By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report
Social pressure expressed via the Internet and other social media is energizing citizen protests against violations of Chinese law and creating pressure for legal reform, especially at the local level. But it will remain considerably more difficult for the Internet to become an effective medium for successful pressure for legal reform beyond individual cases. Internet publicity of cases of illegality, such as corruption, is useful to the government – as long as the conduct involved is limited to the local level and government policy is not involved. Also, complaints have to be filtered through the government’s close control over the Internet. The rise of Internet protests in China does not at this moment seem to foretell the birth of a broad social movement, but it does suggest an increase in citizens’ popular consciousness of their rights under Chinese law and a willingness to press for vindication.
One case that has became a cause célèbre among Chinese netizens involved the drunken son of a high-ranking police officer in the northern city of Baoding last October. The son, Li Qiming, killed one woman and injured another while driving on the campus of a university. Arrested after fleeing the scene of the accident, he defiantly declared “Sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang” — a district deputy police chief in Baoding. Report of the incident was posted on the Internet, and, as the Telegraph puts it, gave “millions of ordinary Chinese the chance to vent their frustrations at the double-standards in Chinese society that allow the right and powerful to act as if they are above the law:” The phrase “MY FATHER IS LI GANG!” quickly became a mantra for being immune to punishment, and although the government tried to censor reports on the case, its widespread online dissemination caused censors to allow “some official press coverage.” A cat and mouse game ensued: A video interview produced by artist-activist Ai Weiwei, in which the brother of the deceased victim urged that Li Qiming be given the death sentence, was repeatedly blocked by censors, but angry citizens kept reposting it.
Li Qiming made a tearful public apology before he was put on trial, and a month after the fatal accident his father paid the victim’s family 490,000 yuan (US$73,000) in compensation. A question that was “unanswered” was how a “modestly paid” official was able to come up with so much money on short notice. In January, after a one-day closed trial, Li Qiming pleaded guilty to drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison rather than a longer jail term or the death penalty. The court was reported to have said that the sentence was lenient because the defendant had confessed and paid compensation.
The sentence outraged many Chinese bloggers as far too light. The question remains whether the court’s decision would have been even more lenient without the public fury sparked by the Internet.
Corrupt conduct by officials arouses public anger; it also stimulates concern at high levels of government in Beijing, as illustrated by a government report last December that expressed support for citizen “supervision” that identifies cases of corruption. The Party-State has recently seemed to welcome, at least selectively, popular focus on individual cases of local-level corruption by officials, via the Internet or otherwise.
Of course the influence of social media on the courts raises the serious issue of the extent to which the courts will heed, or be expected to heed, public opinion. Professor Benjamin Liebman has noted that in criminal cases, “media coverage and claims to represent populist demands for justice can lead courts to treat criminal defendants harshly.” He adds: “Judges complain that there is little they can do to resist media pressure, even when media views are inconsistent with substantive or procedural law” (see: “China’s Courts: Restricted Reform,” Columbia Journal of Asian Law, Vol.27, No. 1, Fall 2007).
More Internet protest against official illegality may be on the way. A recent China Real Time column by Yiyi Lu, published after the release of secret U.S. diplomatic cables by Julian Assange and Wikileaks, suggests that “plenty of Chinese Assanges have already emerged” who are reporting on a number of instances of illegal or questionable actions by officials, such as excessive expenditures, financial misconduct, and, in one case, a request by an official to local Party and government leaders to give his son a job.
How likely is it that Internet posts exposing wrongful conduct by government officials will grow in number and influence? Ms Lu says that so far, “every information leak is like a gentle breeze. It comes and goes, and, on its own, it can’t bring a new political culture.” She also observes that the government is prepared to punish cases of illegal behavior by officials, and that if more cases are reported in social media such as the Internet or Twitter, more citizens will be prepared to expose them. If the Internet is increasingly used for that purpose, “things will most certainly not stay the same.”
Perhaps, but the government has so far been able to maintain control over the Internet. Internet expert Rebecca Mackinnon’s testimony to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China last March (PDF) was a broad and authoritative survey of the pushes and pulls between government attempts to limit access to the Internet and netizens’ frequent success in scaling the “Great Fire Wall,” as the government’s blockages are called. Although she concluded that the Internet’s “public discussions are skewed, blinkered and manipulated – thanks to political censorship and surveillance,” she also observed that many Chinese regard favorably the access to information provided by the Internet. She added: “In China today there is a lot more give-and-take between government and citizens than in the pre-Internet age, and this helps bolster the regime’s legitimacy, with many Chinese Internet users who feel that they have a new channel for public discourse.”
The interests of the citizenry and the government may sometimes converge in exposing illegalities and corruption, because the Internet can obviously enhance the government’s ability to publicize and punish individual cases. The latest report on corruption issued by the Chinese government hails the Internet as “a new form of supervision by public opinion” and adds that “China highly values the positive role played by the Internet in enhancing supervision, conscientiously strengthens the collection, research, judgment and management of information regarding combating corruption and advocating integrity.” MacKinnon, in a paper presented to a conference last year (PDF), cites the views Chinese scholar Yongnian Zheng, who differs with Yiyi Lu’s on the role of Internet activism. Zheng notes that some online activism suits the government’s agenda by highlighting problems at the local level that Beijing seeks to control, and therefore “it can actually serve to bolster regime legitimacy.”
Opinions on the influence of the Internet on Chinese society and China’s governance will no doubt continue to differ, but the government’s control over it is both extensive and growing. The Internet may provoke deserved punishment of official misconduct at the local level, but we have yet to see it sow the seeds of a successful major law reform.