Trial by television

Why private sector business owners are worried


Wang Linqing: shock confession

A court case in Shaanxi earned widespread attention last month following a senior judge’s complaints that government officials were meddling in the legal dispute over a major coal mining deal.

Shortly before Wang Linqing was set to give his final ruling at the Supreme People’s Court, thousands of important case files disappeared from his chambers. The judge said this happened after he indicated he would rule in favour of a private businessman. An investigation was launched, and Wang himself was next to go missing, keeping the case in the spotlight (see WiC437).

There was another shocking revelation last week when Wang reappeared on state television to confess that he had stolen the case documents himself because of a “personal grudge” against his superiors at the court.

“I took them away to stop others working on it because I had put lots of energy into the case from the start,” he told the broadcaster, adding that he didn’t want to share the credit.

Regular WiC readers should be familiar with this kind of televised confession. Other instances have included a Hong Kong bookseller telling a national audience how he killed a student in a car crash 10 years ago (see WiC311) and a web celebrity who had accused government officials of soliciting prostitutes then recounting his own experiences with call girls (see WiC206).

But for a leading judge to do a confessional like this is a first and it will do little to bolster public trust in the judiciary. Indeed, many Chinese are deeply sceptical about the confession and made this plain online. Zhao Faqi, the businessman involved in the case, also accused the court’s top judge, Zhou Qiang, of undue influence, although investigators disagreed, saying that his conduct was correct.

The long running battle over mining rights between Zhao’s firm and one with ties to a local government has become something of a lightning rod for private sector firms who say that their rights aren’t being respected. Wang’s ‘confession’ puts the controversial case to rest but cynics say the interests of the Party have proved paramount, probably because there was a threat of further revelations from Shaanxi, where the dispute took place.

In an article published last month in Qiushi, the Party’s journal of political theory, Xi Jinping reiterated that China would never follow the practice of Western countries in “the separating of powers or judicial independence”.

But without stronger legal protection, the country’s entrepreneurs are feeling increasingly vulnerable to the power of the state.

Those insecurities were highlighted by Chen Tianyong, a real estate developer from Shanghai who caused a stir by publishing a 28-page article online titled “Why I Left China – An Entrepreneur’s Farewell Admonition”.

A former judge and lawyer, Chen’s widely forwarded piece was spiked by state censors, according to a New York Times report last week. “China’s economy is like a giant ship heading to the precipice,” the businessman wrote bleakly. “Without fundamental changes, it’s inevitable that the ship will be wrecked and the passengers will die.”

Columnist Henny Sender picked up on the same theme in the Financial Times this week, arguing that entrepreneurs feel that their decisions are more and more subject to government interference. “It is again the Party, rather than the market, that allocates resources and dictates what not long ago was left to companies to decide,” she wrote.

Sender added that this loss of confidence may explain why about $46 billion of capital flows have been ‘fleeing’ China quarterly since 2016.

The New York Times cited a local survey for added perspective: “Only one-third of China’s rich people say they are very confident in the country’s economic prospects, according to a recent survey of 465 wealthy individuals by Hurun, a Shanghai-based research firm. Two years ago, nearly two-thirds said they were very confident. Those who have no confidence at all rose to 14%, more than double the level of 2018. Nearly half said they were considering migrating to a foreign country or had already started the process.”

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