Rise of Rights?

Below is an article I wrote for Dangerous Assignments, the magazine of the Committee to Protect Journalists:

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The Rise of Rights?

In Guangzhou case, weiquan advocates find success is tempered by harsh reality.

Sun Zhigang, a young graphic designer from Hubei Province, was arrested on the streets of Guangzhou in March 2003 for not carrying a required registration permit. Police brought him to a “custody and repatriation” center, one of the hundreds of detention facilities run by local governments to control migrant populations. Three days later, Sun was dead.

Reporters from Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolis News), an aggressive daily run by groundbreaking editor Cheng Yizhong, soon discovered an official autopsy report that found Sun had been beaten to death in custody. Though well aware that a story on the autopsy would infuriate local officials, Cheng gave the go-ahead to publish it anyway. The article touched off a national scandal that led to important government reforms. But true to the nature of contemporary Chinese society”where emerging free-market forces regularly collide with authoritarian traditions”it also landed Cheng and three colleagues in prison.

The ensuing court battle became a prominent example of an emerging movement in China known as weiquan in which lawyers and legal scholars are more assertively defending the constitutional rights of individuals, including journalists, in court. The defense in the Nanfang Dushi Bao ultimately won the release of Cheng and another defendant and secured shorter prison terms for the others. But weiquan’s gains are modest thus far”and the government has shown only the most limited tolerance for its goals.

“The emergence and development of the weiquan movement reflects the awakening and ongoing maturation of Chinese civil society,” says Zhang Weiguo, a former journalist in China who now runs the New Century Net Web site, which has covered many recent weiquan cases. “Journalists and lawyers from all over the country took on the Nanfang Dushi Bao case as an example of weiquan and that had a big influence on the outcome.”

Immediately after Nanfang Dushi Bao broke the Sun story on April 25, 2003, newspapers and Web sites throughout China republished the account, chat rooms and bulletin boards exploded with outrage, and legal experts intensified calls for the abolition of the abuse-ridden “custody and repatriation” centers. In June 2003, the central government announced that all of the more than 800 centers would be closed. Six police officers and officials were jailed for their role in Sun’s death.

The positive outcome was a rare example of the Chinese media and public opinion exerting powerful influence over society. But local governments, which control all local media, including Nanfang Dushi Bao, wield considerable power in China”and, within a year, Cheng and three other top officials from the paper were behind bars.

In late 2003, local authorities in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, China’s richest province, began investigating the finances of the newspaper. Journalists’ salaries in China are notoriously low, and like many media organizations in China today, the paper had a practice of rewarding good journalists with generous bonuses. In December 2003, general manager Yu Huafeng was arrested on suspicion of corruption for transferring 580,000 renminbi (US $70,000) from the advertising department to members of the editorial committee.

On March 19, 2004, Yu was convicted of corruption and embezzling public funds and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Li Minying, an official with the Southern Daily Group, the paper’s parent company, was sentenced to 11 years for allegedly accepting a bribe from Yu. The same day, Cheng was arrested while on a trip to Sichuan Province. Police searched his house and confiscated a number of political books and magazines. Vice Editor Deng Haiyan was also arrested.

The arrests of the top management at one of the country’s most popular and profitable newspapers sent shock waves through the journalism community in China. A former editor at another popular Guangzhou-based newspaper, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, called the arrests “the most serious blow to the Chinese media in the last decade.”

For many, Nanfang Dushi Bao represented the new face of the media in China. Launched by the Southern Daily Group as a profit-generating tabloid partner to their staid mainstay, Nafang Ribao (Southern Daily), the paper had a circulation of 1.4 million and $20 million in profits in 2003. Cheng was widely respected in the journalism community for his pioneering approach, which featured tabloid-style reports on sports and entertainment combined with muckraking investigations into local officialdom.

Moreover, the evidence of corruption presented in the case was unconvincing to many observers. The activities that had put Yu, Li, Deng, and Cheng under suspicion were common practice in newsrooms around the country, including China Central Television, the central government’s own broadcasting arm, several Chinese journalists told CPJ. Many journalists knew the arrests likely were local officials’ retaliation for the paper’s coverage of Sun’s case”along with its reporting on the resurgence of SARS in the province and other sensitive political topics.

