The “Yan Xiaoling” Case and its Legal Ripple Effects

On June 28th three netizens were sentenced to jail terms between one and two years for libel in their appeal trial in Fuzhou in what was the latest ripple effect of the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Yan Xiaoling in February 2008.

Her story had first set Chinese forums abuzz after the post “Minqing’s Yan Xiaoling is ten thousand times more tragic than Deng Yujiao!” appeared in June 2009 and soon made nationwide headlines. The article, written by Fan Yanqiong, was based on information from Lin Xiuying, mother of the deceased, who had been petitioning to have her daughter’s case reexamined. The post contained allegations that local police where involved in a cover up of the rape and subsequent death of Yan Xiaoling. Two other netizens, You Jingyou and Wu Huaying, followed up on the story by posting a video interview with Yan Xiaolings mother. This prompted a quick reply from the local police who held a press conference detailing how Yan had died of natural causes. ((Translation of the original post and extensive background information on ESNW here and here.))

The story made international headlines, although indirectly, when on July 15th the following tweets spread around the world: “I have been arrested by Mawei police, SOS” and “Pls help me, I grasp the phone during police sleep”. The author was blogger Guo Baofeng, who had reposted the Yan Xiaoling video on different forums and subsequently been detained under suspicion of defamation and spreading rumors. The case generated a quite unique response when netizens nationwide called for Guo Baofeng “to come home and have dinner” ((More on one of the most popular internet memes of 2009 here at chinaSMACK.)) in what has become seen as an example for a new form of social (cyber)activism. Guo was released a few days later with no known legal consequences, since he is still out there twittering.

But Fan, You and Wu, also in investigative custody, were later charged with libel, a step that was widely seen as an infringement on the right of netizens to freedom of speech and supervision of state power (which the government holds in the highest esteem). On their first trial date in March hundreds of netizens gathered in front of the court house to show their support. The trial was postponed, raising hopes that they would be acquitted. But on April 16th they were found guilty of libel by the Mawei court and sentenced to between one and three years. As stated above, the verdict was upheld by the Fuzhou court. But questions were raised about the treatment of the case and their unlawfully prolonged investigative custody. It was alleged that their harsh sentences were connected to previous activism since other netizens involved in this case had been released.  ((For more information about the developments in the Yan Xiaolin case check the timeline on Amoiist’s bolg and various posts on lawyer Liu Xiaoyuans blog.))

The chain of events that started with Yan Xiaolings death first and foremost demonstrates the dwindling trust in government institutions, public security organs and the legal system amongst the population, starting with her mother’s distrust in the outcome of the official investigation. The same distrust motivated Fan, You and Wu to make the story public and also fueled the actions taken by netizens to support their fellow bloggers. It can also be seen in a blogger resorting to his one tweet instead of his one phone call.

In this context the trial of the three Fujian netizens also illustrates just how well fundamental citizen rights like freedom of speech and the right to a fair and lawful trial are being safeguarded. In his post lawyer Dou Yonggang does an excellent job at pointing out the procedural shortcomings of the trial and their implications.

Translation

Lapses in the Trial of the “Yan Xiaoling” Netizens

Author: Dou Yonggang, Lawyer

On June 28th 2010 the final verdict of the netizens in Fuzhou accused of libel, also referred to as the “Yan Xiaoling case”, was reached.

The case was tried in first instance at the Mawei court. The first verdict states that “this court is convinced that the defendant Fan Yanqiong intentionally concocted a story, wrote articles on two occasions and posted these fabricated articles on foreign websites. The defendants You Jingyou and Wu Huaying, who where fully aware that the relevant departments of Fuzhou city had already held a press conference and made public the real circumstances under which Yan Xiaoling died, still insisted on recording a member of Yan Xiaolings family, which they added as a video to the story online concocted by Fan Yanqiong. That video was then widely spread online. The three defendants intentionally twisted right and wrong, slandered others and mislead the masses. This has led a large number of netizens who are ignorant of the truth to view [the information] online and repost it as well as to attack, abuse and defame the victims [who are accused in the story]. [Those netizens] thereby inflicted serious harm, destroyed their reputation and gravely affected their work and lives. The events also had a negative social impact and consequently seriously endangered social order. Considering the gravity of the circumstances, their actions definitely constitute the crime of libel." (For details see the court verdict of the first instance trial.)

