27 April 2009

Updated Update: Ordos Law Enforcement Officials "Clearing Their Thoughts" Regarding Wu Baoquan

I've been working on a longer article about China's recent "defamation" cases and haven't had time to post anything lately. I meant to post something new here today, but I can't resist noting the latest on Wu Baoquan's case.

This article in today's Legal Daily confirms what I predicted last week: that the "judicial supervision" review of Wu's case would result a decision to hold a new trial in the case. I wouldn't hold out much hope for an acquittal, though. Other hints in the article lead me to believe that authorities there are preparing the ground for a face-saving "compromise" (for them, at least) whereby Wu will remain convicted on the charges and essentially sentenced to time already served in detention.

Why do I say this? Because the Legal Daily article makes an effort to point out a difference between the cases of Wu Baoquan and Wang Shuai that could account for the vastly different punishments handed down (first a one-year then a two-year prison sentence for Wu, eight days of detention followed by having the case thrown out, an apology, and compensation for Wang).

The article notes that according to the vice president of the Ordos Intermediate People's Court, Zang Jianping, in the first appeal trial, the court found that the prosecution offered little justifcation for filing a public prosecution on criminal defamation charges, namely that there was a "serious threat to social order or national interests." But the court's decision to uphold the two-year sentence in the end stemmed from a new consideration of the negative social impact of Wu Baoquan's Internet posts, such as a "noticeable increase in frequency and regularity of mass petitioning activity requiring the dispatch of police on more than 20 occasions."

By revealing this "fact" in the media, I believe that the court (and the press) are signaling to the public that the relative level (or, perhaps, existence) of "serious social consequences" explains the difference in the application of punishment between the two cases. Assuming that this assessment of the social harm caused by Wu Baoquan does not change between now and the time his third trial opens, then the main criterion for bringing a criminal defamation charge can be argued to have been met.

The way I see it, the choices then are two: either convict but exempt from punishment or convict and sentence in such a way that Wu doesn't serve additional time. If the court were to acquit, it would be a major sign that the threshhold for bringing criminal defamation cases in China has just gone higher. I'm just not sure the powers-that-be are quite ready to do that yet. However, it must be noted that the article goes on to state that "all agencies involved in this case are 'clearing their thoughts' (梳理思路) with respect to the case," so perhaps we can hope for some fresh thinking.

It is certainly clear that law enforcement is feeling the pressure created by negative public opinion over its handling of the case. Perhaps, then, someone will be able to answer the bigger question posed by Wu Baoquan's case (and the one that has attracted the most attention and ridicule from critics): why the court was essentially allowed to invent the crime of "defaming the government" in its conviction of Wu Baoquan.

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