Weibo Comments Provide Chorus For Show Trial

When rights activist and former lawyer Jiang Tianyong stood trial for inciting subversion last week, his U.S.-based wife Jin Bianling described the proceedings as following a "choreographed script." Jiang’s lines, in which he confessed to smearing the judicial system and spreading rumors under foreign instigation, are suspected to have been written for him, while his lawyers appear to have been cast by the government. The set was kept clear of his friends and supporters, but the show was selectively broadcast on to give the appearance of openness, and as an apparent warning to Jiang’s colleagues and sympathizers.

This was not Jiang’s first public appearance since his detention: in March, he appeared on state TV, again under suspected coercion, confessing to having helped fabricate graphic torture accounts from detained rights lawyer Xie Yang. Jiang is also believed to have been tortured while awaiting . In a statement last week, Germany’s ambassador to China Michael Clauss said that:

We are concerned that was not allowed access to his own chosen lawyers during the proceedings, and that they were prejudiced before they began by a "confession" broadcast in Chinese media. A fair trial is impossible under these circumstances. We appeal to Chinese institutions to carry out the process in accordance with the principle of rule of law and in compliance with relevant UN agreements, and to adhere to the Chinese leadership’s stated aim of strengthening rule of law. [German]

Amnesty International’s William Nee told AFP that the trial was a "sham" which "epitomizes many of the worrying aspects of the lawyers’ crackdown," including "harassment of family members, not letting the accused access their lawyer, prosecution based on charges that don’t comply with international standards, blocking the public from attending, all while presenting the trial as real on social media." Human Rights Watch’s Sophie Richardson also commented on the theatrics surrounding the trial, and the applause it received online:

The trial was indeed a “performance.” When it was underway, video clips of the proceedings were posted on the court’s official Weibo account, under which hundreds of comments quickly appeared praising the court for its fairness and . But when one of Jiang’s supporters posted a comment urging his release, the post was quickly deleted.

Four days before the trial began, Henan police detained Jiang’s parents as they traveled to visit relatives, and held them incommunicado. Unexpectedly, the court’s Weibo account showed a photo of Jiang’s father listening carefully to the trial. A comment questioning the parents’ disappearance also vanished soon after it was posted. [Source]

As CDT Chinese editors noted, many of the comments supporting the trial appeared to have been orchestrated, posted either by organized human commenters, paid or otherwise, or by bots. Many came from accounts using the default naming format "User," such as @用户6263905065, @用户6263914653, and @用户6267043508. (Each of these three accounts has since been wiped clean.) Others displayed unusual behavior like posting high volumes of often repetitive comments. While Germany’s Clauss condemned the earlier broadcast as an impediment to , commenters greeted the new ones as a demonstration of it, praising the court’s transparency, fairness, impartiality, and protection of Jiang’s rights:

MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): The Xie Yang case, the Liu Xing case … he’s sure been involved in a lot of cases.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): Lawyers who rely on their professional abilities to commit crimes should be punished even more severely.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): As a lawyer, he of all people should have known and understood the law.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): Crack down hard on those who make up lies to subvert state power.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): As it turns out, his professional legal qualifications were revoked long ago, and still he went around posing as a lawyer.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): This cases also serves as a warning: you cannot use your social status to commit reckless deeds.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): Admit your crimes and accept your punishment.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): Subverting state power must be punished.
MuCiXinShi (@穆此心时): Why must you insist on standing trial before you come to terms with your own crimes?

SaibeiWeige (@塞北伟哥): Any actions that harm the national interest will ultimately be met with severe punishment under the law.
SaibeiWeige (@塞北伟哥): Servants of the law should set an example by proactively upholding the authority of the law.
SaibeiWeige (@塞北伟哥): The facts of the case are crystal clear and the evidence abundant. I applaud the court’s fair and just decision.

JianjianDandanshi (@简简丹丹shi): Impartial administration of justice, and faith in the law.
JianjianDandanshi (@简简丹丹shi): I applaud the openness of this trial!
JianjianDandanshi (@简简丹丹shi): I applaud this trial’s openness!
JianjianDandanshi (@简简丹丹shi): Support the law, make public!
JianjianDandanshi (@简简丹丹shi): I applaud the law and the court for this trial’s openness!
JianjianDandanshi (@简简丹丹shi): This kind of transparent and open trial demonstrates the law’s fairness and impartiality
JianjianDandanshi (@简简丹丹shi): Trust in the law’s fairness and impartiality!

Morouqiu (@尛肉球): A livestreamed trial, and fair administration of justice. I approve!
Morouqiu (@尛肉球): I applaud the court’s openness and transparency.
Morouqiu (@尛肉球): This open, fair, and impartial outcome gives the people the best law.
Morouqiu (@尛肉球): The court heard the case in accordance with the law, transparency, and impartiality; the defendants right to defense and procedural rights were safeguarded in accordance with the law, and the judicial organs gave ample protection to his legal rights and interests.
Morouqiu (@尛肉球): In the current state of highly developed construction of rule of law, the administration of justice is even more transparent and open, and the defendant’s proper legal rights are given a high level of protection.

HouSaiLeiBangbangda (@猴赛雷棒棒哒): A hearing streamed to the public direct from the scene lets us see how open and fair it is!
HouSaiLeiBangbangda (@猴赛雷棒棒哒): Judicial fairness is continuously improving against a backdrop of wider justice reform.
HouSaiLeiBangbangda (@猴赛雷棒棒哒): The court protected the defendant’s legal rights and interests. Fair, impartial, and open. [Chinese]

A number of verified accounts expressed similar opinions in the comments. Many had some degree of official affiliation. FenwaiTaohua (@分外桃花), a registered Network Safety volunteer commented that "no country would forgive actions that subvert state power!" WenSiXiuKe2013 (@文四朽客2013), a staff member for the deputy director of the Shanxi People’s Court, posted that "streaming the hearing is not only a requirement of judicial openness, but it’s great publicity for the . Let the facts speak for themselves!"

The performance surrounding Jiang’s trial somewhat resembles that around fellow rights lawyer ’s in December 2015. Posts supporting Pu were quickly swarmed by apparent bots. In some cases, their comments were numbered, suggesting that they were taken from a pre-prepared list. Users discovered that certain keywords like "pu志强," a part-romanized rendering of Pu’s name, could be used to summon the bots.

8. We netizens must combine forces, and not make any statements that violate the law.
23. I hope that everyone will safeguard order on the Internet and punish illegal online activity.
43. I support the use of legal crackdowns on Internet lowlifes. Let’s purify the atmosphere online.
55. Let nobody harbor the delusion that just because you’ve go the support of the Western powers means you can escape punishment for breaking the laws of China!
58. Let’s keep a close eye on the Internet, so that people like Pu Zhiqiang don’t have anywhere to hide!
96. Pu Zhiqiang’s case has been publicly tried as a warning to others!
99. The court’s guilty verdict on the Pu Zhiqiang case is correct, and the penalty is fitting. It is fair and reasonable.
103. Since there is sufficient evidence in Pu Zhiqiang’s case, the judgment is reasonable and justified.”