Nicholas Kristof:: China’s ‘Justice’ System

A very grim outlook. Best point: China has all the hardware, but the software’s still missing.

China’s ‘Justice’ System
Published: June 18, 2006

With President Bush on the ropes, the most important person in the world right now may well be President Hu Jintao, as he presides over 1.3 billion people and the rise of China.

But while China is one of the great successes on the world scene, Mr. Hu increasingly looks like a loser.

He has disappointed many Chinese intellectuals and Communist Party officials with his Brezhnevian approach to political reform. Former President Jiang Zemin and former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji are among the party officials who are said by insiders to be unhappy with Mr. Hu’s reign.

Mr. Hu has a brilliant mind and is pragmatic in economics and diplomacy, managing both well. But in politics he has been a throwback to the ideologues of the past (like his own patron, Song Ping), and he has attempted to tug China backward by clamping down on the news media, law, religion and the Internet.

China now imprisons some 32 journalists, more than any country in the world. A religious crackdown has led to underground Christians being arrested and sometimes tortured, particularly in rural areas. And China has tried harder than almost any country to neuter the Internet by filtering out obscene words like “human rights.”

And yes, it is personal. I spent Friday outside the Beijing No. 2 Intermediate People’s Court, as a New York Times colleague, Zhao Yan, was enduring a farcical secret trial on Mr. Hu’s orders. Mr. Zhao, a researcher in The Times’s Beijing bureau, has already been imprisoned virtually incommunicado for the last 22 months, and he may now face a decade or more in prison.

I was allowed into the courthouse by mistake — I drove through the gate with two colleagues, and nobody stopped us when we walked in — and it’s a gorgeous building with more magnificent courtrooms than I’ve ever seen in the U.S. But the courthouse was mostly empty, and finally we found out why: people aren’t allowed in the People’s Court. A group of indignant plainclothes police officers swarmed in and herded us outside.

The courthouse is a perfect symbol of Mr. Hu’s vision of China today: a dazzling building with lavish facilities, but empty in every sense. It’s all infrastructure, no software. It’s as if Mr. Hu thinks that building a modern judicial system is about high ceilings and padded seats rather than about laws and justice.

The trial was conducted in secret, and we didn’t even get a glimpse of Mr. Zhao. The trial ended in one day without a single witness giving testimony for either side. The verdict will be handed down soon, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Mr. Zhao will be sent to prison for a long sentence.

This case originally arose after Mr. Hu was irritated by a scoop by The Times’s Beijing bureau chief, Joseph Kahn, and ordered that the leaker be punished. The State Security authorities couldn’t find the real source, so they arrested Mr. Zhao instead because they didn’t like his reporting about rural unrest.

I’m still a believer in China, partly because Mr. Hu and his aides have managed the economy so well. Mr. Hu has also done well in canceling the agriculture tax and taking other measures to try to address the destabilizing income gaps in China (there, 1 percent of the population now controls 60 percent of the wealth, whereas in the U.S., 5 percent controls 60 percent of the wealth).

Yet ultimately, Mr. Hu’s efforts to create stability by clamping down just risk more instability. Most Chinese don’t want upheavals, but they are fed up with corruption and lies, with being blocked from Google and Wikipedia, with having to waste time studying political drivel like Mr. Hu’s “Eight Honorables and Eight Shames” campaign. Wags call it “Hu shuo ba dao,” a clever pun that translates as “utter nonsense.”

Indeed, Mr. Hu’s crackdown has been singularly ineffective, annoying people more than scaring them. Many Communist Party officials worry that crackdowns just anger and alienate the public; that is why some have talked of allowing people to let off steam through greater freedom of the press and more elections. In one province, a poll found that 85 percent of officials themselves wanted to speed up political reform.

But Mr. Hu seems paralyzed, altogether the weakest Chinese leader since Hua Guofeng in the 1970’s. The result? Brace yourself for turbulence ahead in China.

