Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Are Li Zhuang and the Chongqing Government Up to?

Like most, at first I was surprised that lawyer Li Zhuang opened his February 2 appeal hearing by admitting to the crime of fabricating evidence for his alleged gangster client.  Only a few weeks ago, Li had made a vehement and heroic proclamation that he was willing to exchange his freedom for progress in China's rule of law.  His unexpected admission of guilt shocked not only his numerous supporters (mostly people outside of Chongqing) and defense lawyers, but even the prosecutor.

Part of the initial confusion, though, came from a few media outlets' early reports that included Li's words for abolishing the reasons for his appeal but omitted any mention of his insistence on keeping the appeal. I wouldn't be surprised if this omission was intentional. It gave the false impression that Li Zhuang was withdrawing his appeal all together. The predictable consequence was that many of Li's supporters, who had made Li a sort of hero, got very upset by his "betrayal." 

However, as more complete coverage from independent media such as the Economic Observer appeared, it becomes evident that Li did not admit guilt genuinely, and that he tried to present obvious clues to that effect wherever he could. Here's a small example: at one point, when examined by the prosecutor on how he incited Gong Gangmo, his client, to fabricate evidence of torture, Li said he leaned over an iron bar and whispered into to Gong's ear. This is in complete contradiction to what Gong had told the court and CCTV, that Li gave him hints by "blinking his eyes."  Later, Li's defense lawyer asked a police guard whether there was an iron bar in that room, and the witness said "no." When it was Li Zhuang's turn to question one witness, he asked, "Now there are two versions of how the 'fabrication' took place, so which is true?"  Aha! He had created the 2nd version himself in order to ask this question. Though the witness evaded the question by answering "I don't know," Li fulfilled his purpose in revealing conflicting evidence.

Li Zhaung in court (photo from

I'm now convinced that Li was forced to admit quilt in exchange for a more favorable sentencing from the appeal court. In previous posts I said that the hurried arrest of Li Zhuang had actually put the Chongqing government on the defensive (in fact I would now say it's "riding a tiger and hard to get off" or "骑虎难下"), and that if the government wanted a less damaging way out they could declare Li guilty without giving him jail time. However the lower court that held the 1st trial missed the opportunity. I didn't expect that judge to be smart or courageous enough to do it anyway. But apparently now someone higher up is recognizing the damage and trying to find a ladder off the stage (or tiger back). 

As part of the strategy change, the court has allowed six witnesses to appear for the prosecutor, which is in sharp contrast to the first trial when there were none. Is this progress toward the rule of law? Not really. It shows the government's desire to please criticizers and prove its own legitimacy. I would have given them credit if they hadn't done things so stupidly, but in the court, the answers (or methods used to evade answering the defense questions) from all the witnesses were so uniform it points to a certain kind of training prior to the trial.  I'd say it's kind of the court's trying to outsmart itself (弄巧成拙). Without judicial independence, no strategy can really help.

Meanwhile, Wang Lijun, the current police head who is credited with carrying out Chongqing's crackdown on gangsters, and apparently also the strategist behind Li Zhuang's arrest,  gave a surprising interview to The Beijing News that appeared on Feb. 2, the day of Li Zhuang's 2nd trial and Wen Qiang's first trial. Wang said that the evaluation of his predecessor Wen Qiang, Chongqing's highest official involved in "organized crime," should respect history, and that Wen "has many merits, made many contributions." It's odd that such positive comments should appear on the day of two heavyweight trials. It looks more like an effort to show his (and the government's) objectiveness. Why the need for such a show?  Because the Li Zhuang case has brought pressures from the outside public for Chongqing to prove the legitimacy of its crackdown practice. Wang had never made a public speech about the crackdown. He couldn't (or was unwilling to) soften the accusations against Li Zhuang, so he said some good words about Wen Qiang instead.  The timing of this interview shows it's a retreat, a compromise, just like Li Zhuang's admission of guilt. In this case the two sides are trying to reach a solution in which the government loses less face and Li Zhuang gets less jail time.

Why would Li Zhuang accept such a deal if he's not actually guilty?  Well, why not? The Chinese have sayings like "A great man can bend or stretch" and "a wise man knows how not to take imminent trouble." History provides no shortage of examples from greater people.  No need to look too far: as recent as Deng Xiaoping, the helmsman of China's economic reform, who wrote not once but three times to Chairman Mao during the Cultural Revolution, to self-criticize, admit guilt in straying from Mao's revolutionary line, and promise that he would never ever try to turn the guilty verdict around. (Li Zhuang's promise to the court that he would never revoke his guilt admission certainly recalls Deng's story.)  Deng's strategy and persistence eventually worked, and Mao stopped his punishment. That's how Deng was able to turn China around later. Whether Deng had broken his integrity is anyone's take.  I will leave the question of whether China's economic success today justifies Deng's "bend" to historians, but personally, I would be more willing to say "yes" if Deng hadn't also shown his ability of "stretch" by giving the order to shoot students, something even Mao hadn't done.

There is a more well-known tale called "humiliation under crotch."  Han Xin was the greatest Han Dynasty general. When he was young, he once ran into a gang of local thugs on a bridge. The thugs teased him about his aspiration to become a general, and the thug's leader ordered Han Xin to choose between crawling under his crotch and being stabbed. Han Xin chose the former. He survived and, true to his wish, grew up to be one of the greatest generals in China's history. This tale of his youth has since become an admonition for Chinese man to take humiliation for a greater cause.

Li Zhuang might have accepted the humiliating deal for his family and his own freedom, not necessarily for a greater cause. If there is a wrong in this, it is more the government's than Li Zhuang's. It's truly sad that he had to go through this.

It's likely that Li Zhuang may get a reduced sentence. At this point, however, unless the court admits that the evidence against Li Zhuang is inadequate, there will be no gain for the government's image or credibility. Before Li Zhuang's case the crackdown in Chongqing had enjoyed almost universal praise, now the clamor for procedural justice is on the rise. This, is what's significant.  #

Related posts:

Lawyer's Trial in Chongqing Rivets Public and Tests Chinese Courts
The People vs. Li Zhuang (2009)
Fortune or Calamity? A Gift for Chongqing's Indicted Police Chief


Anonymous said...

Jesus you are becoming one hell of an investigative reporter. City news reporting used to be full of people like you, sharp and probing and nuanced in the ways of local politics; you well know by now the axiom "all politics is local", so I am trying to pay you the highest compliment possible.

Of course, I don't know how much of your writing is informed by other's writing and reporting, but even so, you are doing yeoman's work.

Do It To It! Jiayou~~~~~~

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hey, that's very kind of you. I actually have no formal training in either journalism or literary writing. Glad you liked it and thanks for the encouragement.

alfaeco said...

After reading about Han Xin and Deng in your post, I find it interesting to compare the event with Julius Caesar's attitude when he was capture by pirates.

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