CDN’s Sophie Beach has written an important article on the growing assertiveness (and sucess) of Chinese lawyer demanding that individual rights be recognized and respected. This movement grew out of the the Sun Zhigang tragedy, the poster child of so much that is wrong with China’s corupt system.
Sun Zhigang, a young graphic designer from Hubei Province, was arrested on the streets of Guangzhou in March 2003 for not carrying a required registration permit. Police brought him to a “custody and repatriation” center, one of the hundreds of detention facilities run by local governments to control migrant populations. Three days later, Sun was dead.
Reporters from Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), an aggressive daily run by groundbreaking editor Cheng Yizhong, soon discovered an official autopsy report that found Sun had been beaten to death in custody. Though well aware that a story on the autopsy would infuriate local officials, Cheng gave the go-ahead to publish it anyway. The article touched off a national scandal that led to important government reforms. But true to the nature of contemporary Chinese society—where emerging free-market forces regularly collide with authoritarian traditions—it also landed Cheng and three colleagues in prison.
The ensuing court battle became a prominent example of an emerging movement in China known as weiquan in which lawyers and legal scholars are more assertively defending the constitutional rights of individuals, including journalists, in court. The defense in the Nanfang Dushi Bao ultimately won the release of Cheng and another defendant and secured shorter prison terms for the others. But weiquan’s gains are modest thus far—and the government has shown only the most limited tolerance for its goals.
“The emergence and development of the weiquan movement reflects the awakening and ongoing maturation of Chinese civil society,” says Zhang Weiguo, a former journalist in China who now runs the New Century Net Web site, which has covered many recent weiquan cases. “Journalists and lawyers from all over the country took on the Nanfang Dushi Bao case as an example of weiquan and that had a big influence on the outcome.”
Immediately after Nanfang Dushi Bao broke the Sun story on April 25, 2003, newspapers and Web sites throughout China republished the account, chat rooms and bulletin boards exploded with outrage, and legal experts intensified calls for the abolition of the abuse-ridden “custody and repatriation” centers. In June 2003, the central government announced that all of the more than 800 centers would be closed. Six police officers and officials were jailed for their role in Sun’s death.
The positive outcome was a rare example of the Chinese media and public opinion exerting powerful influence over society. But local governments, which control all local media, including Nanfang Dushi Bao, wield considerable power in China—and, within a year, Cheng and three other top officials from the paper were behind bars.
Of course, the reporters soon found themselves behind bars on cooked-up “corruption” charges, but the weiquan movement helped generate a massive effort by journalists to see their colleagues released. And it worked.
This can only be called a bittersweet article and you should read it all. There’s a lot of hope, but also a lot of despair. Several successes, but also a huge number of groteque injustices. That the movement exists at all and has proven to be effective is a great sign of hope. That the crimes it is addressing were carried out by the government, which is continuing to imprison reporters and silence the media, drives home just how rotten the sytem is.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.