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David Wertime

Prosecutor Calls Out Yunnan Public Security Official: Where's The Proof?

Yang Chaobang. Smile, you're now famous!

Gather ’round; front-row tickets to this spat are free to all users of Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform. In a rare public war of words between government officials, the Shaoxing City prosecutor’s office in Zhejiang Province used its official Weibo account yesterday morning to ridicule a public safety officer in distant Yunnan province.

The angry tweet came in reaction to Yunnan head of public security Yang Chaobang’s statement at a press conference that “I will stake my reputation and my future on it: Zhao Dengyong is the suspect in this case. As to whether there are other persons involved in this matter, the public security organs are currently investigating.”{{Chinese}}[[Chinese]]“我可以一个局长的名义和自己的前程来担保,赵登用就是此案的嫌疑人,是否有其他人员参与等情况,公安机关正在调查中.”[[Chinese]]

Zhao Dengyong was one of at least four people who died last Thursday after a bomb ripped through a government office in Qiaojia township, Yunan. Authorities insist Zhao, who arrived minutes before the explosion carrying a black bag, is suspect number one. But as the Dui Hui Foundation reports on its blog, many suspect Zhao is being made a scapegoat, perhaps because the true culprit acted to protest illegal government takings of private land. Such takings are a source of great tension in China.

Someone writing for the Shaoxing prosecutorial office, about 1,000 miles from Yunnan, apparently agrees. The already-famous tweet reads:

“‘I will stake my reputation and my future on it: Zhao Dengyong is the suspect in this case.’ As legal personnel, this kind of talk should either seldom be spoken or not spoken at all. This is a society under the rule of law, proving whether or not someone is guilty of a crime depends on proof. A question: Can your reputation and future be used as proof?”{{Chin.}}[[Chin.]]我可以一个局长的名义和自己的前程来担保,赵登用就是此案的嫌疑人。” 作为一个法律人,这样的话还是要少讲甚至不讲为好。现在是法治社会,证明犯罪嫌疑人有没有犯罪是要靠证据来说话的。试问,名义和前程能当做证据来用吗?[[Chin.]]

Netizens loved it. “Finally,” @小_河蟹 exulted, “different voices coming out of the system.” @兴贤堂 lauded “a rare case of a domestic official Weibo account expressing an opinion.” @陈民亮 was grateful: “Thank you so much, Shaoxing City Prosecutor for saying what’s in everyday people’s hearts.” 

Although Yang failed to articulate the essential distinction between confidence and proof, netizens had no trouble doing so. Many called Mr. Yang “legally illiterate” using a Chinese phrase that literally means “blind to the law” (法盲). @蜚画 sighed, “He thinks his mandarin’s title and bureaucratic speak is something beyond legal proof…however this is nothing new in China.” @浙江levin got a bit more personal. “Everyday people don’t care about your prospects, they care about the truth. Your leaders care even less about your prospects.”

In its tweet, the Shaoxing prosecutor's office articulated a common sentiment

One reason for netizen scorn was the tone-deaf nature of Yang’s claim. In many cases, the rise of Chinese social media has brought people and their government closer together, but many officials still do not know how to strike a tone or an image that will stand up to the blogosphere’s simulacrum of democratic scrutiny. One user, @戴假发的-南瓜, offered a half-hearted defense: “These people haven’t gone through public-relations training, they don’t know how to face public opinion [and end up] doing bad things with good intentions.”

But deeper behind the ridicule of Yang Chaobang lay genuine concern that authorities in Yunnan authorities were trying to cover up the true identity of the culprit. @李南施 argued that “any justice which has not gone through legal procedures is fake justice.” @奶油豆沙巧克力Y offered to decode Yang’s words: “What he is trying to say is that whoever he says is guilty is guilty, all that proof stuff is ‘passing clouds’ [a slang term for "irrelevant," 浮云 ].” By contrast, @水去菅无草 offered rare support, arguing, “Yang Chaobang didn’t say anything wrong, he just said he’s confident that the investigation has been basically completed. I think it’s a bit strange, there was a serious bombing and it seems I don’t hear anyone condemning the killer. Instead, everyone is questioning the public security organs.” 

While it may surprise outsiders unfamiliar with China, disagreements, rivalries, and barely-concealed animosity between different government organs and offices is nothing new in China. However, it is rare to see one official organ publicly tossing spit-bombs toward another, even if it is from about 1,000 miles away. 

Zhao Dengyong, minutes before the explosion

One would suspect authorities would be keen to paint over this latest crack in the public-facing facade of China’s government, which has lately seemed to sprout fissure upon fissure. But as of this morning in China, the thread has not been blocked on Weibo. In fact, China Newsweek recently reported on the spat in an article (Chinese)

Censors may eventually pull the plug on this public airing of internecine disagreements. Then again, central authorities may wish to encourage public pressure on intransigent local officials to finger the true Qiaojia killer. As public outcry continues to grow, it may pry open China’s legal system just long enough to let a bit of light through, or at least to create the illusion of citizen involvement. One thing it cannot do is bring the Qiaojia dead back again.

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David Wertime

David is the co-founder and co-editor of Tea Leaf Nation. He first encountered China as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2001 and has lived and worked in Fuling, Chongqing, Beijing, and Hong Kong. He is a ChinaFile fellow at the Asia Society and an associate fellow at the Truman National Security Project.