Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Injuring the Injured: The Case of Zhao Lianhai

Shouts and wails erupted outside a suburban Beijing courtroom this morning as 38-year-old Zhao Lianhai was sentenced to 2-1/2 years’ imprisonment on charges of “causing a serious disturbance.”

After the court’s verdict was announced, Zhao angrily tore off his detainee uniform and resisted police efforts to drag him away. He announced his intention to appeal the verdict and indicated he would protest by starting an immediate hunger strike. Outside the courtroom, tearful family members and angry supporters shouted “Zhao Lianhai is innocent!” and “The court is shameless!”

Prosecutors charged Zhao with “using controversial social issues to gather and incite others to shout slogans in public places and illegally gather to stir up trouble.” The main “controversial social issues” in question was a major food-safety scandal that first came to light in 2008 in which the industrial chemical melamine was found to have been added to Chinese milk products, causing at least six deaths and serious kidney damage for hundreds of thousands of children.

As the father of a child who had developed kidney stones as a result of drinking tainted milk, Zhao led other parents in a quest to seek better compensation and treatment for victims and their families. They rejected a highly publicized compensation plan put forth by the government and attempted (unsuccessfully) to file a class-action suit against more than 20 companies involved in the scandal.

Zhao set up a website to build public support and collect information about the poisonings, suggesting that the victim count could be much higher than official figures. He gave interviews to foreign media and became involved in other cases involving people seeking justice for grievances.

The crime of “causing a serious disturbance,” which was added to the Criminal Law in 1997, was originally known as “hooliganism.” Literally the crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” Article 293 provides for a maximum five-year sentence for a variety of offenses,  leading some to refer to it in Chinese as a “pocket crime”—anything can be stuffed into it.

In April, shortly after the initial hearing, Hong Kong-based media personality Leung Man-tao used Zhao’s trial as inspiration for a passionate defense of citizens’ rights in a commentary entitled “Rights Defense and Maintaining Stability,” published in the weekly Guangzhou newspaper Southern Weekend. He started by describing the scene outside the courtroom:
They said the court arranged to hold the trial in one of the smaller courtrooms that couldn’t seat many people, so the guy’s wife and kid couldn’t get in to attend. When the trial was over, he was convicted as expected and then immediately bundled into the prisoner transport vehicle by police. At that moment, his wife picked up the child and chased after [the vehicle] in the rain, crying and shouting, until her way was blocked by row after row of guards. She watched as the husband she hadn’t seen in months was driven off in the distance, while her son kept repeating, “Papa! Papa!” They said the reporters on the scene couldn’t look at the woman, and some even couldn’t bear it and were brought to tears.

What crime did this man commit? The prosecution charged him with “creating a serious disturbance,” saying that he maliciously stirred up trouble online over an incident and “incited a gathering” of people to go to a public place and “seriously disrupt social order by shouting slogans and carrying out an illegal demonstration.” What was the big deal that led this guy to “maliciously stir up trouble” to the point where it landed him behind bars? It was all because of a child; his young child drank some bad milk formula and developed kidney stones, so he hardened his heart and summoned all his strength, both visible and invisible, and fought to the end to defend his rights.
After criticizing the authorities for treating rights defenders as a threat to social stability, Leung concludes his essay thusly:
If you misuse the framework of stability protection to deal with rights defense activity, that shows you haven’t heard at all what the other party has been saying. They haven’t come to look for trouble, and even less to rebel. On the contrary, what they want is to be seen, to be heard, and to be recognized. If they were really enemies, why would they demand your recognition? Responding harshly to rights defense in the name of “preserving stability” is to give a negative response to a positive demand.

Think about it: the vast majority of rights defenders are already victims. Even if they occasionally say and do things that are a bit extreme, can’t we sympathize with their feelings? It makes sense that any citizen whose rights have been infringed should obtain compensation, not be looked upon as not being a citizen. But in reality, we find time and again that those who have suffered injury often get injured again.

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