Friday, May 31, 2013

Teaching June 4: The Cost of Taking Students to the “Dark Side”


For many in China, the events surrounding the June 4, 1989, crackdown on student demonstrations in Beijing have been either consciously or unconsciously forgotten or confined to an official version that justifies the bloodshed. Much of the responsibility for this rests with the way that history is taught in China. The education system emphasizes mastery of approved narratives that present an orthodox account and promote a collective memory of things that the authorities want remembered, and a collective amnesia of things they don’t. There is no room for critical thinking or a process of inquiry. Rather, more often than not, the “truth” of history is presented as a finished product, to be filed away and called upon, when necessary, to justify those in power (or their heirs).

Critical analysis of history and truth appears to have been part of the pedagogical motivation for Zhang Zhongshun (张忠顺), a former lecturer at Yantai University in Shandong Province who was sentenced in 2008 to three years’ imprisonment for “using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.” In his lectures, Zhang introduced controversial perspectives on subjects like June Fourth, the anti-Japanese War of Resistance, and the crackdown on Falun Gong in an effort to exercise students’ critical faculties of discernment and analysis.

Because these perspectives are not allowed to circulate freely in China, Zhang used technological means to evade the government’s Internet censors and was drawn to sources of information connected to Falun Gong, which the authorities have designated as an illegal cult. The transmission of viewpoints and anti-government slogans associated with Falun Gong then became the basis for the prosecution’s criminal charges against Zhang.

In some respects, this aspect of his offense seems rather incidental. Even after stripping away the “cult” references, however, it seems likely that Zhang’s manner of teaching would ultimately land him in trouble. Although Chinese academics have a degree of intellectual freedom to conduct research, this freedom is constrained in the classroom.

On this point, the testimony of Zhang’s former students (included in the translated verdict below) is instructive—however inauthentically scripted some of it might be. Their discomfort at being confronted with the “darker side” of history—subjects that would not otherwise appear in authorized accounts—is palpable. There is a sense that exposing students to such matters creates cognitive dissonance and raises questions, things that ultimately risk misleading younger generations and contributing to instability.

The American scholar Perry Link has noted that by imposing a particular type of memory and forgetting about the events of 1989, the Chinese authorities deflect deeper reflection on a number of serious questions: “What did it mean for China that a nationwide democracy movement was crushed? How did the massacre affect the psyche of the nation? Can there be a recovery, and if so how?” It is hard to imagine such questions being posed, let alone answered, by people who are taught to accept one particular “true” account of history and prevented from engaging in a process that involves grappling with some uncomfortable facts and reconciling dissonant perspectives.

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Yantai Laishan District People’s Court of Shandong Province
Criminal Verdict

(2008) Yan Lai Crim. 1st Inst. No. 6

The prosecuting organ is the Laishan District (Yantai) People’s Procuratorate.

Defendant Zhang Zhongshun, male, born August 19, 1967, in Penglai, Shandong, Han ethnicity, postgraduate education, resides at [redacted by the editor] Laishan District, Yantai, lecturer at Yantai University. On August 28, 2007, he was placed under criminal detention on suspicion of using a cult to undermine implementation of the law. On September 30 of that same year he was formally arrested. He is currently detained in the Yantai Detention Center.

Defense counsel is Cheng Xiaoming and Li Hongjun, lawyers with the Shandong Qianyuan Law Firm.

On December 20, 2007, the Laishan District People’s Procuratorate filed indictment Yan Lai Proc. Crim. Indict. (2007) No. 138 with this court, charging defendant Zhang Zhongshun in a case of using a cult to undermine implementation of the law. This court accepted the case on that same day, formed a collegiate bench in accordance with the law, and held a public hearing to try this case. The Laishan District People’s Procuratorate appointed prosecutor Feng Yonghua to appear in court on behalf of the prosecution. Since this is a major case, the deadline for trying this case was extended by one month with permission of the Shandong High People’s Court. Defendant Zhang Zhongshun and his defense counsel Li Hongjun appeared in court to participate in the proceedings. The trial has now concluded.

