Thursday, November 11, 2010

Taking a Stand in the Name of Rule of Law

The Chinese government’s response to petitioners has been much in the news this past week, thanks in large part to the efforts of the country’s more outspoken investigative journalists.

Earlier this week, the Beijing News earned the ire of local officials in Fuping County, Shaanxi, after it reported on the case of two women who had been forced by police to stand before an audience of hundreds, arms shackled, as a warning to others about engaging in “illegal petitioning.” Legal experts denounced the action as a violation of legal provisions against public shaming of prisoners or suspects—especially given the fact that the women had merely been given light administrative punishments.

For their part, officials in Fuping publicly insisted that their handling of the situation had been legal and proper. “It increases transparency of law enforcement,” they claimed. “The goal is to educate [the women] themselves and to educate the public.” In support of their actions, they point to a 2009 directive from the Central Politics and Law Committee authorizing use of “serious measures” against persistent petitioners or those who act unlawfully.

Meanwhile, from Hunan, there emerged an account in the Southern Metropolis Daily of a farming couple subjected to “preemptive punishment” for “preparing to petition.” Tang Fengyin had sued the local government in Yongzhou over the illegal requisition of his land, but despite a local court finding in his favor, government agents continued to infringe on his property rights. So, Tang and his wife traveled to Guangzhou to meet with a lawyer and seek out a sympathetic reporter to whom they could recount their plight. But police from Yongzhou tracked them down, dragged them back to Hunan, and gave Tang a 10-day administrative detention for “preparing to petition.”

Like the Fuping case, the treatment of the Tangs has generated a lot of outrage from Chinese commentators. Today, in the Beijing News, Wei Yingjie writes:
Petitioning is no crime, much less “preparing to petition”! By giving the Tangs an administrative punishment before they had gone to petition, local police can be said to have “preemptively violated the law.” Even if the Tangs subjectively had the intent to petition, they had not yet in fact taken action, so for local police to slap them with this is a classic case of trumped-up charges.

Even more alarming is the ruling mentality behind the “preemptive punishment” of citizens. Petitioning is both a lawful administrative channel for seeking redress and also an effective means of defusing tensions in society. Some local governments go to so much trouble to block and intercept petitioners because, first, they are afraid their dirty laundry will be displayed in public and, second, they have been warped by their ruling mentality. By this I mean that some local governments and officials, out of self-interest, often have a tendency to see citizens as potential “enemies.” This is the most frightening and worrying part about this “detention of citizens for preparing to petition” incident.

When local government agencies and officials in possession of unquestionably strong public power see citizens as being opposed to their interests, the consequences are obvious. It’s not limited to petitioners normally exercising their “right to petition”—any ordinary person can be reduced to a “prisoner” of those holding public power at any time. Therefore, this is not merely an ordinary case involving administrative punishment but a serious violation of the law, one that tramples on legal institutions and infringes on citizens’ legal rights.
Perhaps not coincidentally, these reports of local abuses of power against petitioners come in the same week that China’s State Council released a new “opinion” on the importance of rule of law, calling for fairer administration of justice and government accountability in order to reduce the level of social grievance.

Perhaps more than anything, the cases described above illustrate the dilemma facing local officials in China. On the one hand, they are being constantly reminded of the paramount importance of social stability and pressured to take serious measures to preserve it. On the other hand, they are being exhorted to pay increased attention to rule of law.

Until the balance of these messages begins to tip more unambiguously in the direction of rule of law—and institutions are developed to place real checks on abuse of power—it is doubtful that either the grievances or the outrageous responses to them will disappear anytime soon.

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