Earlier this month the Supreme People’s Court of China opened a new museum dedicated to the country’s legal system. Housed in an old bank in Beijing’s former Legation Quarter, it contains, amongst other things, ancient legal treatises, Mao-era judgements and the handcuffs worn by former Politburo member Bo Xilai during his 2013 trial for corruption.
The aim of the new establishment, says its website, is to advance the rule of law.
The question is, what, if anything does that mean in China?
January has been a depressing, even alarming, month for people who hoped that Beijing’s rhetoric about legal reform might actually result in more meaningful action.
Instead, to most Western observers it seems to have gone in the opposite direction with human rights lawyers being charged with subversion of state power, missing Hong Kong booksellers mysteriously appearing in the custody of mainland police (see WiC311), plus a return to the habit of getting detainees to confess on TV rather then follow due legal process.
The key thing one needs to understand about the ‘rule of law’ in China is that for the foreseeable future it will not bear much resemblance to the Western understanding of that phrase (see WiC258).
As President Xi Jinping said last year “[Law is] a knife whose handle is in the hands of the Party and the people”.
Optimists point out that there are moves underway to make the courts more transparent – a strategy that’s explicitly designed to gain greater public trust.
To that end a court in Haidian this month decided to livestream a trial involving Shenzhen Qvod Technology – a company accused of disseminating pornographic content through its popular video sharing app Kuaibo.
The feed, which was hosted and live blogged by Sina Weibo, was commented on by over 150 million people. Lengthy footage of the proceedings was also broadcast on Chinese TV channels.
The problem was that most citizens weren’t impressed by what they saw. The state prosecutors seemed ill-prepared, complacent and flummoxed by the technical nature of the case. In contrast, Wang Xin, Qvod’s CEO was confident, intelligent and quick-witted, challenging the court to prove Qvod knew what was passing through its servers and, importantly, that it had profited from the indecent images.
He argued, as Google and Yahoo have done in the US, that it is the uploaders of the porn who should be on trial and not the internet platform providers.“There’s nothing shameful about technology,” he said, creating a new meme on weibo.
The case hinted at something else too – divisions in the Party over how far to go with legal reform.
In a rare display of public disagreement, Xinhua “applauded” Wang’s right to mount a defence, while the People’s Daily said it was a “monstrous absurdity” that he had been allowed to sway public opinion. “People shouldn’t confuse right and wrong only because the defendant testimony is splendid and he shouldn’t have the moral high ground just because so many people are ‘forwarding’ his words,” the People’s Daily blasted.
There were other signs of division as well. On January 12 – a few days after the 14 human rights lawyers were charged with subversion of state power and inciting subversion – the Supreme Court issued new guidelines aimed at, yes, protecting legal rights.
Wang’s case has yet to return a verdict.
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