The Laishan District People’s Procuratorate alleged that: Between February and July 2007, defendant Zhang Zhongshun, while he was teaching second- and third-year students at Yantai University’s Wenjing College, showed Falun Gong videos on subjects such as the “Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party,” the “June Fourth” incident, and the “Tiananmen self-immolation incident” on multiple occasions, either using classroom multimedia equipment at the school to visit Falun Gong websites such as epochtimes.com or ntdtv.com or by first visiting the aforementioned websites from his home and then downloading relevant content that he saved to a portable hard drive or portable computer, which he then connected to the classroom multimedia equipment. In support of these charges, the prosecution presented evidence in court including: documentary evidence including an inventory of items and documents seized by the public security organ, with relevant photographs; a work record issued by the public security organ; a search record and record of searching electronic evidence from the public security organ; screenshots from Zhang Zhongshun’s portable computer and portable hard drive; and Zhang Zhongshun’s proof of residence; testimony of witnesses including Cai Chunhua, Lin Xiangyi, Liu Kai, and Yang Yuankun; defendant Zhang Zhongshun’s [confession] and a CD containing the contents of Zhang Zhongshun’s portable computer and portable hard drive. The prosecution maintained that the defendant’s [actions] constitute the offense of using a cult to undermine implementation of the law and requested that this court deliver punishment.

Defendant Zhang Zhongshun and his defense counsel did not dispute the basic facts of the crime as alleged by the prosecution, but defense counsel raised the following defense arguments with respect to whether the defendant’s [actions] constituted a crime: (1) The defendant did not have subjective intent to commit a crime and therefore does not meet the essential criteria for constituting the alleged crime; and (2) the defendant’s actions fall under the category of ordinary unlawful [behavior] and do not reach the level of criminality; therefore the defendant should be acquitted.

In the course of the trial it was ascertained that: Between February and July 2007, defendant Zhang Zhongshun was a lecturer at Yantai University who, while teaching second- and third-year students at Yantai University’s Wenjing College, showed Falun Gong videos on subjects such as the “June Fourth” incident or the “Tiananmen self-immolation incident” on multiple occasions, either using classroom multimedia equipment at the school to visit Falun Gong websites such as epochtimes.com or ntdtv.com by first visiting the aforementioned websites from his home and then downloading relevant content content [sic] that he saved to a portable hard drive or portable computer, which he then connected to the classroom multimedia equipment. In all, more than 200 students watched the Falun Gong videos shown on multiple occasions by defendant Zhang Zhongshun.

The aforementioned facts are confirmed by the following evidence, which was put forth and cross-examined in court:

1. Defendant Zhang Zhongshun’s confession to the public security organ, confirming: “From February 2007 until the end of the semester, while teaching two classes (course in public ethics) of third-year students (more than 100 people) at Yantai University’s Wenjing College, I showed Falun Gong videos on subjects such as the ‘June Fourth’ incident and the ‘Tiananmen self-immolation incident’ on multiple occasions, either using classroom multimedia equipment at the school to visit Falun Gong websites such as epochtimes.com or ntdtv.com or by first visiting the aforementioned websites from my home and then downloading relevant content that I saved to a portable hard drive or portable computer and then connected to the classroom multimedia equipment. Occasionally ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party’ and other Falun Gong titles would flash across the screen. That was an unavoidable part of using the ‘Freegate’ software to go online; it was part of the ‘Freegate’ software and did not involve any specific content. When playing [the videos], I never spoke and let students watch for themselves in order to allow them to improve their abilities of observation and discerning truth from fiction. I did not play each video for very long. I knew that Falun Gong websites like epochtimes.com and ntdtv.com were attached to the overseas ‘democracy movement’ or organizations opposed to the Chinese government, so I told the students that they must not circulate or fully believe [the videos]. I am not a Falun Gong practitioner and know that Falun Gong has been classified by the state and the government as a cult. I liked to combine real-world situations in my lectures, discussing problems of morality, the social system, and freedom. I have no anti-social or anti-government intentions.”

2. A work record issued by the public security organ, confirming that a parent of a student at Yantai University’s Wenjing College complained to the University Work Committee of the Shandong Party Committee that defendant Zhang Zhongshun was showing videos related to Falun Gong in the classroom and that the public security organ was requested to assist in an investigation after Yantai University received a notice to investigate and punish.

