Orwell has arrived: China’s surveillance of social media

China’s cyber monitoring leaves little room for free expression even among small groups.

Eva Dou of the Wall Street Journal has a great report on “Jailed for a Text: China’s Censors Are Spying on Mobile Chat Groups.” It is worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for the insights it gives into contemporary China and its legal system. It illustrates the currently enhanced degree of repression and the impact it has on ordinary citizens. Orwell has arrived. The increasingly smooth integration of China’s cyber monitoring systems, its various police organizations, its “Justice” Ministry, its prosecutors and its judges – no small feat – now leaves little room for free expression even among small groups.

Of course, as Mr. Chen, the protagonist in Eva Dou’s story, discovered, one is really tempting punishment by joking on WeChat about one of the most powerful officials in China, Mr. Meng Jianzhu, who had served as chief of the Ministry of Public Security before becoming czar of the Party’s all-powerful Political-Legal Commission that controls and coordinates all the institutions that comprise the legal system.

This story has so many implications. It shows how many intelligent, ambitious Chinese who have improved their lives under the Communist system have gradually awakened to its methods and costs and come to question and even modestly challenge it. The story also illustrates the fate that many challengers, and the lawyers who are asked to help them, quickly suffer.

Large numbers of Chinese like Mr. Wang are nagged by a sense of injustice that is universal, no matter what Xi Jinping preaches, and become petitioners who find no relief in the system. Many lawyers who have never thought of themselves as human rights advocates nevertheless become drawn into situations that make them feel compelled to vindicate the lawyer’s obligations and then are disbarred and often arbitrarily detained, criminally punished and then eternally harassed after serving their formal jail terms.

Even Mo Shaoping, a lawyer brave enough to have signed Charter 2008, whose prominence as China’s most famous human rights lawyer has allowed him more continuing scope for courageous defense than many other colleagues, has now lost his WeChat account. This is a warning shot across the bow from the Party, which has long restricted his professional activities without risking the domestic and foreign condemnation that his detention would incur.

Of course, if the draft law to formally establish the National Supervisory Commission is enacted next March, it will be even easier for the Party to detain rights activists, including lawyers, without having to violate the country’s laws that are now so blatantly ignored or distorted.

Support silent supporters of the rule of law in China

Human Rights lawyer Teng Biao, Photo credit: May Tse/South China Morning Post

Human Rights lawyer Teng Biao, Photo credit: May Tse/South China Morning Post

Here is a stimulating op-ed by Chinese law scholar and activist Teng Biao. I hope US funders, public and private, will take it into account. I believe, after giving due regard to Teng Biao’s admonition against funding the oppressors, funders should continue to support those non-Chinese institutions that do not pull their punches in studying and reporting on legal developments in China while also continuing to conduct legal and human rights education of not only Chinese lawyers but also Chinese judges, prosecutors, justice officials and even police.

The point that needs greater recognition here is that hundreds of thousands of legal specialists in China are extremely unhappy with Xi Jinping’s oppressive policies, policies that they feel forced to live with and practice while awaiting a less repressive regime and the renewal of true legal reforms. At a time when they are being ordered to reject universal human rights values, we should not abandon these silent supporters of the rule of law, but should keep up contacts and professional nourishment that will sustain them until a better day dawns.

Years ago, the late Senator Arlen Specter asked me to emphasize this point in a letter to then House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi, recalling the importance of foreign funded legal education and training given to officials of the Chiang Kaishek dictatorship in Taiwan and the Park Choon-Hee dictatorship in South Korea. Those efforts paid rich dividends when political circumstances permitted legal liberalization. Indeed, they helped fuel legal officials’ opposition to dictatorship, as occurred when Taiwan prosecutors and judges rebelled against their masters and successfully established their independence of political interference.

The U.S. Congress, other countries and private foundations should also fund basic research on the many complex aspects of the evolving Chinese legal system, not only education and training in China but also efforts to enhance foreign understanding of both contemporary events and the country’s political-legal culture.

In addition, there is a great need to fund the support and activities of the increasing number of Chinese refugee lawyers, law professors and human rights activists who, like Professor Teng, are turning up outside China as a result of the terrible situation they confront in China.

Finally, in fairness to the America Bar Association, we should note that, after long internal debate spawned by external criticisms, it has decided to establish an international human rights award and next week at its annual meeting in San Francisco this new award will be bestowed, in absentia, on another of China’s courageous human rights lawyers, Ms. WANG Yu, who, sadly, is jailed in China and awaiting criminal conviction and a long prison sentence. 

