Discussion Section: “It’s Just a Local Issue”

Earlier this evening, I was checking the comments thread on my most recent post and was surprised to see that David Cohen had linked to it in The Diplomat. Here’s where we came up in his piece:

So I’m surprised to see Ji’s story being reported as another example of the Chinese state cracking down[link to ChinaGeeks] on the freedom of speech, and the efforts to intimidate him being misreported in English as detention or even jail time. On the contrary, both cases seem to belong to a thuggish and desperate effort to control PR fallout by local interests. That national papers, including People’s Daily and the official Xinhua news agency have covered the stories shows very clearly that the officials involved lack the kind of high-level protection it takes to get stories suppressed by the state’s censorship authorities.

This is an important distinction: while journalists in Luoyang encountered serious problems – murder, intimidation, and a clampdown on local coverage of the Li Hao story that succeeded for two weeks – they were local responses that posed little difficulty for a national paper like Southern Metropolis. The story here is less 1984 than Deliverance – in the absence of effective central oversight, much of China is governed by almost feudal networks of patronage and protection, no more answerable to Beijing than it is to the public.

To begin with, I’m a bit baffled that he linked us there. I think my original post was pretty clear; I said specifically that the hassle Ji got was because he caused local police to lose face, and I never suggested the central government had a hand in it. I did suggest Ji was detained — apparently that’s not entirely accurate — but there I was only paraphrasing a New York Times article that said the same thing (which was linked via this CDT article). I believe that was the most accurate information available at the time I posted the article (which was an opinion piece, not reporting).

Anyway, I want to address the distinction Cohen is making here. His argument is that this and other incidents were local issues that don’t really implicate the central government in anything except perhaps ineffectiveness and inefficiency. This is an argument one hears all the time, and I must admit, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with it at the same time.

Before we go further, I do want to state that I don’t think there’s anything in particular wrong with Cohen’s article, nor am I arguing against his specific conclusions there so much as I’m arguing against the general argument one hears all the time in China: ‘The central government is good, it’s just these local officials are out of control and corrupt!’

On the one hand, there’s no denying that many of the high-profile problems reported in the media are, at their heart, local issues. In the case of the stories that have been dogging Luoyang for the past few weeks, this is certainly true. The central government didn’t have a real hand in directly causing any of these problems, at least as far as we know.

And yet, something about the argument rings hollower to me every time I hear it. While national media did report the story, for example, I wonder if the central government — presumably now they’re aware of it — will take steps to punish the national security agents who harassed Ji. A year from now, I wonder, will Luoyang still be producing gutter oil? Will its government still be kidnapping petitioners (and tourists) from Beijing and dragging them back home? Or will these news stories lead to central government intervention and increased oversight in the future?

It’s the future, of course, so who knows. But history tells us that the central government, for all its promises, won’t do much. Sure, these are local issues in that the central government was not manufacturing sewer oil or kidnapping tourists. But how many years have we already been reading stories about gutter oil? About black jails? About the harassment of journalists both foreign and domestic? These are not new stories, they’ve been being reported for years now. All that changes is the place names.

Sure, the incidents in Luoyang were local. And the next high-profile black jail case will be a local story too. It will be local police and local officials acting, and ultimately local police and local officials who will fall if the stakes get high enough.

Increasingly, though, I feel like the distinction is an irrelevant one. If the central government can’t or won’t put a stop to these problems, aren’t they ultimately also culpable?

bloody-mapDeliverance was about one isolated, backward area of the US. But China has little Deliverance moments happening all over, all the time. Take forced demolition, for example. Readers of Shanghaiist may recall the “Bloody Map” they posted last year tracking incidences of violence related to forced demolitions. Each one of those dots on the right represents what is fundamentally a local issue. But if you look at the map as a whole, it should be fairly obvious why some people tend to lay the blame for these “local issues” at the feet of the central government.

On the other hand, as Cohen points out, state media has been allowed to report on many of these issues, although often only after a story has already been broken by independent media, usually one of the Southern Media Group papers. People will learn about these stories either way via Weibo and other social media; why not allow the state media outlets to build a little bit of a rep for being critical reporting damage that’s already been done anyway? I’m not sure the central government deserves any credit for having done something right if it isn’t also fixing the problem that’s being reported on ((Yeah, fixing these problems isn’t easy, but the central government runs the country. If it’s too hard, too bad. You’re the effin’ government, nut up and do your goddamn job!)).

Anyway, it’s a complex issue and I’ll concede there are some pretty valid arguments on both sides, so I wanted to turn it over to our crack team of commenters for analysis. What do you think? Are local issues really local?

Photoshopped Pants and Why “Face” is a Poison

UPDATE: The nice folks over at 译者 have seen fit to translate this into Chinese. Check it out!

