Rachel Lu

With Secret Detention Law, Netizens Face Limits of Their Power

Cartoonist Kuang Biao: What Should We Do When the Criminal Procedure Law is Amended on Mar. 14?

It was less than a week ago that discussions of China’s legislative powwow on microblogs seemed like fun and games – catch a few delegates snoozing and blinging, have a few laughs, repeat.

No longer. Many netizens have realized that one piece of legislation slated to be passed – the Amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law  – may worsen China’s already blemished human rights records. Specifically, a new Article 73 that will allow secret detention of anyone suspected of “endangering national security” or “engaging in terrorism” without notice to the family of the accused.

Thousands of netizens have expressed full-throated opposition to the draft law, many in poignant, personal terms. They have compared the government to the Third Reich, the “Gestapo’s Ghost,” and the KGB. They have accused the government of trying to “turn the whole country into a prison.” They have asked why China wishes to turn back the dial to become a police state. They have pleaded with their representatives to vote “nay” (unlikely in China’s rubber-stamp National People’s Congress).

It will likely be to no avail. A recent search on Sina Weibo for “73条” (Article 73) calls up about 130,000 results, while a search for “刑诉法” (Criminal Procedure Law) calls up over 662,000 results. The numbers decreased by about 10% over a few hours’ time, indicating that a number of tweets have been “harmonized.” 

Even accounting for the fact that the numbers do not include harmonized tweets, the numbers pale in comparison to more popular topics. The announcement of the merger between online video providers Youku.com and Tudou.com, Sina Weibo’s #1 topic, has garnered approximately 2.2 million tweets.

Not only are the tweets lacking, but so are the angry street protests. In Hong Kong, an anti-subversion law proposed in 2002 resulted in street protests half a million strong before being shelved. It appears that Article 73 offers so much power that the state apparatus would need to face an even greater outcry to resist adopting the measure.

And no swelling of the masses appears forthcoming. In a recent interview with the Economist, famed blogger Han Han complained that, when netizens are outraged, “you feel like you could go open the window and you would see protesters on the street … but once you open the window, you realize that there’s nothing there at all.” In this case, at least, he will probably be right.

But if netizens’ pleas will not be heard by their representatives in China’s legislature, at least they can be heard by the international community. Tea Leaf Nation presents some of the best and most interesting comments below:

History Tells Us…

@弘电又见: I heard during WWII a New York Times correspondent in Berlin said this about the Third Reich: ‘If Hilter was truly popular, Goebbels [the Nazi propaganda master] would be out of a job; if Goebbels was truly successful, Himmler [the head of the SS] would be out of a job.’ History tells us that propaganda’s success relies on violence as a back-up. So, when repeating lies for a thousand times is no longer effective, you have Article 73 of the Criminal Procedure Law.’

Zhang Wen (@章文的文章),  editor of China Newsweek: In the 21st century, we cannot tolerate people who seek to return China to the dark ages for the benefit of the Party.

What Might Happen?

Liu Zuobao (@江南都市报刘祚保), reporter: One day you got off work and didn’t go home. You just disappeared. No family, friend, schoolmate or colleague knew where you were, not a clue. The police registered the report of disappearance out of politeness. Then one day the police came to your family with a bag of ashes, telling them that you were arrested for ‘endangering national security,’ and that you died of ‘heart disease’ while under detention. The weather was hot and they didn’t want to keep the body, so the government cremated you. This is not an idle story; this is the Amendment to the Criminal Procedure Law.

@武汉肖肖: I just retweeted something. My husband warned me, ‘Stop retweeting this and that, what if one day I won’t be able to find you! Who will take care of our baby at home?’

Due Process? What Due Process?

@Wangying006: Inciting subversion and endangering national security is a very broad category, its boundaries are ambiguous, its interpretation much too arbitrary. If you can be secretly detained, you can also suffer what is publicly referred to as an ‘accidental death.’ It’s not an exaggeration here to say, ‘Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for you.’ … The price society will [have to pay] is hard to bear.  

Zheng Keqiang (@郑克强), director of the Economics and Social Development Research Center in Central China: Going forward, the hidden problems with the practical implementation of the law will continue to grow worse. It would probably be more stable in the long-run to postpone the vote and assembly a team of experts to discuss the law in greater depth, answering any questions and putting doubts to rest.

What Are They Thinking?

@Kelvin_410: Real name registration on microblogs + Article 73, our Party’s men will be able to sleep tight at night!

Liu Ziyu (@记者刘子瑜), reporter: A number of reporters were interviewing a delegate (studied law, works as a prosecutor), and he went on and on about the ‘benefits’ of the draft [Article 73]. I couldn’t stand it any longer and asked, “there is no clear boundary between ‘impeding investigations’ and ‘detention without notice.’ Will secret investigation be abused, what if there is no protection for the rights of the condemned?” This people’s delegate, who had a big smile on his face, very suddenly changed his expression, pushed me aside and walked away…

But What About the Patriot Act?

Xie Youping (@谢佑平), director of justice and litigation system research at Fudan University: In foreign countries, there are [similar measures] … but there are two basic factors that force police to use it carefully: 1) Overview by an independent judiciary system, [such that] no one can be held without the consent of a judge. 2) A jury system, [such that] every defendant pleading not guilty has the right to request trial by a jury comprised of one’s peers.

Support for Article 73

@见到美女就心软: The liberals are taking it out of context. In the past, secret detention was allowed in all cases, now the law is being amended so it can only be used in cases that endanger national security or in cases of terrorism, so actually [the amendment] limits the jurisdiction of secret detention.

@殷水云: What do you have to fear as an ordinary person? This law would have nothing to do with you. Look at what kind of people are making a fuss about it – the so-called elite, those who lead the way for the Westerners. They smear Bo Xilai who works hard for the people, have you thought about why? The clueless public! It’s important to think independently.

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.