The second trial was held at the Fuzhou middle court. In the second trial it was pointed out that Fan Yanqiong must have known that Yan Xiaoling “died because of a shock due to the blood loss connected with a ruptured ectopic pregnancy”, especially since the police organs had already clarified the situation through a news conference. But the defendants still concocted [the story] of Yan Xiaoling being raped to death by mafia members [connected] to the police and published the names [of some officials] as well as posted the fabricated articles online on two occasions. The court also believed that “the defendants You Jingyou, Wu Huaying and Fan Yanqiong all posted [the article] ‘Yan Xiaoling was raped to death by gangsters [protected] by the police’ even after the police clarified the situation, thereby seriously harming the image of the government and the credibility of the law enforcement and judicial organs. They also gravely endangered social order. [Their actions] constitute the crime of libel.” The middle court of Fuzhou rejected the appeal and upheld the original verdict. The defendants were sentenced to between 1 and 2 years respectively.

Yan Xiaoling

Yan Xiaoling was the original victim of this case and would have needed the protection of the law the most [through a thorough investigation]. But because Yan Xiaolings actual cause of death leads to [the question] if some [government] departments and personnel were involved in any way, a very simple judicial matter has been complicated. But the complexity of the circumstances isn’t the worst of it. Because if  legal procedures are followed and the truth and the law are both respected, then even the most complicated matters can be resolved in a just and objective way. But in the end the courts in the first and second trial failed to convince the public [that this was the case].

Let us look at the biggest problem in the judicial procedure of this case: The courts finally ruled the case as a case of libel, but most parts of the trial followed public prosecution procedures. If a defendant is suspected of being guilty of libel, then the case should have been handled as a private lawsuit and the evidence should have been collected and brought forward by the [lawyer of the private] plaintiff. If a defendant is suspected of falsely accusing or framing someone, only then is this a case for the public prosecution. Then the prosecuting organ is also the litigator and obtaining evidence is relatively easy. Maybe it is for this reason that at different stages of the trial the actual charge went through interesting transformations. [The defendants] were taken into criminal custody under the suspicion of libel, but the official arrest was made under the suspicion of falsely accusing and framing a third party. The case was turned over to review and again the decision to prosecute was made because of the suspicion of falsely accusing and framing a third party. Falsifying accusations and a frame-up was also the content of the formally lodged charge, but the charge that the court so strongly believed to be true in its indictment went back to libel. After going in a big circle they returned to the starting point and managed to reach the outcome of a private lawsuit by using the means of the public prosecution. A very skillful handling of the procedural process indeed.

Protesting netizens hold up a banner in front of the court that reads: "Justice and Fairness shine brighter than the sun"

But there were also major problems with the facts: The court did not actually clarify how Yan Xiaoling died. The defendants believed that „mobsters [connected] to the police raped her to death”, the court on the other hand is convinced that this story was fabricated by the defendants. The court verdict stresses that “the police cleared everything up in the press conference” and that “the relevant departments of Fuzhou had already held a press conference and made public the real circumstances under which Yan Xiaoling died”. In other words, faced with two contradicting statements, the court believed the explanation brought forward by the “police” or “relevant departments”. But concerning this [decision] the court didn’t even supply facts or a legally sound explanation. Why is everything the “police” or “relevant departments” say automatically taken as a fact, but what the defendants say is considered untrue? The defense has the right to verify the evidence and raise reasonable doubt. Reaching a verdict relying on such flawed evidence before the reasonable doubt has been eliminated is obviously unjust.

