Today I’ve got another post for an article I disagree with, although this time it was written by someone I certainly respect. Stan Abrams, writer of the great China Hearsay blog, is an intellectual property lawyer in Beijing and member of the Central University of Finance and Economics faculty. Last week he wrote about the Li Xingong case, in which a Communist Party official in Henan has been accused of raping multiple underage girls. After describing the case Stan writes:
That being said, there is another twist to this case that I’m frankly still trying to unravel: the role of public pressure. As you know, I have a great deal of interest in cases where the public seemingly exerts an influence on the judiciary, prosecutors or the police, usually in criminal matters. As I’ve said many times, the general trend disturbs me; the criminal justice system should generally be immune to public pressure. If not, scary things can happen.
And here, sadly, I have to take issue with him. As a general rule, sure- cases should be decided by their merits using the law, not by crowds in front of the courtroom or on Weibo. This isn’t just any case, though. This is a case in the People’s Republic of China involving a Communist Party official accused of doing heinous things to regular Chinese citizens. The chances of justice being done here are vanishingly small. If public pressure is worth worrying about, what of the other pressures that are surely exerted in less visible ways during a case like this? We’re talking about a man with money, guanxi, power, the Party, and a judiciary which understands the meaning of loyalty at his back. The moment accusations are leveled at the Communist Party, the rule of law isn’t simply compromised- it disappears entirely. Mr. Abrams is worried about scary things that can happen when public pressure influences cases, but scary things are already happening, and do happen every time the law bumps up against the Party.
He goes on to say:
More disturbing than any media failure is the rush to judgment by the weibots. The automatic assumption that Li’s actions had somehow been known and covered up prior to May 8 or that the local authorities would definitely try to cover up his crimes even after he was detained, is troubling. It suggests severe credibility problems of local officials, although that’s not exactly news. The level of distrust that is illustrated by these types of cases is startling.
And here’s where I have to come back to the problem I have with his concern about public pressure. I believe that he’s looking at the whole issue backwards. The rush to judgment and the tendency of online commentators to dog-pile the Party is a symptom of the flimsy nature of the rule of law in China. People are used to seeing the Communist Party let itself off the hook, and to seeing the Party use official propaganda organs to cover up misdeeds. Many Chinese have reached the conclusion that public pressure is one of the few tools that is capable of balancing the lopsided power balance enjoyed by the Party, and I can’t say that they’re wrong. In the future a mature Chinese legal system will have to learn to resist public pressure, although I suspect that a system capable of delivering just outcomes in situations like these wouldn’t face as much public pressure to begin with.
I can appreciate how Mr. Abrams, as a lawyer, found this objectionable. The moment the Party gets involved, however, this ceases to be a legal problem and becomes a political one. Until the Party allows justice to be done, public pressure seems like the least of our worries.