign Affairs, rarely strays from the Party line, and replays the same few points ad nauseum (sovereignty, peaceful development, harmony…). At times though, the Foreign Affairs section fails to convey the Party line in a convincing fashion, like the infamous one sentence article, “No beating of foreign journalists by police: Chinese FM,” in response to an incident that took place during the Jasmine Protests.
Despite some sensational stories that argue otherwise, the Party doesn’t actually inspect every article prior to publication. PD however does know that their role is to support the Party. They offer the clearest view of what the Party line is, and therefore serve as a useful window to China. The benefit of this to activists is that it is not always clear how one should support the Party.
What many people are not aware of is that within the paper there is a great deal of latitude given to each author and each department. It is not uncommon for there to be contradictory headlines appearing within a day of each other. For example: “China to reduce rare earth export quotas” published Oct. 19, 2010 followed by “China denies reports of rare earth export quota cut” on Oct. 20, 2010. Both used quotes from the Ministry of Commerce and appeared prominently on the front page of the People’s Daily’s website. These contradictions show a clear lack of gov’t oversight, and that the editors are sometimes left guessing where the Party line is.
Surprisingly, People’s Daily actually gives activists the tools to easily track down related stories that expose the paper’s previous position.
Unlike the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s distopia, the People’s Daily only produces new material, but doesn’t bother to delete the existing content. Even as Chinese censors scrub weibo of “sensitive words,” PD seems to be unaffected by these emergency efforts.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t attempts to obscure the past. The search feature of the People’s Daily website does seem to employ keyword blocking.
A search for “Falun Gong” results in this:
While a Google search of People’s Daily reveals over 1,350 articles related to the same topic. One finds that even though you can no longer access this information through People’s Daily itself, all of the articles still exist in their original form, even the initial article stating the practice has been banned is easily found.
The People’s Daily also tries to maintain its relevance in society by reporting, often obliquely, on hot topics. Using the Google site search, I tested nearly 50 terms and found that People’s Daily seems at least to be discussing some of the most sensitive topics (Full results at end).
A Google site search is performed by searching: “X” site:http://english.peopledaily.com.cn I further limited the search using Google’s tools that narrow the search by date of publication.
The biggest gains in frequency are in line with which topics were most widely discussed in other major overseas newspapers. Unsurprisingly, “Weibo” went from just three mentions to 2,520 in 2011. Bo Xilai also experienced a massive jump in frequency from just seven mentions in 2010 to 253 mentions in 2011 as a result of his Red Songs campaign and political posturing. (Wang Yang of Guangdong, who was seen as Bo’s competitor, had 7 and 10 mentions respectively).
Other words that have become more common in the last year include: “Stability” gaining 344% to 5,820 mentions; “Pollution” went up 1,094% from 355 mentions to 4,240, which shows the greater debate of the topic in the last year; “Food Safety” increased 3,083% going from 104 mentions to 3,310; and “Gutter Oil,” which was not mentioned a single time in 2010, was discussed 1,410 times in 2011. Any China hand would agree that these increases reflect the changes in the conversations we hear on a daily basis with our Chinese friends. I would argue that it is the result of a greater openness in People’s Daily to report on issues without waiting for official permission (in addition to the more obvious propaganda pieces).
These shifts in reporting also reflect changes in gov’t campaigns. For example the period from January 1 – March 19, 2010 and 2011 only yielded 1 article related to Lei Feng; the same period in 2012 has resulted in 117. When you read People’s Daily everyday, you can start to intuit these shifts, but a Google site search allows you to quantify such changes.
Thanks to the administrators of the People’s Daily website, information is no longer a tool that only the Party can wield.
Important Notes: Google site search is not perfect. 3 page articles are counted as 3 separate mentions. While this skews data some, it is also representative of the importance attached to each topic. Recent photo pages also skew results, as an unrelated article may appear in the results due to the photo page being mentioned on the side bar. Data sets for Wukan and Muammar Gaddafi were strongly affected by this, which is why I placed an x in their columns for 2010. Additionally, mentions of “Democracy” may be pro-democracy or anti-democracy, but the value lies in the fact that it is increasingly being discussed.
Just in case you’ve been doing something else this week besides poring over China news, Monday marked the start of China’s annual Two Meetings (两会lianghui). Over 10 days, “representatives” (it is unclear who they actually represent) submit thousands of suggestions for new laws, listen to speeches from heads of various ministries, and approve virtually everything the Party sets in front of them.
For many Chinese netizens, it serves as a buffet of memes (internet jokes) at the expense of sleeping delegates and Mao’s grandson, as well as a source of outrage when it comes to expensive clothing and accessories.
At the end of the meetings, new laws will be presented and then promptly forgotten. As the WSJ put it:
…activists including artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained for 81 days last year without being charged, say Chinese police rarely observe legal procedure, and the new revisions include many loopholes that would still allow police to make people “disappear” in politically sensitive cases.
So if the laws aren’t actually enforced, aren’t these meetings pointless?
The reason China journalists, human rights advocates, financial analysts, and others have been glued to their screens this week isn’t because they think these new laws will actually be strictly enforced. Instead, this week is dedicated to reading tea leaves and trying to discern China’s future direction. This is especially important given that there will be a new group of leaders appointed this fall.
For example, Bo Xilai (the guy who loves red songs) and Wang Yang (called a reformer) have been the focus of at least a dozen articles, even though the next leader has already been decided (unofficially). Instead, these two men represent two factions within the Party, and the ascension of either one to a higher post could mean a general shift in that direction.
Unfortunately, Bo Xilai has been entangled in a political scandal, and is now unlikely to be promoted. I say “unfortunately” not because Bo deserves a promotion (my nationalist friend in Chengdu called him a “psycho” and the more reform minded friend called him “dangerous”), but his scandal means that we can no longer tell if he just lost favor or if his whole ideology has lost standing.
On the other hand, laws, like the one protecting human rights during detention, are China’s way of signaling to the rest of the world how it would like to be portrayed or less cynically, what it hopes to be. Law makers know this bill will result in headlines like, “China acts to give defendants greater rights,” and “China targets detention practices,” without actually limiting what state security agents can do, but many papers and activists will call it progress.
While I might seem skeptical, bare in mind the many cases of detention Yaxue has detailed on this blog were already in defiance of the current laws (“China is a country under rule of law” ironically was last year’s theme). Until people like Chen Guangcheng are free, there is little reason to expect that this law will be any better enforced.
Speeches, like Wen Jiabao’s promise that “Farmers’ land rights not to be violated by anyone,” serve two purposes. One, to give the appearance that the Party cares about Chinese farmers (which they need in order to maintain stability), and two, serves as a clear message to local gov’t’s that this issue is a priority. However, there is still little reason to think that this marks the end of land grabs. Police last year were ordered not to meddle in home demolitions, yet this is still a common source of tension.
Next week we’ll look closer at the tea leaves, and try to discern what kind of country China would like to be seen as.