Warning: If you don’t like bitter rants, you may want to stop reading this after the first couple paragraphs. And if you don’t like sarcasm, you probably should never have come to this site in the first place.

Well, if you were wondering whether or not the “new masters” at the Beijing News (新京报) were going to exert control over the paper, wonder no longer. Behold:

You may already have heard about the tourist from Luoyang who came to see Beijing and got sent home and beaten because he was mistaken for a petitioner (keep in mind, it is not illegal to come to Beijing and petition the government anyway).

The image above is of said petitioner, passed out in the street after being beaten by police. The top photo was posted by Southern Metropolis Daily (as you can see by the watermark), one of the relatively independent newspapers in the Southern Media Group. The bottom one was posted to Weibo by — you guessed it! — the Beijing News.

Facepalm. Now, mix that with the revelation that national security police detained harassed and threatened a reporter for “revealing state secrets” because he reported on a former official’s sex dungeon murders. That’s right. The fact that a former firefighter was keeping six KTV hostesses in a sex dungeon — well, until he killed at least one of them, possibly two — that’s a “state secret.”

Of course, what they actually meant by “revealing state secrets” is ‘causing the local police force to lose face’. You may be wondering how trying to conceal sex slavery, kidnapping, and double homicide isn’t somehow a bigger loss of face. By all accounts the criminal here was not some high-level official…anyway, we’re getting sidetracked.

In both instances, the issue is face. Of course, in these cases, the “face-saving” effort was completely botched, but the principle is the same. Truth doesn’t enter into the equation, it’s all about polishing that turd and hoping someone — anyone — is fooled.

Time and time again, Chinese officials use this approach to take a real problem, an embarrassment, or, in some cases, nothing at all and turn it into a disaster (or a bigger disaster). Off the top of my head, here are a few examples:

  • The “Jasmine Revolution Protests” — Protests “organized” by a handful of overseas Chinese no one had ever heard of attracted almost no one save a few curious onlookers and a bunch of bemused journalists. Bemused, at least, until the cops showed up and started pushing people around trying to shut down a protest that wasn’t actually happening. They eventually locked up half ((Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. It’s a rhetorical strategy; shut up.)) of Beijing’s intelligentsia — none of whom had any connection to the calls for protest, of course ((If they have, we’ve seen no evidence of it)) — and beat up a couple Western journalists just to ensure what would have been the year’s biggest non-story would become a smoldering embarrassment that managed to garner international criticism even when half the Arab world was on fire.
  • The Wenzhou Train Crash — The crash was a disaster in and of itself, and one that was getting more embarrassing for China as each new detail emerged. But somehow, officials managed to make a horrible situation even worse by bungling rescue efforts, burying train cars, and then playing down these mistakes in what has got to be the most inept press conference in world history. When people started criticizing them, they tried to cover that up by deleting posts, then tried to un-cover-up the cover-up by letting people speak freely for a while, then went back to covering-up by deleting posts when it seemed things were getting out of hand. In doing so, they took what was a disaster for the nation’s high speed rail and turned it into a disaster for the nation, but most especially, for themselves and their own legitimacy.
  • The Sichuan Earthquake — Another disaster, this one was made worse by the fact that when people attempted to investigate the cause of collapsed buildings — or even just collect the names of the dead — they were harried, bullied, and harassed at every turn. This, of course, served to convince everyone the government was hiding something and by the time they finally released their own list of names, most people had already made up their minds about what had happened. As a result, the original story (gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result) — which was already pretty bad — got worse: gov’t built shoddy buildings, kids died as a result, gov’t tried to hide this even though it was plainly evident, gov’t probably now rebuilding things with same shoddy practices.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. Whatever the situation, it can — and often will — be made worse by official attempts to save face.

Saving face is a universal desire — after all, who wants to look bad? — but given that “face” is essentially pure vanity with another name, some people are remarkably shameless about it here.

China is, as its “defenders” will point out to you endlessly, a developing country. Despite the shiny facades in Shanghai and Beijing ((not that you can see the shiny facades in Beijing for all the pollution…)), anyone who’s been to the countryside knows that this is still a third world country in many respects. I certainly don’t envy the people charged with running it.

But I have no sympathy or forgiveness for their perpetual desire to hide the truth — from the rest of the world ((a.k.a. that one country called 外国 where everyone eats 西餐 and has really cute babies.)) and from their own people and (probably) even themselves.

The story, of course, is that this is all in the name of national stability. If the people were allowed to see that man with his pants ripped, things could go bad. So they’ll get part of the truth — a watered down, photoshopped Truth Substitute (TM) that tastes almost like the real thing. See? Stability!

