Sunday, July 14, 2013

Corruption and the death penalty in China

Last week China’s new anti-corruption campaign made an illustrious victim. Liu Zhijun, who used to be China’s Minister of Railways, received that strange Chinese form of sentencing which exists nowhere else in the world: the death penalty with a two year reprieve. When this happens, the sentence is usually commuted to life imprisonment after two years.

The court found that during the course of his career Liu Zhijun helped eleven people to receive promotions and contracts, and got a total of 64.6 million Yuan (about 10 million dollars) in bribes from them in return. As well as the death penalty with a two year reprieve, Liu was also given a 10 year prison sentence for abuse of power, and his personal property was confiscated.

In China corruption is punishable with the death penalty if the sums acquired illegally go beyond a certain threshold, which in this case was abundantly passed. However, in view of the fact that Liu readily confessed to all of his crimes including ones which were unknown to investigators, and that most of the stolen assets were recovered, it was decided to be “lenient” and hand down a suspended death sentence.

What I find rather unsettling is the reaction of many ordinary Chinese to the case, which I gathered both from my discussions with colleagues and acquaintances and from comments I have seen on Weibo (China’s Facebook). Basically, most people’s feeling seems to be that the guy should have gotten the death penalty without a reprieve, and been executed for real.

This was certainly the opinion of two of my Chinese colleagues with whom I discussed the issue on the bus yesterday. They claimed that corrupt officials who get a two year reprieve sentence end up being released after ten or fifteen years, after which they can take off abroad and enjoy their wealth. When I argued that his property had been confiscated, they claimed that he was bound to have more money which hadn’t been found, and had probably already bought a house in the US.

This is an argument which I have already heard before. Corrupt officials who are condemned to death with a two year reprieve are then released after “only” a decade or so, and can enjoy their ill-gotten gains. It’s almost as if they weren’t punished at all! When I told my two colleagues that in a European country the guy might have received no more than ten years in prison from the start, they were very surprised (even though one of them actually studied in France for some years).

When I said that I thought a decade in prison is a heavy enough punishment for corruption, they were disdainful. They pointed out that Liu Zhijun’s crimes might have been responsible for the terrible Wenzhou high speed railway crash in 2011, where people lost their lives. I argued that killing people indirectly is not the same as killing them directly, but this argument didn’t go very far with them. Other Chinese I have spoken with have expressed similar views.

Then on Weibo minor internet celebrity Yanhua Meimei, better known for the sexy photos of herself which she often releases online, posted a comment on the case. It reads: “In the end Liu Zhijun had his wish not to die fulfilled. The former Railway Minister Liu Zhijun was condemned in the fist instance to the death penalty with a two year reprieve, and not all his personal assets have been recovered. The death penalty with a reprieve is perhaps the form of death penalty which most deceives the ordinary people in the whole world.” Under her post there were dozens of comments, many (but not all) supporting her view that the guy should have gotten the actual death penalty.

It is common for ordinary Chinese people to feel annoyed if important corrupt officials who are caught don’t face the death penalty. This may seem extreme and cruel in European eyes, but it must be remembered that this is a country where a number of crimes are punishable with the death penalty, including serious cases of drug trafficking.

If powerful officials don’t get executed even though the amount they have stolen is big enough to warrant the death penalty, then people feel that they are getting off the hook just because they are government officials, in contrast to ordinary people and even corrupt businessmen.  After all when some poor sod with no connections gets caught trafficking drugs to make enough money for their father’s operation, they will get the death penalty with no reprieve. Why should it be different for important politicians, goes the reasoning?

This issue came to the fore again last Friday, when Zeng Chengjie, a pyramid schemer from Hunan province, was executed for his frauds. The execution took place without his family even being notified of the exact date or getting to see him for the last time, something which is no longer legal in theory. Zeng Chengjie's daughter opened a Weibo account to protest his sentence, and then dramatically announced on Friday that she had just found out that her father had been executed.

In the days before the execution, she had often protested that while Liu Zhijun got a suspended death sentence "because he is a government official", her poor father got an actual death sentence for being just a businessman. Her Weibo account has not been censored or deleted up to now, perhaps because of the fuss it generated.

Personally I am and remain opposed to the death penalty for any kind of crime. I don’t think it can be justified because “there are too many people in China, and we have to keep order”, like many Chinese would tell you. I realize that the death penalty is being implemented less and less in China, and that the way of implementing it has also become more civilized (although the way this Zeng Chengjie was put to death seems like a real step backwards). I am also quite aware that public hangings used to take place in my own country not that long ago.

All the same, the ease with which much of the Chinese public can demand the death penalty for people who haven’t even murdered anyone still unsettles me. I suppose this is the result of living in a country where it is a normal form of sentencing, and of anger at the unfairness when only non-influential people get executed. I hope that one day it dawns on the Chinese public that abolishing the death penalty all round is the real solution, and that it is neither a necessary nor a humane way of dealing with crime.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Student writes a biting denounciation of China's injustice in his Gaokao essay, and gets a zero.