The present case touches upon some very important principal questions: How valuable can a testimony be that the government gives on behalf of itself? Doesn’t the legal system show its responsibility by considering inconclusive or negative proof? In regard to this it seems that the courts [involved] have already given their reply. They were convinced that “after the police had held a press conference to clarify the issue, the defendants still insisted on spreading the information that ‘Yan Xiaoling was raped to death by mobsters [connected] to the police ‘, thereby seriously harming the image of the government and the credibility of the public security and judicial organs. They also gravely endangered social order. All constitutes the crime of libel.” [Using] this kind of logic amounts to the court conveying the following message through the given verdict: Explanations given by government departments, public security or judicial organs are always the ultima ratio. They have [absolute] public credibility and are beyond doubt or [the possibility of] falsification. Thereby questioning or contradicting them inevitably [means] harming “the image of the government and the credibility of the public security and judicial organs” which will result in corresponding legal consequences. Thus was the courts unfortunate wishful thinking, which the vast majority of legal experts would not approve of.

Event though the verdict in the “Yan Xiaoling case” has already come into effect, it still cannot really convince people. I think that in this case the government and the public security and judicial organs themselves did greater damage to their image and credibility, as well as to social order, than anyone else could have done.

Comment

Dou Yonggangs assessment is right to the spot. Chinese governmental institutions can be simply astonishing in how effective, resourceful and systematic they are in destroying their own reputation and credibility. I’d just like to add some general thoughts & questions:

  1. The underlying question (previously raised on this blog) is: Can a writer, even when his information turns out to be wrong, be guilty of “false accusation” or “libel” if he believed it to be true? Why was intentionality – or the lack thereof – not considered at all?
  2. Why was Lin Xiuying, Yans mother, not apprehend and charged? Since she was the one spreading all the “rumors” and “false information”…
  3. Even if there is a possibility that Lin Xiuying is a paranoid schizophrenic or simply lost her mind because of grief, there were enough mistakes in the investigation to fuel doubt in its credibility. Maybe the only way to avoid these kinds of situations is to finally establish “independent autopsy centers” as Han Han suggested and, well again, outlaw the cremation of bodies without the consent of the family?
  4. Why do they always stress “foreign media” in trials? Does it turn into “aggravated libel” when a piece of information crosses national borders?
  5. “[…] a large number of netizens [ie. masses] who are ignorant of the truth […]” That one again, really?
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0 thoughts on “The “Yan Xiaoling” Case and its Legal Ripple Effects”

  1. Excellent piece. Nice to see someone follow up on this case. Lived in Fz for years and believe me the whole Mawei admin is rotten to the core. As an aside, there is a great sign in the Mawei Customs Office. Do not bribe these officers, followed by their photo and work title. Most of them have organised relatives as customs clearance agents, and you had better use these guys or face a world of import/export difficulty.

    Amendment: the most corrupt admin in Fujian is found in Fujing.

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  2. Given the zoo that is the government sponsored China Daily BBS, I am kind of surprised at this turn of events in P.R. China. Yet, given that the folks in question had little or no guanxi in the face of folks that they were questioning, I am not surprised at the verdict.

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  3. I have written this before, but no matter where you are most of the Law enforcement types are corrupt thugs, and the Chinese ones are among the worst.

    I am not surprised though, because even in the US and England simply by taking pictures of police can get you locked up and sued for “terrorist” activities. By using the court system rather than to simply lock people up and beat them, the Chinese police are learning to be more “civilized”.

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  4. I don’t see what’s the problem with Fan Yanqiong being jailed. The problem is not how Yan Xiaoling’s mother believed of how her daughter died nor is it about harming the image of the government and the credibility of the public security and judicial organs. The main problem is Fan Yanqiong’s message is used with the intent to cause unrest. There are similar cases here in the US with the same result: look at the supreme court cases like Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire. It just goes to show that Free speech is not absolute, whether it is China or some other western country.

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  5. @ lolz: I’m pretty sure that there are countries where the statement “most of the Law enforcement types are corrupt thugs” does not apply, mostly because I grew up in one of those. But even there you shouldn’t take your right for granted. Citizens have to act against any infringement. And more often than not you have a chance in systems with an effective court system and rule of law.
    Of course it is laudable that Chinese police are more and more “civilized” and work with the courts – or in other words just do their jobs (and save the beating and “black” detention for special occasions and special people). But the problem is that people are not in a “civilized” court that follows the rule of law after being “handed over” but face vested interests and corruption there as well.