3. The public security organ’s search record, inventory of items and documents seized, and related photographs, confirming that a notebook computer, portable hard drive, desktop computer, and a copy of The Great Consummation Way of Falun Dafa were seized from the defendant’s home, and related characteristics.

4. An electronic evidence search record from the public security organ and an expert examination report issued by the Laishan District (Yantai) Party Committee 610 Office, confirming that the content captured from the defendant’s computer and portable hard drive (the Tiananmen self-immolation case, looking back at June Fourth, indict Jiang Zemin, Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party, etc.) were edited and produced by the illegal organizations “The Epoch Times” and “New Tang Dynasty” established overseas by the Falun Gong organization and were illegal Falun Gong propaganda.

5. Witness Cai Chunhua (student) confirmed: “Zhang Zhongshun showed [videos] ‘Tiananmen Self-Immolation Case’ and ‘June Fourth Incident’ in class and said that the ‘Tiananmen self-immolation case’ was a fabrication. Zhang Zhongshun mentioned Falun Gong and said that practicing Falun Gong had benefits and could cure illness, meaning that Falun Gong was not as evil as the government said it was.”

6. Witness Lin Xiangyi (student) confirmed: “Zhang Zhongshun began each class by visiting a website called ‘New Tang Dynasty.’ When you visited the site, you could see the phrase ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party.’ While viewing [the video] ‘June Fourth Incident,’ there was more relating to the ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party.’ Occasionally, headlines related to Falun Gong would appear, such as ‘Jiang Zemin’s Ban on Falun Gong was Illegal.’”

7. Witness Liu Kai (student) confirmed: “In class Zhang Zhongshun showed us a video called ‘June Fourth Incident.’ Each time he showed it, a banner with ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party’ would appear at the bottom of the screen.”

8. Witness Yang Yuankun (student) confirmed: “Zhang Zhongshun often showed videos in the classroom, such as the documentary ‘Nail House,’ the video ‘June Fourth Incident,’ and the Falun Gong video ‘Tiananmen Self-Immolation Incident’ (which said that government employees responding to the fire beat the self-immolators to death).”

9. Witness Yang Wei (student) confirmed: “In class Zhang Zhongshun used a notebook computer connected to the classroom multimedia equipment to show videos like ‘June Fourth Incident’ and ‘Tiananmen Self-Immolation Case.’ He said that that the ‘Tiananmen self-immolation case’ was a Communist Party plot and occasionally spoke about the darker side of the Communist Party. There were 110 students in our two third-year classes, and most of the students usually had an opportunity to view [the videos]. The last class of the first half of 2007 involved showing [videos] for the entire class. I felt this was inappropriate.”

10. Witness Cui Liang (student) confirmed: “Near the end of each class during the first half of 2007, defendant Zhang Zhongshun would show some videos, mainly related to ‘June Fourth.’ I felt he shouldn’t show this sort of thing.”

11. Witness Ren Fei (student) confirmed: “Zhang Zhongshun connected a portable computer to the multimedia equipment and showed us some videos on subjects like ‘June Fourth,’ the War against Japan, and the ‘Tiananmen self-immolations.’ Occasionally, phrases would appear such as ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party’ or ‘Judgment on Jiang Zemin.’ Most classes he would show some. He would have us look dialectically at the Falun Gong question, the tanks crushing students or soldiers firing at students during ‘June Fourth,’ or the ‘Tiananmen self-immolations.’ When showing videos on the War against Japan, he said that the Nationalists’ contribution to [winning] the war was 70 percent. He told us things about the darker side of society that we couldn’t find out through ordinary channels. I felt it was not good to show students these videos. There were more than 100 students in the two classes, and over half of them saw [the videos]. I heard he also showed videos to two second-year classes.”

12. Witness Zhao Fuxin (student) confirmed: “Zhang Zhongshun showed some videos in class, mostly related to ‘June Fourth.’ I felt that it was wrong to do this.”

13. Witness Shi Jin (student) confirmed: “I didn’t attend many of Zhang Zhongshun’s lectures. But when I was in class I saw the online videos that he had prepared to show us students. The videos were related to things like the 1989 turmoil and the ‘Tiananmen self-immolation case’ and dealt mainly with the darker side of politics and society. I didn’t experience these things personally and had questions after watching. It was wrong of him to do this.”