But even a little lie is still a lie. And though I’m still young, I’m old enough at least to have learned that the lie that stabilizes things in the short term (“No, I didn’t put that ding in your car!”) can be destabilizing and downright destructive in the long term. Especially when, day after day, you’re adding little lies on top of yesterday’s lies in an attempt to maintain the facade (“No really, I can’t even drive stick!”). Sooner or later, the whole thing is going to crumble.

The train crash, shoddy building practices, etc. — it’s very obvious that Chinese leaders, most of them anyway, are playing the short term game, so it’s no surprise they don’t care what their truth-massaging might lead to down the road. But for their sake, and for ours, I hope someone up there realizes this before they make whatever the next disaster is worse, too. Or, god forbid, the whole tower of lies comes crashing down on top of them.

That might seem like poetic justice. But of course, if the tower does collapse, it’s the people under them who will ultimately get crushed.

In Brief: Wang Shuo on Democracy in China

Wang Shuo is a Chinese author and screenwriter who has achieved remarkable success in China. Some of his works have been banned here, but not for political reasons; rather, because of the “hooligan” writing style he’s made his trademark. Still, Wang isn’t averse to a little political commentary, as evidenced in this quote of his that’s being passed around on Chinese microblog sites and SNS right now (though the quote itself may be old, I’m not sure).

A people without elections, without property ((Technically, all real estate in China is leased from the state for 70 years, not owned outright by the buyer)), and without political rights getting together and having lofty discussions about the downsides of democracy…it’s like seeing a group of court eunuchs saying ‘having a sex life hurts the body, thank god we’re castrated’ or seeing a group of beggars saying ‘money is such a dirty thing, our way of begging for food is much cleaner.’

[h/t to Brendan for this one, link here (and many other places)]

The Supreme Court Speaks Out on Forced Demolitions

This link is currently being passed around Chinese social networking circles. It is a Baidu cached version of a document that was posted to and then subsequently deleted from the official website of China’s Supreme Court. Since these sorts of things often get deleted from Baidu’s cache as well, I’ve uploaded a full-size screenshot of the document (click the image for full size) and will also repost the Chinese text in full below.

I don’t have time to translate the whole thing, so I will translate the introduction and the eight major instructions given in the article. Each instruction is followed by some elaboration, which I haven’t translated.


Recently, land seizures and forced demolitions in some places have given rise to the repeated occurrence of violent ((恶性, hard to translate)) incidents. Some of those [whose homes were] affected have set themselves on fire, jumped off of buildings and committed suicide or maimed themselves in other ways, or resisted, with some lighting gas canisters, splashing gasoline, throwing rocks, etc. to impede enforcement, some have ganged up and surrounded [demolition teams], attacked workers and caused mass incidents, court officials and police cadres have inappropriately used weapons to kill and would people, etc. Recently, another person [whose home was being demolished] set himself on fire in Zhuzhou, Henan (paramedics were unable to save him). Although the above incidents represent a minority of cases, that have given rise to an extreme level of public attention, and had an extremely negative influence on society, and what they have taught us is very profound:

  1. We must attach great importance to, and strengthen, our sense of urgency and our sense of crisis.
  2. We must strictly investigate the implementation [of forced demolitions] in accordance with the law.
  3. We must seriously control [cases where] a lawsuit [is still in progress] but permission to demolish is preemptively granted.
  4. We must employ force cautiously, and ensure that all is safe.
  5. We must strengthen the supervision and guidance of higher-level courts.
  6. We must optimize the environment of justice as it pertains to implementation [of demolitions and seizures] ((awkward translation, sorry, pushed for time!))
  7. Seriously emphasize the information reporting system. [The elaboration on this point makes it clear this is referring to higher level Party committees and court organs being given speedy and reliable information; it is not related to media reporting].
  8. Clarify responsibilities, and seriously investigate illegal dereliction of duty.


All in all, it’s a somewhat liberal but not particularly shocking document. It reads a bit like a call to clean things up, but since there are very few specifics, it’s hard to imagine this really rocking the boat all that much. On the other hand, there must be a reason it was deleted from the Supreme Court’s official website.

Why was it deleted? Who knows. It’s still available via Xinhua and elsewhere, so it could be the deletion is not political, or it could be the news media just hasn’t been cleaned up yet. We’ll keep an eye out.

Original Text

Since I don’t have time to translate it, and in case it disappears, here you go!

最 高 人 民 法 院










Troubling Legal Reforms

via Yahoo NewsFirst off, apologies for the recent relative silence of this blog. I’ve been busy with a number of other things (including moving to a new apartment). At least one of those things will be appearing here quite soon, I hope, but in the interim, you’ll have to excuse the delays.