A few weeks ago millions (literally millions) of Chinese teenagers took the Gaokao, the national university-entrance exam, and now their scores are in.

Every year, after the exams have been marked, essays which received either full marks or a zero are published or leaked to the public. This year a particular essay from a test-taker in Sichuan Province which received a zero has been doing the rounds on the internet, inspiring both amusement and admiration. The topic of the essay was supposed to be "Chinese style justice (or fairness)", 中国式平衡 in Chinese.

The young test-taker, obviously not even hoping to pass the exam, took the chance to write a denounciation of all the unfairness in Chinese society. Personally I think it is a scandal that the essay got a zero. It was on topic, and for that alone it should at least get some points by any standard. If it were me, I would have recommended this young man for one of China's top universities. What China needs is more of this kind of people.

The essay makes references to a lot of recently occured scandals in China. I have added links where possible. Here is an English translation of the essay:

Chinese Style Justice

According to the media, the last decade has seen the price of real estate increase twenty-fold. When all the young who have dreams cannot even lift their heads because they are crushed by the prices of apartments, where is justice? The common rabble’s monthly salary is enough to buy only half a square meter of real estate a month, while any one of “Brother Watch‘s” watches costs tens of thousands of kuai—and “Brother Watch” even says he has dozens of watches like these. Brother Watch even says he also has so many apartments in Beijing. Thus, my eyeballs almost popped out from their sockets [after reading this essay prompt].

Fortunately, then there came a “Sister House”, who with her actions told “Brother Watch”: You’re nothing, kiddo! After all, it was all over the news that “Sister House” has dozens of apartments in Beijing, plus four household registry booklets. Those booklets are real, and she even has four citizen identification numbers [four official valid identities]. This time my eyes actually fell out of their sockets, and it took me a while to put them back in their place. Apparently, the so-called “relevant authorities” had nothing to say about this seeming abnormality. No one was held responsible, and no one ran into trouble. Suddenly, I felt “justice.”
When the second-generation rich drive their sports cars, flowers in hand, into school campuses chasing after chicks, when the exhaust of the sports car roars and blows into my face, I think, why isn’t my dad Li Gang? This kind of cynicism spread through my body, and made me dispirited and downcast. But then, the feats of Guo Meimei reinvigorated me. When there isn’t a biological father to rely on, there’s always someone called a “godfather” ["sugar daddy"]. Unfortunately, godfathers don’t take on godsons.

When the Chinese Red Cross, the symbol of helping those in need, couldn’t explain all the discrepancies in their accounting books, when Guo Meimei flaunted her luxury accessories, when people began criticizing and blaming Guo Meimei, Meimei told them, “Sister [referring to herself] has 17.4 GB of video.” Suddenly, the leaders of the Red Cross quickly declared, “no one said anything at all!” Guo Meimei acted to protect her personal interests, displaying the noble qualities of a new generation of youth. With her snow-white thighs, she climbed again and again onto the highest award podiums of the Red Cross.

Justice? I’ve always wanted to live a just life; in a society where everyone’s equal, where the law reigns supreme, where the city management don’t beat the rabble, where school principals don’t check into hotel rooms with their students, where doctors focus on treating their patients. But I was born into this society, breathing highly polluted air, eating food that could kill you at any time, watching the director of some state tobacco bureau accumulating millions. I want to ask, do you see justice? Do you believe the Chinese Dream will ever be realized? It doesn’t matter if you believe it or not, either way I believe it.

When over ten thousand pigs collectively jumped into the Huangpu River, I realized that if I don’t believe in this “justice,” I’ll end up just like them. I’ve been waiting to live a “just” life, where the government officials are honest and do real work, where the businessmen run their businesses conscientiously, where the housing prices are not so ridiculously high, and where the people live in happiness and contentment.

There’s only a few minutes left before I have to turn in my test paper, and I already know my essay has pricked the test grader’s tiny little heart. Give me a zero then, my dear grader. I’m not scared, Sanlu milk powder didn’t kill me, so what more could a zero grade do? Don’t hesitate; scrawl down the grade, and then you can go play mahjong…
(Mahjong is China's most popular game, but it is often played for money, and thus the suggestion is that the examiner is going to go and gamble with his friends after marking the exam.)

If you can read Chinese, here is a link to the Chinese original.

The Gaokao is one of the toughest end of high school exams in the world, and only the students with the highest grades can get into university at all (although there is less pressure for students in Beijing or Shanghai, because of a system of regional differentiation widely seen as unfair). Students famously spend the year before the exam doing nothing but cramming for it.

As always, this year there have been a few cases of students committing suicide after (or before) hearing the results. Just the other day, after CCTV news reported on a suicide case, I saw the presenter inviting students not to think of their score in the exam as a life or death matter, and even quoting Lao Zi to reinforce the point. What a pity that Chinese society seems to give these young people exactly the opposite message much of the time.

Chinese students revising for the exam. On the blackboard it says "still 100 days left to the Gaokao"