14. Witness Li Wei (student) confirmed: “Basically, during each class Zhang Zhongshun would show us videos like ‘June Fourth Turmoil’ or ‘Tiananmen Self-Immolation Case.’ After watching these, I felt that there was a dark side to society.”

15. Witness Liu Yungang (student) confirmed: “Generally, aside from lecturing in class Zhang Zhongshun would show us some videos like ‘June Fourth Turmoil’ and things from Falun Gong websites. The specific content involved the darker side of society. I felt that as a university lecturer, he should remain consistent with the party center and ought not use his lectures to show these things on the darker side of society—particularly things that affect the national image and stability. His doing this can only mislead those of us from the younger generation.”

16. Witness Guo Jingming (student) confirmed: “The content of Zhang Zhongshun’s classes was different and covered a wider set of issues. He expressed some personal views, mainly on political subjects. I thought he had personality. Sometimes he would go online in class to show some online things; I’m not sure what websites they were, but there were both domestic and foreign sites. It was good to hear these views, and learning about the darker side of society is also a kind of knowledge about society.”

17. Witness Lan Xia (student) confirmed: “Zhang Zhongshun once showed videos on the ‘June Fourth’ student movement in class. The content was rather jumbled and there was more concerning society’s darker side. He said these were some of his own feelings and that he showed them so that we could also experience those feelings.”

18. Witness Gong Guangzhi (student) confirmed: “Zhang Zhongshun connected a portable computer to the classroom multimedia equipment and often showed us videos during class. There were some about the ‘June Fourth’ student movement, the ‘Tiananmen self-immolation case’ and some things from Falun Gong websites. When he visited the websites, Falun Gong content was clearly visible on the page, such as ‘Nine Commentaries on the Chinese Communist Party,’ ‘Global Judgment on Jiang Zemin,’ and other eye-catching phrases. He gave the web addresses to students, but the students couldn’t access the sites. Most of the more than 100 students in the two classes saw [the videos]. I think he also taught second-year students, also more than 100 students. I reminded myself not to pay too much attention to those things and adopted a mental attitude of resistance because I knew those things were bad. From the beginning I was surprised that the university had truly realized ‘freedom of expression’; later, I discovered that I hadn’t learned anything and felt that his way of teaching was mistaken.”

This court finds that defendant Zhang Zhongshun showed Falun Gong propaganda in his classroom on multiple occasions, using a cult to undermine implementation of the law; his actions constitute the offense of using a cult to undermine implementation of the law. The allegations made by the Laishan District People’s Procuratorate are valid. Defense counsel’s argument regarding the defendant’s innocence is contrary to the law and this court cannot accept it. In accordance with Article 300(1) of the Criminal Law of the PRC, [this court] rules as follows:

For the crime of using a cult to undermine implementation of the law, defendant Zhang Zhongshun is sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.

(The prison term is to be calculated from the day the verdict is implemented, with each day spent in detention prior to the verdict’s implementation to count as one day of the prison term; therefore, it will run from August 28, 2007, to August 27, 2010.)

If this verdict is not accepted, an appeal may be filed within 10 days of the second day following the receipt of this verdict, either to this court or directly to the Yantai Intermediate People’s Court. In the case of a written appeal, the original appellate petition must be submitted together with two copies.

Presiding Judge: Gao Xubo
Adjudication Officer: Wang Aiqing
People’s Assessor: Zhang Zhilun

February 28, 2008

Court Clerk: Bi Jiantong

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

China Plots National Verdict Database

Supreme People’s Court meeting on judicial openness in Liuzhou, Guangxi, May 8, 2013. Photo credit: Gmw.cn

Appeals for public access to court documents may have gained new ground in China. Following a recent upsurge in reporting on miscarriages of justice, plans to establish a national database of court decisions became the main topic of discussion at a meeting convened by the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) on May 8 and 9. The meeting appears to be part of new SPC President Zhou Qiang’s effort to increase the transparency and credibility of the judicial system.