Anyway, if you’ve been following the news you’re probably already aware that proposed revisions to China’s criminal law code are currently making the rounds for public comment, as is customary prior to the revisions being ultimately approved (or not). These revisions have caused quite a stir because among them is a clause that would allow police to detain persons suspected of terrorism or endangering state security ((a crime many dissidents are accused of)) for long periods of time in secret locations and without informing their family members. Siweiluozi has been covering this issue particularly well, and I suggest reading his blog and also following his Twitter, which often contains commentary on the proposed laws from famous Chinese lawyers.

Anyway, the full text of the revisions is available here, but we’ve translated the relevant segment, which is from article 30, below (emphasis added):

Residential surveillance ((i.e., house arrest)) should be carried out at the residence of the accused criminal suspect; those without a fixed residence can be held at specified location. As for those suspected of harming state security, terrorist activities, or major corruption, carrying out residential surveillance in their residence could pose obstacles to investigation, [so if it is approved by] the immediately superior people’s procuratorate or the public security organ, the residential surveillance can be carried out at an appointed location. However, the appointed place does not need to be a detention center or a designated case center [专门的办案场所].”

The family members of the person being held should be notified of the location and reasons for the detainee’s detention at a designated location for residential surveillance within 24 hours of the detention being carried out, except in cases where notification is impossible or the detainee is suspected of involvement in harming state security or terrorist activities, or if informing them could impede investigations.

Now, I am not a legal expert, nor am I a legal translator, but I’m fairly confident that even if I haven’t translated this as precisely as a professional might, I’ve gotten the general idea correct. And it should be pretty clear why people are concerned about these revisions; clearly, they allow the PSB to summarily detain anyone at an undisclosed location for an unlimited period of time, so long as that person is suspected of harming state security.

There is no indication of what evidence (if any) is required, and no clarification whatsoever as to what it takes to label someone as “suspected” of harming state security. There is also no stated time limit for the deteintion of these suspects or the informing of their family members. And most concerning, to get approval to do this, the police must either get approval from the people’s procuratorate or from “the public security organ” — in other words, from themselves. It appears that a local PSB official of sufficient rank could in essence summarily detain anyone, anywhere, for any period of time, for doing anything, so long as the police official “suspected” they were involved in harming state security and/or terrorism.

The good news is that the revisions are attracting attention. Officially, over 40,000 opinions have already been submitted, and discussions are taking place everywhere from newspapers to Sina Weibo. Here’s hoping the NPC is listening to what people are saying.

Given that, I was interested when Tom Lasseter pointed out that the Global Times has addressed this issue:

One article of the amendment is interpreted as both progress and regression in China’s legal system, depending on how you look at the issue.

The amendment stipulates “under special conditions, suspects can be held under surveillance without their families being notified within 24 hours.” The special conditions include: notification being impossible, crimes concerning national security, severe law violation involving terrorism activity and if notification may hinder an investigation.

These special conditions have triggered outcry that it leaves room for secret detention, and has caused concern in media outlets, such as the New York Times, that “more Chinese dissidents appear to disappear.”

But if one reads it from another perspective, the article has actually been written into the Criminal Procedure Law for 32-years, and the amendment is trying to clarify the special conditions and limit the circumstances of detention without proper notification of the family.

Law articles can’t be black and white. There are cases that have to be decided differently. For example, the detention of a corrupt official may conform to the special conditions of withholding information in order to prevent the fleeing of others involved. Conspirators may be kept from communicating when nabbing a terrorist network.

There are worries of overuse or improper use of these special conditions. These are legitimate concerns. But the way to prevent misuse is through further improvement and clarification, not by completely denying it. With the legal consciousness of the public on the rise, plus scorching media scrutiny, law enforcement procedures are under mounting pressures that force police to reduce abuses of power.

China’s legal system has much to improve, but the country is also not under the dark days of the Middle Ages. Law is meant to protect the majority of people, not only a few who speak loudly.

As I understand it, these laws were last revised 14 years ago. Are those of us who are concerned by this development meant to wait another 14 years in the hope that this law will be further revised? That’s nonsense. Regardless of what you think of the law, it it needs “further improvement and clarification,” why wait? And if it doesn’t, why bother saying that at all?

Of course, disputing the logic of a Global Times editorial is sort of like taking candy from a box labeled “free candy — please take.” So I’ll just leave it at this: I find this suggested revision very disturbing, and in fact would say it appears to be an attempt to legitimize and legalize the “disappearing” of “dissidents” like Ai Weiwei and Gao Zhisheng. Under the current laws, his disappearance was possible because of a loophole in the legal code, which they are now proposing be written into law.

Passing this revision would be a step backward in China’s march — perhaps glacial crawl is actually a better term — towards embracing human rights as meaning something beyond GDP growth. Other nations, including the United States, have similar provisions for terror suspects, and they are equally reprehensible. Whatever crimes a person may have committed, they should not be subject to extended or arbitrary detention before they are convicted, and their family — who have committed no crime — should at the very least be allowed to know their whereabouts.