China was shaken on 1 July 2008 by a rare attack on its police force. Yang Jia, a man from Beijing single-handedly stormed a police station in the Zhabei area of Shanghai, stabbing six officers to death and seriously wounding three others and a security-guard. This was an unprecedented attack on the police by a citizen, which left the nation shocked. There was extensive media coverage, which included tens of thousands of online postings. The deluge of reportage and comment can be compared with the case of the former American football star OJ Simpson in the United States in 1995.
Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper Among Li Datong's recent articles in openDemocracy:
"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)
"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)
"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)
"The Weng'an model: China's fix-it governance" (30 July 2008)
"The Olympics: was China ready?" (22 August 2008)
"The Beijing Olympics: the last award" (29 August 2008)
Both the media and internet users were soon asking the same questions. Yang was effectively committing suicide. Why; what were his motives; was he mentally ill? The initial results of the investigation were surprising. Yang was quite normal. He was born in 1980, in a Beijing courtyard near Nanluoguxiang, a street that is now a popular haunt of foreign tourists. After his parents divorced when he was 14, he stayed with his mother. He graduated from elementary school, then junior middle school, then technical school - a normal education for a child from an average family.
But after leaving school he never found stable work. Perhaps surprisingly, as a child he was known for sticking to the rules - he never cheated at games, put his father's discarded cigarette-butts in the bin, and told his mother off if she ignored a "keep off the grass" sign. Chinese netizens found his weblog, which revealed that he liked to read and would "often sit in the library all day"' He enjoyed hiking and savoured the feeling of exhaustion after a long day's walk. He wrote of a wish to meet more people and make friends, to find a beautiful girlfriend. He might not have been rich or happy, but there were no signs of anti-social tendencies.
A dark road
So media attention turned to a "minor" confrontation that took place on 15 October 2007. Yang had taken a trip to Shanghai and rented a bicycle. As he waited at traffic-lights in the evening, a policeman called him over. His bike was unlicensed, and Yang was asked for his identity-card. There were thirty or more bikes at the lights - why was Yang stopped? The policeman was not able to confirm that all the other bikes were licensed. From a four-minute recording of the event released by the police, Yang can be seen refusing to provide identification and demanding to know why he had been singled out. At 9pm he was taken to the local police station, where it was quickly determined that the bike was indeed rented. Normally Yang should have been released immediately, but he was detained until 2am. What occurred in those five hours?
Whatever happened, it was something that Yang could not accept, something that he considered illegal. It was not his first experience of this nature. While waiting for a train during a 2006 trip to Datong, he suffered a broken front tooth after an encounter with police. Yang complained, ultimately receiving an apology and 30,000 renminbi (RMB) in compensation. After the incident in Shanghai he returned to Beijing and complained in writing and by email to the city's public-security bureau and the ministry of public security, making numerous phone-calls to the Shanghai police. The Shanghai public-security bureau twice sent staff to Beijing to discuss compensation, but Yang refused the offered amount. It may be asked why the police, who have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, would agree to pay compensation.
In any case, the police eventually lost patience. A month before Yang's attack an official at the Zhabei public-security bureau reportedly said that if he caused further trouble he would be arrested, and that not a penny of compensation would be paid. With that, the legal channels that Yang had been pursuing for nine months were cut off. But Yang's personal convictions would not let him leave the matter at that. A month later, the attack took place.
Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:
James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)
Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's political colours: from monochrome to palette" (14 May 2008)
Susan Brownell, "The Olympics' ‘civilising' legacy: St Louis to Beijing" (23 May 2008)
Emily Lau, "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008)
Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "Tiananamen's shifting legacy" (26 June 2008)
Kerry Brown, "China on Olympic eve: a globalisation of sentiment" (11 July 2008)
Kerry Brown, "China changes itself: an Olympics report" (20 August 2008)
An open question
I draw parallels with the OJ Simpson case not just because of the media attention both incidents received, but also because the earlier drama in the United States was subject to detailed reports and interpretation in the Chinese media. This indeed was when the Chinese public became aware of the idea of "procedural justice"; and since that time the concept has become progressively stronger. It is said the majority of Americans believe that Simpson was guilty. But in America evidence not obtained legally is inadmissible in court; even the integrity of those who collect the evidence will be examined. Simpson's defence team used this angle of attack to obtain a not-guilty verdict. A strict adherence to legal processes may result in some criminals escaping justice; but if those safeguards are not in place, the legitimate rights of the majority will suffer. All cases of wrongful conviction which have been seen in China for many years have been the result of the police ignoring proper processes, or even forcing confessions.
But because of that awareness, China's lawyers, media and public have been raising questions about Yang's case. Why haven't his letters of complaint been made public? Why aren't the recording of his five hours of interrogation available? Why did his mother disappear just after the attack? Why was a legal consultant to the Zhabei authorities a pointed as Yang's lawyer? With the Shanghai public-security bureau a party to the case, why wasn't it handled outside of Shanghai - as, legally, it should have been? Why was the Beijing lawyer employed by Yang's father not able to see the defendant, instead receiving a "written" rejection? Why did the lawyer employed by Yang's mother in Shanghai just happen to be the one chosen by Shanghai police? Why was the hearing held in private, with neither media nor public allowed to attend?
With so many questions, who can believe that Yang received a fair trial? It is notable that the Chinese public, usually supporters of the death penalty for murder, have in this case raised voices of disagreement - with some online even proclaiming him a hero, a warrior who fought violence with violence. What does this all mean?
Several media reports indicate that in the run-up to the Olympic games, the Chinese government employed a number of overseas public-relations firms to create a positive international image. The generally favourable coverage of the event reflects the success of this strategy. But the Chinese government should be aware that a genuinely positive international image will come from protecting human rights, preventing interference in the legal process and ensuring transparency and freedom of reporting. That would improve China's international image no end - but no public-relations firm can do it for us.
Yang Jia was sentenced to death on 1 September 2008. He has been allowed to appeal, and the death penalty must then be confirmed by the supreme court. Is there any chance the truth will come out in time? The public have little hope. But if and when Yang is executed, when the truth is finally known it will be the government itself that suffers most.