Last February, the story of a victim of human trafficking, a mother of eight, living chained in a small hut near her family home spread rapidly across the Chinese and international internet. Outside China, many wondered that the government hadn’t tried to shut down the conversation and even seemed to be responding to the wave of public sentiment at increasingly higher levels of government. For those of us who follow legal issues in China, however, the government response was somewhat more expected.
With its monopoly on state power, China’s communist party often seeks to take the credit for all good things that happen in the nation, but it also inevitably takes the blame when things go wrong. This means that maintaining public confidence in the legitimacy and efficacy of Party rule remains a priority for ensuring stability and public order.
In addition to the role of China’s well-known media controls and censorship regime in “guiding public opinion”, the legal system itself contains a variety of mechanisms aimed at preserving the Party’s image. The New “Supervision System” for example, often described as an anti-corruption body, amounts to a codification of the internal Party discipline system, and serves to initially remove abuses of state power from the normal legal system and public eye until they can be presented as already resolved. Another example is the ongoing ‘Saohei’ campaign against organized crime, which specifically targets criminal organizations that have become obstructions to the implementation of Party rule, as well as the corrupt officials who enable them.
When specific cases, like that of the chained woman, strike a nerve with the public and create mass dissatisfaction, the party-state also has a policy in place. Rules on “popular legal education” [普法] seek to channel the attention into a teachable moment, letting the public know what the existing law already says about the case, and channeling outrage into promoting planned reforms.
- What is “popular legal education” [普法]
Pufa, “spreading the law” or “popular legal education” is a broad idea generally concerned with raising both the public and state employees’ awareness of law. This can include formal education and publicity events, but often also involves media coverage of the release of new laws to inform the public of shifts in China’s rapidly developing legal system. State media regularly highlights cases of courts applying new laws or procedures for the first time, but sometimes more subtly promotes stories of cases that are topically related to new legal developments, even if no new rules are expressly mentioned. News reports of this last type are so common that most stories involving legal topics can usually be tied to the release of a specific document if you are following closely.
The current trend is to make every public interaction with government an opportunity for legal education, integrating legal education into all aspects of legal practice. Under the motto of “having all those who enforce the law, teach the law” judges, prosecutors, and police are to clearly explain the law to the parties in cases they handle, as are those handling more routine government affairs such as administrative permitting and fines. Beyond this education for those involved in a given matter, however, the policy further calls upon authorities to use cases to teach the general public, and this is where things get interesting.
- Use of cases to explain the law.
Rules for police and prosecutors on using cases to explain the law discuss the specific types of cases that should be selected for the greatest impact. This naturally includes cases involving new laws, as well as cases where a particularly satisfactory resolution was achieved. It also, however, includes cases that are “of higher public interest where using the case to explain the law is conducive to responding to societal concern;” or that “might lead to negative public opinion or mass incidents, where using the case to explain the law is conducive to resolving social conflicts, and promoting social harmony[.]” For these cases, the goal is less one education than of public relations.
The more sensitive the case involved, the higher the level of authorization required, and sensitive cases are expressly to consider the impact on public opinion and social governance in addition to correctly applying the law. This resonates with China’s broader vision of integrating the legal and social efficacy of cases, meaning that the goal of handling cases is not only to ensure they are handled lawfully, but also that the public views the matter as fairly and finally resolved.
- The case of the trafficked mother [以案释法]
When the case of the chained mother in Xuzhou broke, there didn’t seem to be an immediate connection with any recently released authority. Draft revisions of the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests had recently been available for public comment, but there were no major reforms directly on point. The case had surfaced via social media, and given the amount of interest it generated, authorities likely realized that trying to block discussion could do more harm than good (something sometimes openly discussed in legal fora), particularly given outrage at several initial missteps in the local authorities response.
Once higher level authorities took over, the response became a perfect example of handling cases in accordance with law. China’s third national plan on combatting human trafficking had been released almost a year earlier, and this case provided an opportunity to highlight some of China’s ongoing work in addressing this persistent problem.
Interestingly, the section on publicity and public opinion guidance was greatly expanded in the 3rd anti-trafficking plan itself. Language was added on innovating new methods of publicity using traditional and new media to create an atmosphere of social intolerance for human trafficking. Many of the proposed responses are also highlighted in the plan, including special police actions against trafficking, improving enforcement against those who purchase trafficked humans as well as those who traffic in persons, and strengthening vigilance against trafficking at marriage registries.
This shouldn’t suggest that such cases are intentionally unearthed or staged in any way. The government has simply learned that the best way to address a crisis of public confidence is to point to ongoing progress. When done well, this can shift the narrative from public criticism of the government by aligning the government and people with an invitation for public participation in forwarding the ongoing agenda. It’s not so much a sinister strategy as a practical one- the government is well-positioned to be aware of major social problems without a major case breaking, but when such a case raises public awareness, the government uses that energy to provide the necessary social support, and gets a chance to discuss ‘good things’ it has been trying to accomplish as well.