The sentencing of former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun (right) to 15 years in prison is the latest indicator that “the entire legitimacy of the system is crumbling,” says a prominent observer.
Communist party insiders and independent observers believe the high-profile show trial has effectively dashed expectations of legal reform following this year’s leadership transition.
“Lots of inside information from the cases was not made public and everything was politicized,” said Chen Youxi, a leading lawyer who has represented defendants in high-profile cases. “You could say these were ‘open trials with Chinese characteristics’. [These trials] reveal the truth about Chinese justice; they cannot convince the masses.”
A close associate of neo-Maoist Bo Xilai, Wang’s attempted defection to the United States sparked a sequence of events that led to the purging of Bo and shook the ruling elite. But his trial has punctured the hopes of reformist intellectuals that the authorities would use the scandal to introduce new legal reforms.
“Initially, I was quite optimistic that these cases could propel the country in a new and positive direction,” said a senior party member. “But I have been very disappointed by [Gu and Wang’s] trials.”
Prospects for incremental reform have also received a setback from the apparent failure of the high-profile experiment in local democracy prompted by last year’s mass protests in Wukan.
“The village’s yearlong experiment in self-governance looked promising at the start,” writes The Atlantic’s Brian Fung. The popular protest leader Lin Zuluan was elected as the village’s Communist Party secretary in a landslide, he notes. But not all is what it seems.
Wukan provides an example of the grievances which consistently provoke mass protests across the country.
“When the next generation of Chinese leaders takes over this year, they will have to deal with problems from land to environmental protests,” reports suggest. But they are more likely to resort to xenophobic populism than genuine reform, says a Wukan villager:
The irate villager says China’s new leaders will have to deal with widespread disaffection or find “a way to shift attention by fighting a war in the South China Sea” to focus the anger of the Chinese people elsewhere.
Nevertheless, some Chinese analysts suggest, the Bo Xilai scandal has exposed the inherent fragility of an authoritarian system resting on brittle, performance-based legitimacy .
“The leadership are [sic] in the midst of a political faction fight. The entire legitimacy of the system is crumbling,” says Pu Zhiqiang, a high-profile legal advocate who defends political prisoners.
“I would call these trials a cover-up of the truth, rather than trials based on the facts.”
Barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng (left) “is not a ‘dissident’ in the pure sense of the word because he is not calling for the overthrow of the government or a radical shake-up of the existing order,” says a prominent observer.
But, as with imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, “this is both what makes Chen’s case poignant and what makes him so dangerous for China’s rulers – his activism is based on simply asking the authorities to live up to their own pronouncements,” says the FT’s Anderlini:
Chen’s “first demand”, as he calls it, is that the Chinese government obeys its own laws and its own constitution, which ostensibly guarantees human rights, freedom of speech and many other values that are taken for granted in the west. “When you read China’s constitution, you realise that if we could only fulfil those basic requirements then China would be a great country,” he says. “China’s laws themselves are not the problem, the problem is that they are not properly enforced in real life.”
The authorities’ failure to honor the country’s constitution and laws is feeding instability, said Chen, who recently arrived in the United States. Nevertheless, he contends, a democratic transition in China is only a matter of time.
“China will see democracy, I’m one hundred per cent sure – it just needs time. If everyone makes an effort to build a more just and civil society then it will come faster and if everyone stands by and does nothing, then it will come slower but is still inevitable. Whether the authorities wish it to or not, the dawn comes and the day breaks just the same.”
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