By David Bandurski — When news broke across China last week that top officials from Liaoning’s Xifeng County had dispatched police to Beijing to arrest a reporter on defamation charges, readers were appalled by the brazenness of the act — these two-bit tyrants had really stepped over the line. The tide now seems to have turned in the case, and despite an apology from Xifeng authorities reporter Zhu Wenna (朱文娜) says she is determined to take the fight to her accusers.
But the Xifeng case is all the more disturbing when you understand just how commonplace it really is. The truncheon of “defamation” has come down hard on ordinary Chinese citizens in recent years — the Chongqing Pengshui (彭水诗案) SMS case, the Shanxi Jishan (山西稷山) Open Letter Case, the Henan Mengzhou (河南孟州) Case.
[ABOVE: Screenshot of Xinhua News Agency (Chongqing) online coverage of Lan Qinghua, former top leader of Chongqing’s Pengshui County, speaking at an economic development forum in 2004, two years before his unlawful arrest of Qin Zhongfei on defamation charges.]
Aside from charges of “defamation”, all of these cases have one thing in common. They involve the abuse of public power by county officials to silence dissent, cover up their tracks and attack political enemies. They are what columnist Xiong Peiyun (熊培云) termed the use of “public power to vent personal anger” (挟公权泄私愤).
In fact, the story of China’s capricious county cadres is as old as the hills.
The county system (郡县制) was instituted in the Qin Dynasty (秦朝), and the Chinese character for “county” xian (县), is intimately connected with the Qin Empire. After Qinshihuang united China, he not only instituted the county system but also standardized the Chinese writing system.
In reference to the county system, the character xian simply denoted an administrative jurisdiction. But in his “Explication of Simple and Compound Characters” (说文解字), the second-century Confucian scholar Xu Shen (许慎) says the character xian is actually an inverted head — a testament, some commentators say, to the brutality of feudal rule at the county level, where severed heads were routinely on display (砍头示众) to discourage misbehavior.
According to this reading, the Chinese character xian was purposely devised to give Chinese the chills. It was the most basic explication of violence as the source of a county official’s power.
In the Qing Dynasty, other sources say, county officials, or xian guan (县官) were sometimes called the “family destroying county patriarchs” (破家的县爷).
But the story of China’s capricious county cadres is also as young as rapid economic development.
As the emphasis on GDP and raw economic growth has approached obsession over the last decade, local officials have come under increasing pressure to deliver the numbers. The single-minded pursuit of growth has invited abuse by local leaders who have been invested with greater power and are subject to less scrutiny.
County officials often overstep the law to post their own economic (=political) gains. If their rough tactics draw the attention of administrative superiors, the latter have every incentive to cover up the problem to avoid censure by those higher up the food chain.
With no external checks and balances, one commentator noted recently, “the monitor becomes the accomplice” (监督者会变成同谋者).
Adding to the legacy of county-level autocracy (专制) and the political pressures of economic performance is the age-old ailment of entrenched power. Uncontrollable local officials are a notorious historical problem in China, where, as the saying goes, “Even the mighty dragon can’t flush the snakes out of their holes” (强龙打不过地头蛇).
While counties are beyond the gravitational pull of the center in Beijing, and sufficiently far from provincial centers of power, their leaders have comprehensive sets of public tools at their disposal — the police, courts, prosecutors.
Counties are therefore the most comprehensive manifestation of government power to interface directly with ordinary citizens. And as rights consciousness grows among ordinary Chinese, and social problems loom, this becomes a national recipe for personal disaster like that which faced Liaoning businesswoman Zhao Junping (赵俊萍).
As Nanjing University professor Jing Kaixuan (景凯旋) wrote recently:
The recent upsurge in tensions between officials and the public demonstrates two important trends. The first is the awakening of rights consciousness among the public, which amounts essentially to the consensus among the people for a society based on rule of law. The second is the expansion of power among a number of local officials, which fundamentally impedes realization of the concept of “administrating according to the law and ruling for the people” and has become a negative factor in reforms. These two trends have ushered previously concealed tensions to the surface.