The Discussion: 15 Comments

I know its ocmpletely off topic but –


that means we can afford to loose to Brazil, beat Croatia, and we’re in the WC still! Ha HA!

China rises, but so does Australia.

June 17, 2006 @ 8:52 pm | Comment

I’d love the last part better.

June 17, 2006 @ 9:21 pm | Comment

The last part is pretty good, too. I gather Kristof doesn’t like Hu very much. Just a guess.

June 17, 2006 @ 9:37 pm | Comment

I always refrain from rediculing Kristof for his idealism, partly because of my own idealism, and partly because of that night he agonized with the Chinese people. But after sitting idally on stairs of No 2 people’s courthouse (see AP photo) for an afternoon, he remained just too soft on Hu, which disappointed me pretty much.

June 17, 2006 @ 9:50 pm | Comment

Richard: apparently we were refering to the different last part. I meant ‘ so does Australia’ 🙂

June 17, 2006 @ 9:52 pm | Comment

I hardly think Kristoff was being soft. The idealism and euphemism with which he formerly reported on China took a sharp turn for the dark after ZY was arrested and consequently (I assume that was the reason) Nick had a little trouble getting his next entry visa. Given his style, which does seem a little cherubic for even me sometimes, this article reads like a knuckle sandwich.

(commenting from Amsterdam)

June 18, 2006 @ 4:07 am | Comment

I hardly think Kristoff was being soft. The idealism and euphemism with which he formerly reported on China took a sharp turn for the dark after ZY was arrested and consequently (I assume that was the reason) Nick had a little trouble getting his next entry visa. Given his style, which does seem a little cherubic for even me sometimes, this article reads like a knuckle sandwich.

June 18, 2006 @ 4:16 am | Comment

Strange to me that readers are arguing over whether Kristoff is too soft or not as that strikes me as irrelevant to the bottom line here, which is that he is right.

June 18, 2006 @ 9:16 am | Comment

Hu has been such a big disappointment.

I miss Zhu Rongji. I’m even starting to miss Jiang Zemin’s eyewear.

Bu Hu!

June 18, 2006 @ 11:38 am | Comment

I find the comment about Party officials wanting more change interesting. Perhaps there is some hope for the future after all – though not until “robot-man” has gone.

June 18, 2006 @ 3:05 pm | Comment

I do believe there’s a faction in the Party that recognizes the future is going to involve greater participation in the political process and the end of their political monopoly. They prefer to see that happen gradually and under control than in some sudden collapse. But if people like Hu keep running the show, they may not be able to evolve themselves into a more representational system.

June 18, 2006 @ 6:59 pm | Comment

Has this blog become a mirror for the NY Times Op-ed page? Starting to get into IP issues here.

Anyhow, I am glad to see Kristoff actually took the time to visit personally for the ZY case. Usually Hu and Wen occassionally like to act like the white knight and overturn cases that are unpopular in order to show that they are with the people, but this is an instance where it is Hu himself that is the dark force behind it. He’s taken it personally.

–I’d like to see that poll that Kristoff cites.
–I don’t think he’s a weak leader at all, but at the same time, I don’t think there is enough ideology behind him for someone to be loyal to hime for ideological reasons. People are loyal to him for career reasons.

June 18, 2006 @ 9:27 pm | Comment

Another proof of a rising Australia: Geoff Ogilvy took US open 🙂

I searched and couldn’t find the poll (85% in favor of political reform). I suspect that could be ‘administrative reform’ to streamline the execution, i.e. to speed up Zhan Yan’s conviction by 100%, for instance. Another good example of bad translation.

June 19, 2006 @ 6:40 am | Comment

Good column by Kristof….but hey Richard- would you mind publishing more Tierney and Brooks columns for your more conservative readers?

June 20, 2006 @ 12:25 am | Comment

Actually, I’m considering posting less of all the columnists, and only going with those that I really love or that are China-related.

June 20, 2006 @ 12:46 am | Comment

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