Calls to make court verdicts available online have been around almost as long as the Internet in China. Nearly a decade ago, legal scholars such as Peking University’s He Weifang argued that the online publication of verdicts would bring increased scrutiny and force judges to produce higher-quality judgements. Advocates of online publication also say that it will promote greater public awareness of the judicial system and its procedures.

In the years since, there has been a gradual expansion in both the number of courts that put verdicts online and the scope of decisions that are available for public viewing. In 2007, the SPC issued guidelines urging courts to increase their efforts in this regard, and courts in Henan Province have perhaps gone the farthest, publishing over 440,000 decisions on its court websites as of the beginning of this year. In February 2013, Guangdong High People’s Court President Zheng E said that Guangdong courts would start to publish “all” court verdicts online in the coming months.

In an opinion piece published in the May 12 edition of The Beijing News (translated below), lawyer Liu Changsong welcomes the plans for a national database and provides some examples of how access to court documents can make it easier for people to appeal wrongful convictions. He also cites curbing judicial corruption as an important reason to make verdicts available online.

If plans for a national database are realized, it would be a monumental showing of transparency in China’s often opaque judicial system, but there is good reason to believe that any such database would remain selective. Courts are likely to resist having their work subjected to public scrutiny, and certain types of verdicts are expected to remain outside the public domain. In particular, cases that involve crimes of “endangering state security” are less likely to become public given their political nature and tendency to be classified as involving “state secrets.” Similarly, while Chinese courts have released verdicts in cases of death with two year reprieve (as these sentences are generally commuted to life or fixed-term imprisonment), it would be surprising if they released decisions in all cases of death with immediate execution, as this would shed light on another closely guarded secret: the number of executions—believed to be in the thousands—that China carries out each year.

Although some of these exceptions may seem logical on the surface, they are not based in the law. This is because, while Chinese law allows courts to hear certain cases in closed hearings when issues such as state secrecy or privacy are involved, the law requires that all court verdicts be announced publicly, even for closed trials. Legitimate concerns about personal privacy may justify light redaction of certain court decisions, but complete exclusion or heavy culling of entire verdict categories would simply highlight the division of the legal system into two realms—one open and the other hidden—divided out of political expedience, rather than legal bounds.

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Publishing Court Decisions Will Help Reduce Judicial Corruption

Liu Changsong, The Beijing News
May 12, 2013

The core motivation of making court decisions public is to allow judicial decisions to have oversight from all sectors [of society] and thereby promote judicial fairness.

Recently, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC) held a study meeting on judicial openness in Liuzhou, Guangxi, where publishing court decisions online became a hot topic of discussion. The SPC Judicial Reform Office revealed that a Chinese Judicial Decision Website may be operational within the year (via People’s Court Daily).

Publication of judicial decisions is the issue related to judicial openness that has received the most public attention. With the development of Internet technology, many have dreamed of the ability to freely search for and read online any judicial decision that they care about. Now, that dream will finally become a reality.

The reason that publication of judicial decisions has received so much attention is because of its importance. The [decisions] fully reflect the claims of each party, the court’s finding of fact, and the reasoning behind the court’s decision. They are the basis for appeal and petition when a party doesn’t agree with the decision, as well as the basis for the court’s implementation of the verdict after it takes effect. Even more, [publication of verdicts] is a basis for all sectors of society to monitor and oversee court decisions.

A well-known example can show the difficulties that arise when court decisions are unavailable. In 2005, 10 years after Nie Shubin was executed for rape and murder, the real culprit was discovered. Nie’s mother spent two years petitioning the Shijiazhuang Intermediate People’s Court and the Hebei High People’s Court to re-open the case, but both courts refused to accept the petition without a copy of the court decision. After two years of petitioning, a mysterious person sent Nie’s mother copies of the first- and second-instance decisions by courier, finally enabling her to initiate the petition process.

As Nie’s mother said: “If we’re not even clear about the court’s finding of fact, how can we petition? If we don’t even know the specific document number of the effective verdict, how can we ask for a retrial?” Of course, despite continued petitioning by Nie’s mother, for a variety of reasons there has not yet been any result in the Nie Shubin case. This is something that causes legal professionals to feel deep [regret]. That’s another issue entirely, but one can get a sense of the importance of court decisions from the fact that without a verdict it’s impossible to petition for retrial.