    @ pug_ster: No matter what a person is suspected of, I hope you would agree that they are entitled to a fair trial “in accordance with the law”, one of the hottest terms in government speeches, work reports and white papers in China. Last time I checked “ruling the country in accordance with the law” (依法治国) still meant that the courts are not allowed to break the law while fulfilling their duties. But in this case there are plenty of examples indicating otherwise:

    1. It started with the prolonged detention. If this was in a rule-of-law state then a complaint would have been filed against the “relevant departments” and legal action would have been taken.

    2. The netizens were charged with (and ultimately convicted of) libel, but there was no private plaintiff involved, although the Chinese law clearly states that only the individual victim – not a public prosecutor on behalf of a government institution! – can bring up such a charge. This is a gross procedural failure that would have been followed by legal action taken against both courts – under rule of law. I would like to stress that the policemen who were accused had every right to raise this charge and they would have had a very good chance of winning, but they didn’t get involved!

    3. The charge even varied in the different stages of the process – as Dou Yonggang explained in his article – which again is a gross violation of procedural regulations and against the Chinese law and should have been followed by an investigation and legal action.

    4. An important factor is also the question of intentionality, especially considering the heavy penalties they got for libel, which is usually mediated or resolved through compensation (to the PRIVATE injured party that never appeared in this case). Especially in the case of a prison term the court is obligated to prove without a doubt that the action was premeditated and intentional. The defense stressed that the netizens, relying on information from Yan Xiaolings mother, believed that what they were saying was true and acted with the intention and aim of helping someone they thought to be a victim of injustice. The only evidence the courts brought forward to prove that the netizens were willfully spreading lies was the reference to the press conference. I’m sorry, but WTF? As Dou points out in his text the argument “what government departments say is automatically the truth and therefore the netizens only published this to tarnish the image of government organs and disturb public order” is simply ridiculous. In a rule-of-law state this case could have at best been presented as an act of negligence of the defendants (in the way of fact-checking before publishing) and would have rested on presenting the harm that was done to the PRIVATE plaintiff. The courts didn’t event try and put up the appearance by detailing what harm was done to the “government organs” and what actual effects it had on “public order”.

    5. To prove the intentionality behind the libel the court should have proved that there was no reason to doubt the outcome of the police investigation in Yans death in the first place. But considering the shortcomings and sloppy work by the police that would be a hard task – even if Yan died of natural causes and the mother is a nutcase! (Just read through the 200+ posts on Liu Xiaoyuans blog linked above.) The defense argued quite rightly that the insufficient work of the police was what gave rise to those suspicions in the start. Again an example how it is mostly government organs themselves who harm their image and create situations that might in the long run negatively impact social order.

    I do believe that China has made great progress since it started rebuilding its legal system after 1979. But if the legal system is to advance further and really gain the respect and trust of the citizens then courts can’t act against the law, no matter what! If you read government publications like the 学习时报,求是 and 嘹望 you can find enough articles saying that this is what is meant by „ruling the country in accordance with the law“ and in the interest of the Party. So why, if the netizens were so clearly guilty of something, did the courts completely mess up judicial procedures and act against the law? And why were no steps taken against that? Don’t get me wrong, if the accused policemen were innocent then they should have filed a lawsuit and the culprits been convicted – first of all Yans mother who started spreading this information! But the way this was handled is a bit like convicting someone who stole a bicycle (by mistake) for embezzling government funds. In my opinion the way that juridical organs seem to stand above and manipulate the law rather than execute and safeguard it seems to be the main reason for the general distrust in legal organs. And of course in the police, which is what started this whole mess in the first place…

    And I’m not singling out China, I wholeheartedly believe that in every country courts – and all other government organs – should abide by the law.

