It was a great and unexpected victory for Chinese legal reform–unless, that is, it never happened.
Chinese tea leaf readers were working overtime on Sunday, when the country’s Internet exploded with chatter about what appeared to be a significant new legal development and, perhaps, the long hoped-for harbinger of a freer China under new management of president Xi Jinping and premier Li Keqiang. Beijing Youth Daily, a Communist Party-controlled outlet, first carried the news. Internet portal Sina quickly followed suit and tweeted the following on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform, on Sunday afternoon:
For the first time, Beijing sentences out of town “jiefang” agents for illegal detention. A Beijing court recently sentenced…ten jiefang agents from Henan [province's] Changge city for committing illegal detention. The main culprit was sentenced to a year and a half, with the remaining nine punished separately. Those in the legal community believe that this case carries obvious positive meaning; it is saying “no” to local governments’ willy nilly use of jiefang to restrict freedom, and will deliver a shock to Beijing’s “black jail” system.
So what are “jiefang,” (截访) a term which resists all but the queasiest English translation? Jiefang agents are sent by a local government to Beijing in order to intercept and detain would-be petitioners from their home province before they can present their complaints to Beijing authorities. Dating back to the dynastic era, China has a long-standing tradition in which citizens who feel wronged by a local government may travel to the capital in order to press their appeals. It’s a tradition that the central government often ignores, but it remains a treasured right among those who simply desire the chance to be heard. Jiefang agents are the local goons hired to stop them.
If it sounds audacious, that’s because it is. Jiefang exist as a local end-run around Beijing’s final authority, snatching petitioners who are legally in the capital before they can air their grievances. Would-be petitioners are often then confined by force to hotels and guest-houses in the city–”black jails”–right under the nose of central authorities, or they are put on a train or a van bound for their home province.
The practice became even more prevalent after the Party began to include the number of petitioners in Beijing as a part of a local party bosses’ performance evaluation. The move had the exact opposite of its intended effect–instead of improving governance or addressing grievances, local authorities became more aggressive in their jiefang efforts to stop petitioners from contacting central authorities in Beijing. Beijing has largely chosen to turn a blind eye to the practice of jiefang and the illegal detention of petitioners. But it remains an embarrassment, and a repudiation to the notion that China is monolithically administered from the top down.
Initial reaction; good, but not good enough
When the news first emerged that ten jiefang agents had been sentenced by a court of law, it was greeted online with some measure of satisfaction and relief. Many Weibo users wrote the move was “progress” and a “victory of the rule of law.” One wrote that “It seems this generation of leaders is getting real results,” while another exulted, “‘old hundred names’ [slang for Chinese commoners] can finally speak the truth; great.”
But cynicism runs deep on the Chinese Web. Many users saw the move as a mere “palliative” that targeted a “bunch of little minions” rather than the “big fish behind the scenes.” One demanded, “Investigate: local governments are in league with evil forces; who is authorizing this? Who is in charge?” Another called the phenomenon the product of a “warped society,” and another argued that “the best way to avoid petitioning is to get at the crux of the problem.”
The crux, it seems, will have to wait another day. Approximately twelve hours after the news of the jiefang detention first broke, Web users’ cynicism appeared justified. Sunday evening in China, the state-run China Daily appears to have been the first to discover the “fake news.” When contacted, it appears a spokesperson at Beijing’s Chaoyang district people’s court had refused to confirm the conviction, saying only that a case involving jiefang had been heard but a sentence has not been handed down. Any other news, she said, was “fake.”
In China’s blogosphere, one could practically hear the gears grinding as mainstream media rushed to reverse itself. Although the discussion of the jiefang continued to sit at #7 on Weibo’s list of trending topics with over 280,000 comments, the relevant hashtag got a facelift, from “#out of town jiefangs sentenced” to “#jiefang sentencing not true.”
Given the widespread online cynicism that had greeted original reports of the jiefangs‘ conviction, reaction to the reversal was surprisingly dramatic, sometimes maudlin. Many called the news “empty joy” in retrospect. Liberal microblogger Zhou Pidong (@周丕东) posted an image of conflicting People’s Daily announcements and wrote, “The news hadn’t even been out for 12 hours before it was proven to be a rumor. But in that 12 hours, many people who love this country put out many calls full of hope and confidence in this country, feeling that this was a beacon in the darkness, welcoming the arrival of rule of law. However, 12 hours later, this passion, these principles, this joy, was discovered to be only a dream.” Another wrote, “My hair’s standing on end. The last, last ray of hope for this government’s been snuffed out.”
Let the conspiracy theories begin
It may be premature to lose hope. Many commenters were not convinced that the reversal was itself based on the facts. One asked, “speechless; which [version] is true?” Theories abounded on which version was in fact true, and why the story had unfolded as it did.
Some were convinced the original story was the right one. Shen Yachuan (@石扉客), a famous legal reporter, opined that, “I believe that with fake jiefang news-gate … it’s most [likely] that after the news was broadcast, it led to an explosive push back from the localities, so because of this the Party-led China Daily and China People’s Daily solved things the easy way by telling everyone it was a rumor.” Another opined that authorities had “come to regret the verdict.”
Others felt that the “fake news” was an effort–perhaps insidious, perhaps well-meaning–to “sound out public opinion” on the subject. One user took a unique tack, asking, “Was it to embolden [those calling for] the rule of law? Or to encourage local governments to continue intercepting petitioners?” Another was yet more conspiratorial: “By eating its words, is the media trying to exhaust all public trust? Is its motive to kill the Party or the country?”
Among all the theories bandied about, few considered the possibility of a garden-variety miscommunication. While it’s certainly possible that larger forces lurk behind the 180-degree shift, China provides ample cautionary tales to anyone looking to reach neat and speedy conclusions. Instead, the real story here–at least for now–is the way that nationwide opinion quickly emerged to back the Beijing court’s supposed verdict, even if public voices quickly asked for more. As one wrote after hearing of the reversal, “I’m really depressed … but from yesterday to today, countless people have proven where the heart of public opinion really lies.”