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A protester holds a candle in front of an illustration of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang during a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 13, 2012. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)
A protester holds a candle in front of an illustration of Chinese dissident Li Wangyang during a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on June 13, 2012. (BOBBY YIP/REUTERS)

Chinese ‘netizens’ intervene where judges fail Add to ...

One of the most troubling legacies of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao’s 10 years in power in China is the culture of official impunity they’re leaving behind. They didn’t create the problem – the Communist Party has never held senior officials responsible for their roles in the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution or 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, to name two obvious examples – but they did little to dent it during their decade at the top.

Thankfully, the Internet – and specifically China’s wildly popular Weibo microblogging services – has rushed in to create a court of public opinion that now presides over cases that the country’s judiciary refuses to. And those public judgments are forcing government officials to reluctantly deal with cases they’d rather not.

Take two recent atrocities that in years past would have been discussed only in the foreign media, if at all. First came the suspicious death of Li Wangyang, a Tiananmen Square dissident that officials said hanged himself in his hospital room in southern Hunan province while under police supervision on June 6.

Mr. Li’s friends and relatives instinctively didn’t believe the story – days earlier he had told a Hong Kong television station that he would fight for democracy “even if I they cut off my head” – and put their case online, posting photos that showed that while the 62-year-old was found with a white cloth tied around his neck, his feet were still on the ground, making it highly unlikely he had strangled himself.

Police quickly cremated Mr. Li’s body without the family’s permission, but it was too late to completely destroy the evidence. Despite the usual heavy-handed effort to censor all discussion of the death, the photos Mr. Li’s family took rapidly reached a wide audience online, where other prominent dissidents posted statements promising they would never commit suicide.

“If I ever die in an unexpected way, it must have been arranged for me, this includes a car accident or drowning. Apart from this tyrannical regime, I have no enemy in this world. I hereby make this statement as proof,” economist Xia Yieliang posted on his Twitter account.

The case was seized upon by the media in Hong Kong – the only part of China where the Tiananmen massacre is publicly discussed – and thousands there took to the streets to demand an inquiry. On Thursday, officials in Hunan bowed to the pressure, announcing that there would be a new probe into Mr. Li’s death conducted by officials from outside the province.

This could mark something important and new: a fledgling sort of accountability in China, enforced by millions of online “netizens.”

Netizens have been impacting policymakers in China for years – their fury at official graft has driven the Communist Party’s off-and-on anti-corruption campaign, while their nationalism has arguably nudged Beijing towards a more assertive foreign policy. Now they’re challenging those who rule them in a way they didn’t dare before, asking questions and demanding answers about some of the most sensitive topics in the country.

In the midst of the outcry over Mr. Li’s death an unrelated and even more shocking case came to light. On June 2, hospital officials in central Shaanxi province seized Feng Jianmei, a 22-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant.

The baby would have been Ms. Feng’s second child, and her family couldn’t afford the 40,000-yuan (about $6,400) fine for breaking the China’s reviled one-child policy, so the officials forced her to take an injection that induced labour. Two days later, she delivered a baby that was dead on arrival.

Such tales are grimly common in China – the now-famous dissident Chen Guangcheng made his enemies trying to bring cases of forced abortions to light – but this time the family had tools that didn’t exist half a dozen years ago when Mr. Chen was initially trying to get the public’s attention.

A week after the forced abortion, Ms. Feng’s sister-in-law posted the photos of an exhausted woman lying in a hospital bed beside her dead baby, and let the public make its own judgment. The topic “ induced abortion of seven-month pregnancy “ rapidly became the most searched for term on Weibo.

Netizens were enraged, and the fury grew as others shared their personal stories of forced abortions caused by the one-child policy. “[This happened] because she couldn’t pay the 40,000 yuan fine for having a second child… May I ask, if she had the money, would she have been able to have the child? A 7-month-old life is not worth 40,000 RMB!” was one common sentiment posted on the popular 163.com web portal.

As the anger swelled, even state-controlled media that had vilified Mr. Chen as a foreign agent took up Ms. Feng’s case. “Fury over ‘forced abortion’” was the front-page headline in Thursday’s Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece that had studiously ignored the topic when Mr. Chen was trying to publicize it.

That same day, the head of Ms. Feng’s township, as well as the county and township family planning chiefs, were suspended from their posts pending an investigation. The local government issued a statement that said the abortion was a “ serious violation” of family-planning regulations and had an “extremely bad influence on society.” It apologized to Ms. Feng and her family, and vowed to stop late-term abortions.

Justice has yet to be fully served in either Mr. Li’s case or Ms. Feng’s, and there are plenty of reasons to doubt it ever will be. But the old culture of silence and cover-ups is slowly dissolving, faster than the Communist Party seems prepared for.

The next generation of Chinese leaders (headed by current vice-president Xi Jinping) that will soon inherit power from Mr. Hu and Mr. Wen need to quickly decide whether it will be they, or the increasingly assertive netizens on Weibo, who decide where China’s justice system goes from here.

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Follow on Twitter: @markmackinnon

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