These tensions are clearly visible in the surge of “defamation” cases that have emerged recently from county governments across China. And these cases are just the tip of the iceberg, freak instances where information about local wrongdoing trickled up and out to national media.
These defamation charges are bold attempts by local officials to restrain the power of speech and public opinion as a challenge to their authority.
The recent Xifeng Case and the Pengshui SMS Case are now reasonably well documented. But consider also the Henan Mengzhou Case reported on June 28 last year in Southern Weekend.
In that case, six peasants from Mengzhou County, Henan Province, were charged with defamation by the local county secretary and jailed for six months after issuing a “Call for Justice” (正义的呼唤) that informed on the economic problems of a village-run business.
In a disciplinary action reminiscent of the Cultural Revolution, the peasants were even twice paraded through the streets to serve as an example to others.
“Ah, another official is defamed,” Xiong Peiyun winked from the pages of Southern Metropolis Daily shortly after the Mengzhou case went to trial.
And the columnist returned us (as in our history of the word “county”) to China’s violent opening act in the Qin Dynasty, to the fateful contorting of the characters fei (诽) and bang (谤) (“defamation”):
The unfortunate transformation of public space [as it stood before the Qin Dynasty] is similarly revealed in the transformation of the meaning of the word “defamation” (诽谤), or feibang. In the era before the Qin Dynasty, feibang was not unlike today’s “criticism” (批评/piping) or “editorializing” (评论/pinglun). It was a neutral word, not like after the Qin, when the word made hairs stand on end. After the “burning of books and burying of scholars” (that happened during China’s Qin Dynasty), defamation was essentially a crime punishable by death. In the 2,000 years of history that followed, perhaps the only spot of light came from Empress Dou (竇皇后) (of the Western Han Dynasty), who briefly abolished “defamation” law. By the time of Emperor Wu Di (武帝), “defamation” had emerged again with greater ferocity.
The character bang is linked also to the famous ornamental columns, or huabiao (华表), that were erected in the Chinese capital during dynastic times, and at which people could gather to safely voice their opinions. These columns were also called bangzhu (谤柱), or “columns of criticism and opinion,” in some instances incorrectly translated as “slander posts”. [Baidu.com photo search for huabiao].
The deeper national issue lurking behind county tyranny is, of course, the urgent need for political reform. In the midst of the stink over the Xifeng “defamation” story, columnist Jing Kaixuan (景凯旋) wrote about reform as a key antidote to local abuse of power.
The attempted arrest in Beijing of Faren Magazine reporter Zhu Wenna (朱文娜) had prompted some discussion in China’s media about protection of the constitutional right to expression [Chapter II, Article 35]. Yes, constitutional governance is important, said Jing, but we need to talk about democracy too.
“In modern nations,” said Jing, “constitutionalism is inseparable from democracy.” While the former deals with the distribution of power and checks and balances (权力的配置和制衡), the latter addresses the origins of power (权力的来源) and is a fundamental restriction on its exercise.
Officials, he concludes, should “emerge through election by citizens, receiving the support and encouragement of the majority, and their power should be checked by citizens.”
There can be little doubt that without deeper political reform, China’s capricious county officials will continue to act with impunity. And as they go up against citizens ever more aware of their rights, and more willing than ever to express and assert them, we should expect to see a rising tide of “defamation” cases.
The law, after all, is in the hands of the lawless.
Xiong Peiyun said it perhaps most succinctly following the Henan Mengzhou Case last year when he echoed the words of the French revolutionary Madame Roland:
Oh, defamation! What crimes are committed in your name!
“Calamity descends from a poem“, Southern Weekend, October 19, 2006
“Chongqing police admit error in arresting author of satirical poem“, China Media Project, October 26, 2006
“SMS case dropped“, Danwei.org, October 26, 2006
“The Pengshui SMS Case“, ESWN, October 21,2006
[Posted January 16, 2008, 12:15pm HK]