As a lawyer, I’ve also felt the awkwardness of not being able to access court decisions. Last year, I represented the victim’s family in a voluntary manslaughter case. After both the first- and second-instance trials, the victim’s parents did not accept the verdict and wanted to petition for a retrial. They didn’t have a copy of the verdict, so I had to use my connections to get a photocopy from the court so that we could initiate the petition process.

Of course, even the current criminal procedure law does not categorize the immediate family members of a deceased victim as a party to the case or require that they be given a copy of the court verdict. This is a gap in the legislation, but if they could easily go online to search for and copy court verdicts, this gap would be sufficiently filled.

Naturally, the benefit of publishing court decisions online would not merely be to facilitate appeals and court petitions. The core motivation is to allow all sectors [of society] to engage in oversight of judicial decisions and, thereby, promote judicial fairness. Publication of court decisions online can force courts to improve the quality of their decisions, increase the reasoning of the decisions, promote a higher degree of professionalism among judges, prevent and reduce judicial corruption, and increase the credibility of the courts.

Both the constitution and the law have clear provisions about public adjudication, so there is no legal impediment to publishing all court documents online. I understand that the SPC is presently undertaking to establish a Chinese Judicial Decision Website that when fully functional will include all types of verdicts, be updated in real time, contain clear categories, have scientific search functionality, and provide convenient statistical information and automatic analysis. At the same time, I hope that the SPC will issue an authoritative judicial interpretation on the subject of publishing all court decisions online in order to provide even stronger legal protection for judicial openness.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

How Many More Sacrifices until Rule of Law Reigns?

Zhao Yanjin and her husband read her acquittal verdict in their home after her release. She had spent 10 years in custody. Photo credit: dfdaily.com

On May 6, the China Youth Daily reported on the case of a Hebei woman, Zhao Yanjin, who had stood accused of murdering a neighbor’s child in 2001. In May 2011, after a series of trials, appeals, and conflicting court decisions, the Hebei Higher People’s Court finally acquitted her on the grounds of insufficient evidence. By that time, she had spent nearly 10 years in police custody.

This might have been just one more case of belated exoneration for a suspect victimized by a criminal justice system that too often rushes to solve murder case. But there was an added twist: in Zhao’s case, it took six months for the court’s decision to reach the Baoding Intermediate People’s Court, which was responsible for announcing Zhao’s innocence, and after the decision was announced authorities in Baoding delayed her release for more than a year while they took steps to ensure that the murdered child’s relatives would not protest the decision.

Meanwhile, unaware of the acquittal, Zhao’s husband continued to protest her innocence by petitioning, which landed him in a reeducation through labor (RTL) facility for nearly 10 months—his second RTL sentence for petitioning on his wife’s behalf. In the weeks leading up to her release, court officials repeatedly met with Zhao and had her write a statement promising to remain “low-key” after her release.

Chinese media has recently reported several stories similar to Zhao Yanjin’s. In late April, two men in Zhejiang submitted a claim for 7.02 million yuan (US$1.1 million) in state compensation after a court retrial found insufficient evidence to support their conviction on rape charges nearly 10 years ago. The men say that they had been tortured into confessing. Then on May 3, five men were acquitted of charges stemming from the bombing of a government office in Fujian province—charges for which they, too, had spent a decade in custody while court proceedings stalled because local law-enforcement authorities were unwilling to acknowledge that they had no case beyond confessions coerced through torture.

In the wake of these and other cases, the problem of wrongful convictions has been in the spotlight in recent months. In March, the president of the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court blamed pressure to deal with murder cases and other serious crime for the frequent use of torture to extract confessions. Earlier this week, Shen Deyong, a vice-president at the Supreme People’s Court, warned in an essay in China Court News that mounting wrongful convictions posed an “unprecedented challenge” to China’s court system.

In a commentary posted on a major news portal in Henan Province (where authorities recently announced that judges will held accountable for wrongful convictions), Ning Xinchun reflects on the way that Zhao Yanjin’s husband describes their sacrifices as necessary to promote rule of law development in China. Ning rejects this interpretation, writing that Chinese citizens are much too easily sacrificed to the largely indifferent power of the state. Instead of forgiveness and a willingness to sacrifice oneself in the interest of eventual progress, Ning suggests that such progress is not inevitable and that outrage at the unacceptability of such sacrifices is instead needed to change a criminal justice system that makes people live in fear.

