Sunday, December 7, 2008

Street justice in Fujian

Street Justice in Fujian

by Jonathan Adams
Far Eastern Economic Review, "Author's Corner"
November 14, 2008

XIAMEN, CHINA — The timing was impeccable. I had just walked out of my hotel to Zhongshan Road, in the waterfront tourist district, to find lunch.

In front of me, a crowd—maybe 30 people—had gathered around an irate couple on the pedestrian shopping boulevard. The middle-aged couple were holding signs and ranting. I couldn’t make out everything on the signs, but gathered they were railing against the government and the police.

This can’t end well, I thought.

I asked one of the bystanders what the couple was so mad about. “They say the police took their daughter, and won’t release her,” the woman said. “The man says his mother killed herself because of the situation, and he blames the police.”

The couple was clutching several papers, which they showed to the crowd while keeping up a steady patter of complaint. “They say the police promised to give their daughter back, but they haven’t,” the woman explained. The crowd got bigger.

A man appeared, telling the bystanders to disperse. Black polo shirt with striped collar, nice pants, crew cut, hard beady stare: plainclothes cop. One of millions across China who come out of the woodwork at the first sign of any public disturbance. This agitated the couple even more.

“Ni shi shei? Ni shi shei?” [“Who are you?”], they screamed at him, demanding identification.

The cop ignored them.

I loitered, talking to the hotel worker, like everyone else curious to see how this would end.

A police car sped to the scene, screeched to a halt. A tall, bespectacled man in camouflage got out of the passenger side, a uniformed cop out the other. They joined the plainclothes cop in urging the crowd—about 50 by now—to disperse. To no avail.

Onlookers would shrink back when approached, then flood back in as soon as the cops turned their back. The couple began yelling at the other cops too, and shoving papers in their faces.

Bystanders inspected the papers, like an impromptu jury evaluating the evidence. None of the cops engaged the couple.

This went on for quite some time. More cops came. They put up a red-band partition—like one you’d see in an airport waiting line—to keep space between the angry couple and the crowd. Another cop began filming the crowd, myself likely included, with a hand-cam.

Like others, I began to get bored. “Why don’t the cops just take the couple away?” I asked the hotel worker. “They don’t dare do that. There’s too many people here,” she said. At one point, the couple spotted a young man with a television camera. The wife ran after him, trying to get him to come back and film the scene. The young man wasn’t interested.

Back turned, carrying his camera, he walked down Zhongshan Road away from the scene. As did I, not long after.

When I came back after lunch about 30 minutes later, everyone—the couple, the cops and the crowd—was gone. It was an everyday occurrence in China, where cops and local officials enjoy immunity, courts are in the Chinese Communist Party’s pocket, and the media’s too afraid to roll film.

And so, in sleek, modern Xiamen of 2008 -- as in a Chinese village hundreds of years ago, I imagined -- a desperate couple with little left to lose takes their appeal directly to the people. There was no-one else for them to turn to.

Of course, there was no way for me, or the crowd, to evaluate this particular couple’s claims.

Regardless, there’s a larger point. The biggest -- and perhaps fatal -- flaw with Chinese Communist Party rule is not a lack of electoral democracy. Rather, it’s the absence of the rule of law. More specifically, it’s the systemic injustice of a nation whose government wields the “law” like a club, to stifle dissent and silence its critics.

The crowd I saw in Xiamen was relatively mild-mannered. They dispersed quickly. But across China, crowds like this are pouncing on some injustice or another, and often turning violent. What such crowds usually demand is not elections, but justice. And since China’s sham courts provide little help, the result is often mob justice.

Sometimes mob justice is effective -— as in Xiamen itself last year, where street protests organized by text message forced local officials to scotch plans for a chemical plant near a residential area. But surely this isn’t a sustainable way for China’s leaders to address grievances.

Does this mean China must embrace democracy, or collapse?

No. China can and likely will remain undemocratic; perhaps, over the next few decades, becoming something akin to a Singapore of 1.4 billion people.

The real question is, how long will the Chinese people tolerate a government that’s above the law?

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