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  6. @Kat,

    I’m curious, are you an expert in American law or Chinese law? I think there is one major difference between Chinese jury system is that there is little chance of getting some type mistrial because of some technicality. It is less about procedure and China’s law system is more about justice.

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  7. @pug_ster: No, I am not an expert on law, but I took some courses in university and it is still a topic that I am very interested in – especially in regard to China. I believe that the form and the state of a legal system say a lot about a country, its government and overall societal development(s).I’ve read the post you linked a while ago and I understand what you are aiming at. But when you are saying that Chinas legal system “is less about procedure” and “more about justice” to support your argument that the trial of the netizens was fair and the outcome was justified I think you are confusing different aspects.   
    The main point of the blog post at chinalawblog.com was to stress that the idea that cases can be decided “strictly on the law” is generally wrong (even more in China than in the West) and that the execution of the law relies a lot on interpretation. He also describes a fundamental cultural difference in what is regarded as just. But while he says that “Chinese courts are far less interested in the law and far more interested in ‘justice’” (which he puts in quotation marks) he nowhere mentions that the Chinese courts are less interested in legal procedures. The term “legal procedures” refers to the set of rules that regulate how the law is enforced. It is defined in the Procedural Law, both civil and criminal. In Chinas the process of a criminal trial is regulated by the Criminal Procedure Law of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国刑事诉讼法), including the duties of legal organs, defendants’ rights, time-frames for detention and appeals etc. It basically is the law that sets the framework for the courts and tells them what to do and what not. Why I think your argument doesn’t apply in this case: The blog post you cited referred to the rather broad interpretation of the law in China which is geared more towards producing outcomes that are considered “just” then focused on how to best follow the exact phrasing of a paragraph. Although this interpretation might lead to a decision than would not necessarily be considered just in a “Western” court, courts are working within the law and following legal procedures. But if, like in the case of the three netizens, the defendants are kept in investigative detention for almost ten month although Article 92 of the Criminal Procedure Law states that this kind of custody “shall not exceed two months” or if people are jailed for libel without a private plaintiff, although only a private plaintiff can legally bring forward the charge at question, then this is not interpretation but violation of the Chinese law (no matter how you turn it). I’m NOT trying to pass judgment or to resolve the question if the netizens are innocent or not. What I don’t understand is why in this case the court allowed the proper process to be violated on various occasions nor do I understand the necessity to resort to the “procedural cheating” described by Dou Yonggang. Was it to have easier access to evidence? Was the court asked to resolve this case as fast as possible and to send a political message and thought this was the best way to get there? No matter what their intention was, the fact is that they violated legal procedures.But if citizens are punished when they break the law, shouldn’t government organs be held responsible as well? Especially in the case of courts, which should be upholding law and justice? I think this is what Dou meant when he said that this verdict “cannot really convince people” of its legitimacy. If you make the rules you should at least follow them. Otherwise no one will trust you.

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  8. I’m sure the lawyers who represent the defendants, Dou Yonggang would say something like that. However, I am guessing that he only mentions half of the story of why these 3 men are not guilty, while the prosecutor would probably have a better explanation of why they are guilty. As I said, them being free because they were in custody for more than 2 months is more like a technicality. So I something would fly.

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  9. Ups, sorry for the messed up formatting and the huge chunk of text up there. Looked different in the preview…

    @pug_ster: These issues are not technicalities, it’s THE COURT BREAKING THE LAW. And Dou is not their defense lawyer, he is merely an acute observer pointing out the shortcomings. Again, this is not about the question if the three netizens are innocent or not. It’s about legal organs having to follow the rules and handling cases “in accordance with the law”.

    In this case they didn’t, although they would have gotten a conviction anyways! They didn’t even pretend to follow the rules and execute a fair trial, and because courts are not held responsible for their illegal actions (maybe because to many people treat them as meaningless technicalities, that a court can ignore when it has “good reason” to do so) they see themselves as above the law and decide cases based on interests. And this is why people loose their faith in the courts and public organs even more and have the urge to take justice in their own hands. Voilà, there you have a real threat to social stability!

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