More Questions on the American Bar Association Story: Who in Washington Ordered the ABA’s Book Publishing Unit to Rescind the Offer to Teng Biao?

By Jerome A. Cohen

The report by Isaac Stone Fish in Foreign Policy, “Leaked Email: ABA Cancels Book for Fear of ‘Upsetting the Chinese Government’,” which I wrote about earlier this week here, has finally stimulated the beginnings of an ABA response.

An email from Jen Leung, the Country Director of the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative China Program, on the China Law Listserv makes it clear that the Beijing office of the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) had no knowledge that some people in Washington headquarters, where ROLI’s central office is located, reportedly influenced the ABA’s book arm to rescind its offer to Teng Biao. The email implies that ROLI’s central office in Washington, which directs its Beijing office and has fought vigorously and successfully to maintain the valuable work its Beijing staff is doing, also was unaware of the ABA’s book offer to Teng.

Presumably this will be confirmed by either the ABA’s internal investigation or further journalistic efforts. Whatever the outcome of that specific inquiry, however, it is clear that, despite the ABA’s belated and pathetic attempt to deny the reason its employee originally gave for its embarrassing change of mind, there is nothing fictional about the Foreign Policy story. What we don’t yet know is who in Washington ordered the book publishing unit to rescind the offer.

To its credit, another wing of the ABA, the ABA Journal, has published three articles reporting on the Chinese Government’s current repression of lawyers, and, under the leadership of the highly respected sociologist of law Terry Halliday, the American Bar Foundation has done important research on the plight of those Chinese lawyers courageous enough to try to defend human rights. So perhaps there are advantages as well as disadvantages to the ABA’s lack of efficiency regarding its China policy!

It will be interesting to see whether this important fuss leads to a debate during the annual meeting of the ABA House of Delegates this summer. Surely some outstanding ABA members would like to take part.

China’s miraculous recent efforts to reform people into “socialist new men”!

Photo: Voice of America, January 2016

Photo: Voice of America, January 2016

Lee Bo, one of the Hong Kong Publishing Five whose disappearances last year have been widely reported, now says he will never publish banned books again.

Let’s try to look at the possible bright side to the PRC’s recent successful attempts to insult our intelligence and challenge our credulity. One of the more idealistic aspects of the Bolshevik Revolution was the honest aspiration of Lenin’s first Minister of Justice to create a new, truly revolutionary system of punishment that would transform criminals into “new socialist men”. Chairman Mao’s first decade in national power prominently featured a similar goal, one that gradually, almost imperceptibly, yielded to the reality that it is easier for governments to kill people than transform them.

But is it now possible that Xi Jinping has outdone his much-admired Helmsman by miraculously transforming, in jig time, the Hong Kong Publishing Five and other alleged offenders who have recently confessed their sins in public, even without being prosecuted, not to mention convicted? By the time we mark the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution next year, will there be further evidence that it has belatedly achieved one of its most ambitious goals?  

Foreign China Specialists and Self-Censorship

By Jerome A. Cohen

Here is an interesting essay by  Jeffrey Wasserstrom – “Why aren’t you banned yet,” a fine example of the complexities most of us puzzle through in trying to remain honest critics. Given my age, reluctance to travel and principal research agenda (my memoirs), I am, as lawyers like to say, an “a fortiori” case of the foreign China specialist who expresses unfettered opinions on the assumption that “it’s now or never”!

I am reminded, however, of the day in Wuhan, about a dozen years ago while taking part in a conference, when that very good Law School’s Party secretary unexpectedly asked me to do an additional speech to the school plus a large group of local lawyers. I said I would if I could choose the topic. The secretary – a dynamic, middle aged woman professor of criminal law whom I did not know well – readily assented, and I chose abolition of “reeducation through labor” (RETL), which I thought was a bold choice that would test my host. Out of deference to the host, whom I did not want to get into trouble, I called for systematic but gradual elimination of RETL rather than its immediate abolition. To my surprise and embarrassment, comments from both the lawyers and students in the audience made it clear that they thought I was being too conservative and that RETL had to go immediately! Of course, although RETL was finally abolished a couple of years ago – at least in name, today’s political climate in Xi Jinping’s China could not be so openly receptive to limiting the arbitrary power of the police to detain, which unfortunately persists.

Wasn’t it TS Eliot who wrote: ”Teach us to care and not to care”? I always wondered what he meant.