Internet & Tech, Talking Point

Netizens of the world unite

In many parts of the world justice is blind; in China it’s online

Netizens of the world unite

"Anyone could become a Deng Yujiao": a student protests in Beijing

“I’ll beat you to death with money. I am going to summon a truckload of money and squash you to death.” It’s not the sort of remark you’d expect to hear from a government official and it has sent shockwaves through China.

The threat was made by an official from Hubei province, during an unsavoury scene in a bathhouse in which he and a colleague “pushed, shoved and verbally insulted a waitress who refused to accompany them to take a bath.”

That waitress is 21 year-old Deng Yujiao and she has become a national cause célèbre.

In another era Deng’s case would have been hushed up by bureaucrats. But thanks to the internet she has become one of the best-known women in China. This and other unfolding cases point to a new trend, in which the power of public opinion is being harnessed online.

So what happened?

On the evening of May 10, three officials from Yesanguan township visited the bathhouse of Badong’s Xiongfeng Hotel.

Deng, a hotel employee, was washing clothes in an adjoining room, when she says she was asked for “special services.” She told them that she did not work for the ‘hydrotherapy’ area – i.e. she was not a prostitute – and refused.

An argument ensued in which an official named Deng Guida said “Where are you going to run to?” and made the remark about beating her to death with money. When she tried to leave an attempted assault began. Defending herself, Deng Yujiao stabbed and killed Deng Guida with a fruit knife. The police arrived and took her into custody, on suspicion of murder.

How did the public react?

A firestorm of criticism followed on the internet, with comments soon inundating bulletin boards and blogs. Sympathy for Deng Yujiao’s plight quickly grew. Two Beijing lawyers travelled to Hubei and offered to represent her pro-bono. In Beijing college students staged a performance in which one woman was bound and surrounded by signs stating “Anyone could become a Deng Yujiao” (see photo). Netizens gave Deng the moniker ‘lie nu’ which translates literally as a ‘woman prepared to die to defend her chastity’ and Reuters noted how she had drawn waves of support.

Did the outcry have any effect?

The China Daily reports the two surviving officials have been fired. Huang Dezhi, 41, was sacked from his local government post and thrown out of the Communist Party. Deng Zhongjia, who was also present but claims not to have broken any laws, was also fired because the incident had “caused a bad social effect.”

Meanwhile, Deng Yujiao has been released on bail without formal charge. Police are now suggesting she acted with “excessive force”. It remains unclear whether she will be tried for murder – a point to which we’ll return later.

Didn’t netizens also seek justice in a recent case in Hangzhou too?

On this occasion, it wasn’t public officials that stoked ire, but privileged children of the rich.

On May 7, a street race between three sports cars ended in tragedy when a pedestrian – a 25 year-old student called Tan Zhuo – was killed.

The driver of the car – a souped up Mitsubishi – was Hu Bin, a 20 year-old from a wealthy Hangzhou family.

The crowd that witnessed the event were appalled by the behaviour of Hu and his friends after the accident. Instead of helping the dying man to a hospital they “kept joking among themselves as if nothing happened,” reports the Beijing News.

Hu had been involved in a “racers’ party” in which rich kids try to emulate movies like the Fast and the Furious and race their cars at top speed through cities.

Hu’s nonchalance at the scene of the accident stemmed from an expectation that he could buy his way out of trouble. As the Beijing News pointed out in an editorial column: “The fact that some rich people can pay their way out of any situation – even after violating the law – shows how dangerous illegal practices have become. That touched the most sensitive nerve of the public.”

What was the online response this time?

Netizens were infuriated by the Hangzhou police’s response to Tan’s death too. An eyewitness had reported that the Mitsubishi knocked Tan five metres into the air and that he finally landed around 20 metres from the impact point. But to general anger, the local traffic police initially filed a report that seemed to understate the speed at which Hu had been driving (estimating 70km/h).

A cover-up was suspected. How, it was asked, could someone be knocked for that distance if the car had not been travelling much faster? Online contributions from physics majors suggested that the car’s speed must have been well over 100km/h (or more than double the speed limit). The term “70km” even morphed into a derogatory internet term ‘qishima’, and t-shirts were worn with the terms emblazoned on them. “One thing annoying us is the police’s hasty conclusion and half-hearted attitude after the accident,” wrote Xiao Ye, a Zhejiang University student. “To post comments online might be the only way in which netizens are able to show we care, or just simply vent our anger and grief.”

The online outcry (again) sparked an official response and the Hangzhou police retracted its initial report, admitting the speed estimate had been derived from the driver and his friends – hardly dispassionate sources. A police spokesperson conceded the car could have been going as fast as 101 km/h. Hu has subsequently been arrested for speeding and vehicular manslaughter – carrying a potential seven-year prison sentence. Tan’s family has received $165,000 in compensation from Hu’s.

So should we celebrate this trend towards online justice?

It can be no bad thing that China’s civil society is being mobilised via the internet – which is now used by 316 million Chinese – to check the worst cases of abuse. In both cases a more just outcome resulted.

But will this happen every week, and every month? Probably not. This is a very special period: both incidents occurred in the days before the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The central government was mindful to quell any situation that might stoke demonstrations in the lead up to the anniversary.

Which brings us back to Deng Yujiao’s sentencing. Lan Zhixue, a lawyer petitioning on her behalf, told the media that if prosecutors pushed for a murder charge (rather than self-defence) it could stir up public sentiment at a “time when social stability is of paramount importance.” Remember that date?

But there are also signs these two cases could lead to a backlash against online campaigns of this type. Xinhua’s Outlook Weekly magazine published a detailed report this week criticising the way the internet is being used to create what it termed “mass incidents”. It urged local officials to find ways – both political and technical – to combat such scenarios. An entry on the popular forum, predicted: “The appearance of such an article in the official media means a new internet crackdown is about to take place.”

Keeping Track: In last week’s issue we discussed the case of Deng Yujiao, the waitress who killed – in self-defence – a local official who was trying to rape her. After a wave of online support, charges of murder have now beendropped and it looks likely she will avoid going to jail and get a suspended sentence, according to the state media’s most recent reports.(12 June 2009)

Keeping Track: In WiC18 we cited the case of Hu Bin, a university student who caused a public outcry when he  knocked over and killed a pedestrian while illegally racing his car through the streets of Hangzhou. His nonchalant attitude and the fact he was ‘a rich kid’, made the case the talk of the internet. Hu has now received a three
year jail sentence. However, the victim’s father still thought the sentence too light and also questioned whether the person who appeared in court was the ‘real’ Hu Bin, or someone paid by his parents to take the rap. Pictures of an identifying scar have been used by the Hangzhou court to assuage netizens that the man standing trial is not an impostor. (21 August 2009)

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