Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The People vs. Li Zhuang (2009)

The most unusual thing about the Li Zhuang case might be the sharp disparity between local people's reaction and that of the elites around the world.  By now major English media outlets have all reported on Li's sentence of 2.5 years, and almost without exception, questioned the justice of it.

But not the public of Chongqing. Yesterday I got an email from my older sister, a retired clerk living in Chongqing with a teenage son. She wrote, "Lawyer Li Zhuang practices law and breaks the law intentionally, his sentence is too light!" Coincidentally, just that morning I had spoken to a Chongqing friend on the phone. The friend, a senior physician, said that no one he knew had any sympathy whatsoever for Li Zhuang.  "So how do people feel about the crackdown on gangsters?" "All support it of course," he said. He went on to say public security and social order have improved since the crackdown began. As an example, he mentioned a friend's private clinic that he helped to set up. Before the crackdown, the clinic was extorted by gangsters for "protection fees," but those gangsters have disappeared now. He expressed surprise when I mentioned broad sympathy for Li Zhuang outside of Chongqing. "People here don't have good impressions of lawyers in general," he said. "Lawyers care only about money. Who pays more, is who they help."

Personally, I didn't think Li Zhuang's trial and sentence made a lot of sense. The arrest was too hurried and the evidence was weak. It does not bode well for Bo Xilai's image. Realistically, given the lack of judicial independence in China, I did not expect a fair trial. A judge "within the system," no matter how good he is, can't turn the system around overnight. But limiting the harm to society is still possible. Before Li's sentencing on Jan. 8th, I'd thought there might be a practical way out for the local court, that is, it could deliver a guilty verdict without jail time. I was disappointed, and I thought the judge missed the chance to become a "hero" of some sort.

Now in light of the local people's reaction opposite to what we read in media outside of Chongqing, I realized that the judge might not have merely chosen to be the government's gun. He might have felt that he was indeed doing the right thing for his people.

All this tells me that there is still a long, long way to go for China to become a truly "law-governed society," using the ironical title of the section in China Youth Daily where the first (and biased) report on the Li Zhuang case appeared.

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