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On February 26, Beijing judge MA Caiyun was murdered by a man who was unhappy with the way she had handled his divorce case. The killer and his accomplice also injured the judge’s husband and shot the new husbands of both men’s ex-wives before ultimately committing suicide. It is said to be the first time a Chinese judge has been killed by a litigant since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
A fascinating new article from Legal Daily 法制日报 analyzes the public reaction to the shooting by carefully reviewing personal and official social media posts and news reports. Every bit as interesting as the article’s specific analysis is the matter of fact way in which it discusses media controls. While ‘spin’ and crisis communication planning aren’t unique to China, it is interesting to see ‘public opinion guidance’ discussed so plainly. In a very practical and dispassionate tone, the authors consider how to address several public opinion ‘crises’ reflected by the story, and conclude that initial censorship was probably counterproductive to maintaining social stability and exacerbated the situation.
Briefly, the article tracks the evolution of the story over several days:
- Caixin reports the murder, which is then picked up by additional news organizations who add further investigation.
- Judge Ma’s name becomes a blocked “sensitive term” on the Baidu search engine and related articles and weibo posts begin to disappear from the internet
- Later, individual courts and judges begin posting about the incident on social media
- At 3:15 A.M, the Supreme People’s Court acknowledges the murder and eulogizes Judge Ma.
- At 1:15 P.M. The Official Weibo account of the Beijing Police finally issues a news bulletin reporting the crime and giving some details.
- Central Committee on Politics and Law Secretary General MENG Jianzhu announced to have given instructions for adoption of new measures to protect judges and their families.
- The Supreme People’s court holds a press conference
- The Ministry of Public Security makes an official statement about punishing such attacks
3/1 The SPC posthumously awards Judge Ma highest honors
This Pie Chart, provided by the article, breaks down social media comments on the case by sentiment category, although there is no indication of methodology. If read clockwise, beginning at the top, the chart also happens to show the evolution of prevailing sentiment over time. So, the initial response put as 22.3% was condemnation, sharp denouncement of the criminal acts. As information became restricted and no official statement was available, suspicion dominated, amounting to 35% of the total comments, which is further broken into 18.7% of people suspecting there must be more to the story, and 16.5% about the information controls themselves. As courts began posting about the tragedy, compassion (12.6%) and appeals (9.1%) become more important, with people recognizing the hardships judges face and calling for more judges to speak out. The final phase identified is reflection (20.8%) which includes both discussion of the underlying causes of such an attack (7.3%) and also consideration of how to better protect judges.
The article identifies 3 crises, or conflicts, that were reflected as the story’s news-cycle played out:
- The disconnect between public concern and information control
After the story was covered by Caixin on February 27, it naturally drew a lot of attention and was soon picked up by other media sites. No official statement was released however, and net users soon began to notice that Judge Ma’s name had become a blocked ‘sensitive word’ on the Baidu search engine, and that some previously viewable news reports were being deleted. That censorship led to rampant speculation and became its own story, with some suspecting that the story must be more complicated than originally thought. The censorship also agitated some legal professionals who saw it as being disrespectful to the victim by hiding the crime and the dangers judges face.
- The divide between grieving judges and ‘violent populist sentiment’
The majority of voices, after the story broke, mourned the victim and called for justice. At the same time, a number of negative voices also emerged, delighting in the tragedy and criticizing judges and the courts, saying that the murder serves crooked judges right. This type of response intensified as the story was deleted and the openly hostile sentiment can only have made the judges feel more at risk, helpless and resentful. Perhaps in response, individual courts and judges began posting about the crime saying that an attack on judges was an attack on the law and calling for further protection of judges.
- The need for mechanisms to preserve the authority and safety of judges.
The case also shines a spotlight on the need for increased respect and security for judges. As officials involved in dispute resolution, judges are sure to make some people unhappy and must be protected. Increasing respect for the fairness of judges’ decisions is an important part of this as it will create an environment where parties more readily accept the finality of court judgments and are less likely to pursue revenge or other extra-legal actions following a case.
The authors conclude by offering 4 suggestions on how to better address these situations
- The authors urge using persuasion over censorship in such cases. They note that in the social media age, information restrictions and controls on trending topics can result in confusion and conjecture by the media and public. Official statements should be made as soon as possible so as to seize the first opportunity to shape public opinion, especially in important and sensitive matters. Release of clear objective presentations of the situation will dispel rumors and create a platform for addressing public concerns and managing public sentiment.
- Quick release of information to set the tone. In emergency situations, the public demand for fast, credible official information is even higher. The authors criticize the Beijing public security forces for not releasing information on the crime until 2 days after it occurred, lagging far behind the progression of public opinion. By contrast, they approve of the Supreme People’s Courts late night Weibos, acknowledging the tragedy and unifying people in condemning the attacks.
- To address negative perceptions of judges, and maybe even of government generally, the authors suggest increased education and publicity. They call for increased emphasis on legal values and remedies to instill respect for the law and for more professional voices to speak out so as to dispel bias and remove the emotional distance between those inside the legal system and without.
- The authors approve of the active stance taken by central authorities affirming professional confidence. By making statements that action was being taken to ensure the safety of judges and their families, the authorities were viewed as restoring judges’ sense of security, and more generally bolstering confidence in the legal system. Issuing posthumous awards in recognition of Judge Ma was a recognition of her sacrifice that increases the dignity of the bench.