Yan Xiaoling, Legal Questions, and Reporting Injustice

For some time now, lawyer and blogger Liu Xiaoyuan has been following the case of three netizens (You Jingyou, Fan Yanqiong, and Wu Huaying) accused of framing/falsifying information because they published an article on the internet about the lethal gang rape of Yan Xiaoling. The post attracted widespread interest online and was posted on many popular Chinese internet portals. Unfortunately, the official verdict came down on Yan Xiaoling as having died from pregnancy-related complications rather than gang rape, and according to the police, the post about the rape was “purely rumors”. According to Liu Xiaoyuan, the libelous part of their post was probably the first part, where they name several police officials by name as being complicit in the administration of the KTV establishment where, according to the post, Ketamine was openly sold, prostitution was encouraged, and Yan Xiaoling and possibly other girls were raped to death. At the end of their post, they call for netizens to report the incident to officials and “punish severely these conscienceless police bandits!”

There are lots of strange things about the case. For one, the evidence from a local hospital of Yan Xiaoling’s death there after the incident (whatever happened) comes from a “Diagnostic Certificate” rather than a “Death Certificate”, which seems odd; furthermore, this was only given to Yan Xiaoling’s mother seven months after her death. She has been seeking audience with higher-ups to look into the event for a year. She maintains that she was raped to death; but the police cite her death as complications from ectopic pregnancy, citing the autopsy report. (The previous two paragraphs are all based on information from this post by Liu Xiaoyuan)

(For more background on the case and a translation of the original post, see ESWN, but be warned it contains a pretty gruesome and probably NSFW postmortem photo of Yan Xiaoling.)

In any event, the netizens who wrote the posts about this were arrested, which raises some interesting legal issues. Is posting something untrue on the internet “false accusation” if the writer believes it is true? Furthermore, does making a post on the internet really count as a false accusation or is it just an expression of suspicion, given that it’s not at all formal. Certainly, plenty of other untrue things have been posted online without the authors behind them going to jail. Beijing lawyer Su Zhanjun wrote quite a lengthy post on the legal implications of the “framing” charge on Liu Xiaoyuan’s site, concluding that “if suspecting someone of something falls under the category of falsely accusing them, then this society truly is terrifying.”

Well said. It’s also hard to imagine that there isn’t at least some truth to what the netizens posted, as an anonymous democratic party [a Chinese democratic party, not the American Democratic Party] member writes in this open letter to the local secretary now in charge of handling the case (via Liu Xiaoyuan, our translation):

Dear Secretary Sun Chunlan,

As a member of a democratic party, I’ve been closely following the “framing netizens” case’s investigation, to see whether the rights granted to citizens in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China will be protected or not, and whether Secretary General Hu’s [promise] of “making people the focus” will be fulfilled or not.

That you were appointed the secretary should be a good thing to the three defendants; as you used to be the head of a group of workers you most understand the situation of the [common] people, understand their frame of mind, and are able to protect them. The facts of the case are clear; there are only people reporting injustice because injustice exists. They [those reporting injustice] are people of conscience, [you] should not use your power to harm them further and hurt the hearts of the whole nation’s people.

Freedom of speech is the root from which the development and prosperity of a nation and a people springs. [People’s] thinking cannot be liberated until speech is free, and free thinking is the greatest power in developing productivity. Secretary Sun, you may understand this logic much better than many others; now we focus on what must be done.

In truth, your appointment [as secretary] was where the change in this case started from, I hope you can implement Secretary General Hu’s governing principle of “making people the focus”, accord with the principles of the Constitution, resolve this case in a way that is harmonious with the people’s hearts and opinions, safeguard the image of the Party, safeguard the dignity of the Constitution, and turn Fujian into a harmonious society!

Most Sincerely,

A Democratic Party Member
December 5, 2009

The sentence “there are only people reporting injustice because injustice exists” was highlighted in red on Liu Xiaoyuan’s blog, and was also the title of his post. It is, I think, a pretty valid observation. Whether or not Yan Xiaoling actually died from being raped, it seems as though something fishy was going on, to put it lightly. And there’s no one living in China who would doubt that there might be police officers in league with local gangsters and shady KTV bars.

If the allegations are true, it’s one of the most disturbing cases we’ve heard about in some time. And if they aren’t, given the widespread belief that they are on the internet, the police and government might indeed do well to heed the feelings of the people and produce some more evidence that nothing unjust happened instead of locking up the people trying to start discussions about the case.

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0 thoughts on “Yan Xiaoling, Legal Questions, and Reporting Injustice”

  1. Liu Xiaoyaun pointed out that “the libelous part of their post was probably the first part, where they name several police officials by name as being complicit in the administration of the KTV establishment.”
    But it was not as simple as that. The problem was that these netizens knew very well that there was no evidence to tie any of the named pesons (“the Minqing county public security bureau deputy director and Meicheng criminal investigation division chief Li Zongying, the public safety department director Lu Yanding, the county procuratorate prosecutor named Tu”) to the case.
    Those persons were named because the Internet post would not attract eyeballs without them. They were tossed in there to attract attention the case. The consequence was that these three persons had to be investigated before being cleared, and drowned in saliva from raging netizens.
    Is that okay? Is that part of the job of being a government/party official?
    If YES, then every Internet petition from this moment on can name the local party secretary/mayor for ever more unspeakable crimes with impunity. Is that where you want to go? I don’t think so. Besides, this technique would lose its potency quickly if it is used in every possible case — the party secretary simply won’t have the time/energy to engage in thousands of nefarious deeds.
    If this Internet post was solely about suspicious circumstances in the death of Yan Xiaoling, nobody would care. There are plenty of such Internet posts. The problem here was that the netizens named government/party officials without cause only because they want to sensationalize the case to attract more eyeballs. Instead of a regular defamation case, this now involves social destabilization and disharmony. What do you think?

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  2. @ esw: That is an important distinction, and one I missed in my initial reading. That said, what proof is there that these people were named “just to attract attention”? Local officials and police DO have a responsibility to prevent sketchy KTV places from existing, so in a sense whatever happened did happen under their watch, whether they were actually complicit in it or not. That said, the original post implies they were complicit and thus is libelous.

    My question, though, is how much does this stuff really count on the internet? For example, millions of videogamers call each other sexual and racial slurs over the internet of a daily basis? Are these slurs criminal, or do they become criminal only when they get popular? Do they become criminal only when they’re directed at police officers?

    Honestly, I don’t really see the “social destabilization” angle either. Yes, the post caused some trouble for these police officers, but as the saying goes, if you’re innocent you should have nothing to fear. All they had to do was present the truth and the case was resolved. Furthermore, from my perspective, this sort of thing is par for the course for anyone holding public office.

    That said, I’m not saying lies should be spread with impunity. Just that there are some intriguing legal questions here about how and where the line for libel or “framing” is drawn when we’re talking about a post on a public internet messageboard rather than a reliable publication. People post lies and/or things that are unverifiable on the internet all the time. Opening that up to criminal charges seems a bit like opening a can of worms, no?

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