Strange workings in China courts suggest selective leniency
Justice is a mystical art, going by differential treatments of ex-minister and man in the street
Three recent news stories conjure up a messy picture of the mainland's rule of law. Liu Hui, brother-in-law of jailed Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, received an 11-year jail term on June 9 after being found guilty of defrauding his business partners of 3 million yuan (HK$3.8 million).
The criminal investigation was dropped last autumn and the money returned, but the case was reopened in February. According to the defence lawyer, the private dispute should have been dealt with in a civil court.
His sister Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo who has been forced to live in isolation since her husband's Nobel prize award, described the sentence as blatant "political persecution". In her open letter to President Xi Jinping , she demanded an explanation for her continued detention. "Maybe in this country, being Liu Xiaobo's wife is a kind of crime," she wrote.
On the same day Liu Zhijun , who as railways minister at the time had overseen the rapid but accident-prone development of the high-speed railway network on the mainland, stood trial for numerous counts of corruption committed between 1986 and 2011 involving 64.6 million yuan.
According to Article 383 of the Chinese Criminal Code, a state official who has pocketed more than 100,000 yuan in bribes faces more than 10 years of fixed-term or life imprisonment, or, in especially serious cases, the death penalty. Thus, few would doubt the "seriousness" of the former minister's transgressions.
Yet, his lawyer told reporters that the prosecution was seeking a lighter sentence because of Liu's full confession and the return of most of his ill-gotten riches.
He said: "The prosecutors asked the judges to treat Liu with leniency even before I asked for it."
Such official compassion has evaded an outspoken 60-year-old professor, Ai Xiaoming , who bared her chest for a cause.
After a string of revelations in which teachers and principals were found to have sexually assaulted primary school girls, Ye Haiyan , a rights activist, posted an online picture of her holding a placard reading: "Principal, call me if you'd like to get a room; leave the pupils alone." The photo soon went viral, but Ye's home was later raided by a mob, and she was detained and assaulted by public security officials.
That prompted Ai to post a photo of herself online with words written across her bare chest in support of Ye and the silent victims of child sexual abuse. Ai soon had her means of communication cut and her home surrounded by security guards. She has also been banned from lecturing and from leaving the country.
"In an era when we are forbidden even to use placards to express our views, I can make a statement only with my body," she said.
"My body and privacy are nothing in the face of such evil," Ai added, referring to local authorities' heavy-handed approach to silencing the victims' parents.
These three stories belie any talk of rule of law on the mainland. In the latter case, courts were ordered to get tough on child sex abusers. Yet, ordinary citizens - parents and activists - were intimidated into silence. The contrasting fates of the two Mr Lius demonstrate the mystical art of official leniency in mainland courts.
Ai's sacrifice has not been for nothing. Her online supporters are growing. Let's hope we don't end up with a situation where "we can count on only the internet for China's justice", as one of them suggested.
Dr Karen Lee is an assistant professor with Shue Yan University's Department of Law and Business