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Citizen Sacrifice Doesn’t Represent Rule of Law Progress

Ning Xinchun
May 6, 2013 dahe.cn

“Without sacrifice, we can’t further the promotion of rule of law,” said Li Jianjun. Li is Zhao Yanjin’s husband. In an effort to proclaim his wife’s innocence, he went all over to engage in petitioning and was sent to re-education through labor more than once. In September 2001, Zhao Yanjin got caught up in a murder case. Over 12 years, she was twice sentenced to life in prison and twice acquitted. Before fully recovering her freedom, she had spent a total of 10 years in a detention center. After the Hebei high court issued its acquittal decision, she was kept in custody for an additional 20 months before she regained her freedom. (Source: China Youth Daily, May 6)

A close look at the news reveals that the experience of Zhao Yanjin and her family is not unique. First, there was the She Xianglin case. Then there was the reversal of the case in Zhejiang of the uncle and nephew surnamed Zhang who had been wrongly convicted for more than 10 years. Then there was the Henan case of the “guaranteed death sentence” for defendant Li Huailiang. In terms of the time involved and the experience of having finally been acquitted and released on grounds of insufficient evidence after going through seven court hearings and three verdicts, the case is much more similar to the case of the bombing at the Fuqing, Fujian, discipline inspection committee office, where five defendants languished for 12 years in prison only to be acquitted and released.

Without doubt, human life cannot be recovered. More than a decade passed in jail, with no career advancement, loss of health, and even changing the fate of the entire family. Under the giant wheels of the state machine, lowly individuals wind up being ground up into scattered dust. Perhaps it’s out of a sorrowful choice to “forgive” or an intentional exaggeration of consciousness [that leads them to say]: “Without sacrifice, we can’t further the promotion of rule of law.”

What this news shows is that, the reality of the justice system is not only a host of procedural problems but the fact that the presumption of innocence is often set aside. Pursuing responsibility in these individual cases perhaps won’t have huge significance for a country’s legal system. But to each citizen, there is nothing in the world more significant. Faced with a shattered family or loss of life, any so-called “huge compensation” is really quite insignificant. In this respect, fairness and transparency of the legal system, adherence to basic legal rationality such as “no crime without sufficient evidence” is the most valuable thing in the lives of ordinary people because it protects people from malicious prosecution under the law.

In Hugo’s masterpiece Les Misérables, there is a representative of the legal system, Javert, who spends his entire life pursuing the main character, Jean Valjean. Here, the law almost becomes a force of evil used to attack ordinary people. Just like these innocent Chinese citizens who have spent long years locked up in jail, Jean Valjean lives his life in the shadow of this kind of evil law, living a life of continual setbacks, vagrancy, jail, and persecution. The only beauty in his life is in his imagining the kingdom of heaven.

Only through strict observance of legal procedure and adherence to legal rationality can we prevent the way that the machinery of state has for a long time waged mistaken wars against citizens. From another perspective, this raises a question that urgently needs to be answered: when citizens fall into deliberate legal traps, how should they use everything from state institutions to civil society to mobilize and organize forces to remedy the situation and clear channels for relief? We’ve seen that when there is no [means to seek] immediate remedy, any person can fall victim to this kind of evil legal system. If you have good luck, you can wait until the facts of the case clear your name; if not, you can spend your life in jail.

But we know that justice is not a matter of hitting the jackpot.

In his brilliant work of philosophy, The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu holds rationality to be the first criterion and maintains that ordinary laws are [reflections of] human rationality and that law is the application of human rationality in special circumstances. Today, people do not lack in expectations for rationality, but the progress of a country’s rule of law, besides being built upon the foundation of people’s rationality, must also [be based in] the state’s adherence to rationality, including a pursuit of procedural legality, improving channels for relief, etc.

At the beginning of the essay, the party to the case said that without sacrifice, we can’t further the promotion of rule of law. But society should not take comfort in this kind of magnanimous forgiveness. Instead, we should always bear in mind: citizen sacrifice does not represent social progress; it represents the shame of our rule of law, and nothing more.