17 April 2009

Wang Shuai, the "Lingbao Post" case, and the Limits of Free Speech

Oiwan Lam at GlobalVoices has a good run-down (aside from some rather sloppy editing) of a case that's been attracting a great deal of attention in China over the past week or so but has so far gone relatively unnoticed by the foreign media. The case involves a young man named Wang Shuai who posted photographs on the Internet that implied criticism of local officials in his hometown of Lingbao City, Henan, for some shady deals involving land deals and misuse of public funds.

Wang's post upset local officials so much that they sent city police to Shanghai, where Wang lives, to place him under criminal detention on charges of "slander." After eight days, Wang was released from custody, but when the case was made public by China Youth Daily it caused a firestorm of criticism that has led most recently to a formal apology from the head of the provincial public security department and Wang has been offered compensation.

Domestic press coverage, Internet comment, and popular support have been solidly on Wang's side from the beginning, seeing what happened to him as a particularly egregious case of abuse of power and an attempt to stifle rightful criticism of misconduct. Today, in opinion pieces like this one from CASS scholar Yu Jianrong, we see calls for the importance of protecting individual free speech as a necessary check on official malfeasance. This fits in nicely with the proposal in China's "National Human Rights Action Plan" to establish a "nationwide complaint information system" to ensure citizens' voices are heard. Could Wang Shuai's case follow that of Sun Zhigang in promoting reform that ultimately protects individuals from abuse of their human rights?

Maybe. But what's missing from all of this public support for Wang Shuai is any mention that "slander" is also part of the definition of the crime of "inciting subversion," a crime under which activists like Hu Jia, Gao Zhisheng, Liu Xiaobo, and dozens of others are currently incarcerated. If it's improper to use "slander" to silence Wang Shuai, why is it proper to use "inciting subversion" to silence these others (on grounds of "state security," no less)?

In other words, what distinguishes the abuse of power to stifle criticism in Wang Shuai's case from the abuse of power in cases like these? Is it simply that the authorities have an interest in allowing criticism to root out rotten local officials (for which it can take credit for taking the lead in anti-corruption efforts) but are decidedly un-interested in having anyone hear criticism of the broader political system that enables such local abuses of power?

Is it really that simple?

No comments:

Post a Comment