How Social Media Complicates the Role of China’s Rights Lawyers

Xia Junfeng was once unknown, but his 2009 arrest for the murder of security officers—who, he alleged, had savagely beaten him—made him a symbolic figure in a national debate about human rights and reform in China. Yet many wonder whether this notoriety did more harm than good for Xia, who was executed on September 25 for the murders.



Execution or Murder? Chinese Look for Justice in Street Vendor’s Death

This morning, a Chinese street vendor named Xia Junfeng was executed. Xia had been found guilty of murdering two urban enforcers, known colloquially as chengguan, in 2009. Xia’s lawyers argued he acted in self-defense, presenting six eyewitness...

A laid-off factory worker turned unlicensed street vendor, Xia was selling kebabs when he was approached and, he charged, beaten in broad daylight by two chengguan for selling street food without a license in Shenyang, one of China’s largest cities. Chengguan are low-level civilian forces responsible for policing the quotidian aspects of urban life, including street vendors and construction sites. With their troubling reputation for bullying and abuse, chengguan are often portrayed in domestic and social media as petty villains.

Taken to an interrogation room, Xia stabbed two officers to death and injured another before fleeing. During his trial in May 2011, Xia and his lawyers argued that the officers’ violence compelled him to act in self-defense. But the Shenyang Intermediate Court found him guilty of murder, and higher courts upheld his sentence on appeal.

Fueled by a pervasive mistrust of both chengguan and the Chinese legal system in general, netizens portrayed Xia as a hero who stood up to China’s brutal urban enforcers. People compared Xia’s case to another in which chengguan had beaten a street vendor to death, asking why a street vendor acting in self-defense against chengguan had to die while chengguan who killed a street vendor were only sentenced to eleven years in prison. Voices of discontent quickly went viral on the Internet.

But the national discussion about Xia’s case took an unexpected turn in 2013, when some social media users began to criticize his lawyers, revealing deep and nuanced schisms in Chinese society.

In his defensive plea in 2010, Xia’s lawyer Teng Biao, a Beijing-based human rights activist and university lecturer, made a passionate call for the abolishment of the chengguan system. “Do we have to sacrifice justice in our legal system to prop up the evils of the chengguan system and the brutality of the chengguan officers?” he asked. This statement was shared over 5,000 times on Sina Weibo, a highly popular Twitter-like social media platform in China. “#Abolish Chengguan#” trended, with over 145,000 related tweets.

Teng is a key member of the so-called weiquan, or “rights-defenders” movement, which engages in human rights work in China. In 2003, Teng played a vital role in successfully pressuring the Chinese government to abolish the notorious “detention and repatriation” system, which required all Chinese working outside their home provinces to obtain temporary residency cards, after a young college graduate, Sun Zhigang, was beaten to death while held under the program.

Unlike in the Sun case, in which Internet discussions and domestic media coverage were generally sympathetic to Sun and the rights-defense lawyers, discussions of Xia’s execution on China’s social media gradually turned against his lawyers.

Some speculated that Teng and Chen Youxi, Xia’s other lawyer, were more interested in abolishing the chengguan system than helping Xia. Others questioned whether social media helped or hurt Xia, positing that Xia’s lawyers and supporters may have “over-hyped” the case. Weibo user @RanXiang, a well-known defender of the party line, wrote, “Foreign democratic movement activists, Falun Gong practitioners, Taiwanese and mainland Chinese public intellectuals all took part in the Xia Junfeng case as if they really care about the vulnerable groups. However, behind the gracious rhetoric, they were hyping up the case for their own fame and fortune.” Lu Yaoyao of Social Outlook, an online magazine in China, criticized Chen for sacrificing Xia’s life for social progress. Chen defended himself by claiming that he took the case only because Xia’s wife Zhang Jing, pictured above, personally asked him to do so. He further claimed that the other lawyers who had offered Zhang help demanded hundreds of thousands of renminbi in fees.

These concerns about “over-hyping” arise from a nexus of law, media, and politics that is complicated in any society, but particularly so in China. Many Chinese believe that public outcry online can alter legal rulings; in May 2012, China’s Supreme People’s Court granted a reprieve to Wu Ying, a woman convicted of financial crimes and sentenced to death by a local court, after criticism spread on the Internet about the punishment being too harsh. Web users took credit for the reprieve, and they may have been right; China’s legal system reports to the ruling Communist Party, and the party weighs practical (that is, extra-legal) considerations, including public sentiment, when directing a ruling.

The use of public opinion as a sort of invisible legal adjunct has side effects. It means that zealous lawyers will play to the court of public opinion if they think it will help their client. But the tactic can backfire professionally if a lawyer seems more interested in crusading for change—or worse, mugging for the cameras—than winning the case. It also provides cover for lawyers who may in fact be publicity hounds, but can claim they are just doing their jobs.

As in other countries, families of a defendant will often work independently or with their lawyers to manage public opinion. This was the case with Xia’s family members, who have been very active on social media. Xia’s wife has over 100,000 followers on Sina Weibo. Since March, she has tweeted fifty pieces of her son Xia Jianqiang’s artwork, many of which went on exhibition and were featured in a charity auction to raise money for the family. In part through social media efforts like this, Xia’s case has drawn influential supporters as diverse as a children’s literature author, a social critic, and a Taiwanese actress.

But some questioned an approach that emphasized the larger national debate rather than Xia’s individual circumstances. As blogger Zhang Heci wrote, “Lawyers should serve their clients instead of creating media hype for themselves. [Since] Xia had a very weak legal case, his lawyers should admit these incontrovertible facts and carry out his defense on that basis … the goal should be to reduce the penalty, not to turn Xia into a hero.”

Weibo user Jiangxue Yuan’er wrote that Chen Youxi “stirred up this big controversy on social media, and worked with public intellectuals to criticize the Communist Party and to build up his own reputation.”

In a September 2013 article, published after Xia’s execution, Han Fudong, a reporter with the influential liberal paper Southern Metropolis Daily, took to Weibo to lay out the reasons why he felt Xia’s death penalty was justified, including what Han called incoherent defense witness testimony, a lack of evidence to prove that Xia acted in self-defense, and the fact that the two chengguan officers were killed with multiple, ferocious knife stabs.

All of these facts, the reporter claimed, justified the court’s decision. “Detaching the murder from its context and transforming it into a class struggle between street vendor and chengguan seems to be painting murder as an act of justice,” he wrote. “However, this entirely political interpretation not only gives in to demagoguery but also devalues the judiciary.”

Xia’s execution, and the outcry it engendered, is an object lesson in the shadowy games that characterize the Chinese judiciary. On one hand, animated by distrust of both the judiciary and the chengguan, the public remains largely angry about what happened to Xia. On the other, some sharply question the way that Xia’s lawyers, family, and other public figures handled the case. In the end, no one wins.