In response, journalists launched an unprecedented campaign to win the release of their colleagues. They signed petitions on the Internet, wrote letters to the management of the Southern Daily Group, and protested to local authorities.

Lawyer Xu Zhiyong, an advocate for legal reforms who has taken on a number of politically sensitive cases, agreed to defend the Nanfang Dushi Bao journalists. Xu had been among a group of lawyers who successfully petitioned the government for the abolition of the “custody and repatriation” centers following Sun’s death.

Xu became one of the strongest public advocates for the journalists, helping establish a Web site, the Open Constitutional Initiative, which posted important documents about the case along with articles by legal scholars calling for their release. He held a public conference in Beijing that discussed the case and explained the defense arguments.

Like-minded lawyers pointed to the case as an example of China’s failure to reform into a country ruled by law. Specifically, they cited a constitutional amendment adopted by the National People’s Congress in 2004 that protects private property. They argued that since the money that Yu had disbursed was taken from the paper’s advertising revenue, it could not be counted as “public funds” even though Southern Daily Group, the parent company, was a state-owned corporation. In a document sent to local officials in Guangdong, several well-known legal scholars said the charges against the journalists “don’t go with the facts, don’t fit the law, and are not valid.”

While such outspokenness is often dangerous in China, where the government views any political dissent as a hostile act, these lawyers were partially empowered by the growing weiquan”"defend rights”" movement. The concept of weiquan has helped define a growing consciousness of constitutional rights among scholars, lawyers, dissidents, and others. Their demands for the rule of law, most often expressed in online forums, have largely escaped official censure because they often address issues falling within the government’s own evolving policies”such as legal reform, anticorruption efforts, and the movement against “custody and repatriation” centers.

“In human rights cases that are not too sensitive, public scrutiny falls within the gray areas of what is legal,” the Beijing-based writer Liu Xiaobo said in a recent essay. “The people’s wisdom is good at using this ambiguity to create a space to advance their own interests.”

Nevertheless, the lines demarcating politically acceptable speech in China are often blurry, and the government has begun to rein in some of these public activities. On November 25, 2004, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, published an attack on so-called public intellectuals, or scholars, including journalists and lawyers, who take on a public role in civic life.

“All this talk about the intellectuals speaking up for the downtrodden is ridiculous and smacks of the ‘hero’ or ‘elite’ view of history,” wrote the author, Ji Fangping. “The main characters in history are not the intellectuals but the broad masses of the people.”

And, as CPJ reported in March 2005, Shanghai authorities suspended the law license of Guo Guoting, a lawyer who has defended several imprisoned journalists, dissidents, and Falun Gong supporters. The suspension notice cited articles Guo had posted online that criticized the Communist Party, but Guo told CPJ he believed that the suspension was due to his legal defense of cases involving free expression.

In the weiquan movement, each modest success is tempered by harsh reality”and the Nanfang Dushi Bao case illustrates the point well. Following an appeal on June 7, 2004, the sentences of Li and Yu were reduced to six and eight years, respectively. The day of the appeal trial, authorities closed the Open Constitutional Web site, providing no reason.

Two months later, both Cheng and Deng were released from prison without charge. Cheng was expelled from the Communist Party and was assigned an administrative post at the Southern Daily Group.

Many in China credit the unprecedented public support that the journalists received for Cheng and Deng’s release and the reduction in Li and Yu’s sentences. Yet Yu and Li remain in prison, and their families are losing hope that their sentences might be overturned on appeal. Cheng is free, but his journalism career is effectively over.

Yu’s wife, Xiang Li, said the lawyers and legal scholars who petitioned local officials for her husband’s release have received no reply from authorities. “But, from another perspective, couldn’t the release of Cheng Yizhong and Deng Haiyan be considered a direct response?” she asked, seeming to take some consolation in that result.

Xiang vows to press on. She says she will continue to appeal Yu’s sentence “until the court declares Yu Huafeng innocent, until they return justice to us, and to the law.” Yet she, the journalists, their lawyers, and others fighting for the right to free expression in China clearly have a long and arduous road ahead. “In China, supervision by the media can only proceed within the existing system,” Cheng said in an interview published before his arrest. “Freedom means knowing how big your cage is.”

Sophie Beach is an editor of the China Digital Times Web log and a former senior research associate for CPJ’s Asia program. She led a CPJ mission to Guangdong in 2004.