Tea Leaf Nation

Get Out of Jail Cheap

Tips and tricks for getting out of Chinese prison early -- just in case.

It was a "Chinese-style prison break," according to news portal Tencent Finance: In 2007, Zhang Hai, then chairman of the Jianlibao Group, a congolomerate known for its energy drinks, was sentenced to 15 years in jail for fraud and embezzlement. In February 2011, he was released due to his assistance in helping solve other cases. Turns out, however, that Zhang's selflessness wasn't so selfless. In January 2014, Xinhua announced that Zhang hadn't aided in other cases, but colluded with his lawyer, and a deputy warden, to get his freedom. (After being released, Zhang fled and remains at large as of this writing.)

It turns out that Zhang's escape was no fluke: Money can buy freedom, or at least shorten jail terms, in some Chinese prisons. According to the respected paper Southern Weekend, Zhang's lawyer bribed the deputy warden at the detention center where he was being held in southern Guangdong province, giving him about $5,000 in exchange for information that would help solve another case. The deputy warden then transferred the implicated prisoner to Zhang's cell, so that Zhang would have a pretext to report the information himself. After Zhang tattled on his cellmate, the courts reduced Zhang's 15-year sentence to 10 years. On two other occasions, Zhang's "good behavior" led to further reductions first to eight years, then to six. 

After Zhang's scheme came to light, journalists began digging deeper into the world of Chinese prison politics. A former warden from the southern province of Jiangxi, who used the pseudonym Luo Xin, told the Southern Weekend that freedom was indeed for sale. "For only $17, you can find people to take tests for you and get the corresponding certificates," Luo said. "For every certificate of achievement demonstrating a level of technical accomplishment, you can get 20 days off your sentence." Luo added that buying newspapers, apparently a backdoor method to bribe prison workers, was another popular way to get out of jail early. "Buy 20 papers," which cost about $5 each in the inflated prison economy, "and you can expect to reduce your sentence by 30 days," he told Southern Weekend

Another tried and true method for buying an early exit involves convicts in the same cell choosing someone to pretend to attempt escape, wrote the Shanghai-based news site East Day. "Then multiple people report on him so that their 'contributions' earn reduced sentences." East Day described a successful instance where two inmates received 17 and 20 months off their respective sentences in 2004 for reporting the "planned escape" of a third. (The paper did not say what happened to the third inmate.)

Reducing sentences for prisoners who "contribute" is intended "to reduce costs" in the justice system, Professor Hong Daode of the China University of Political Science and Law told news site China Business Media. But in China, a "long chain" of corruption had formed: "Fake contributions have become a secret black market," he said. China's criminal law system "easily leads to corruption," Shang Aiguo, a legal scholar who works for China's highest court, told Southern Weekend. "Judges and prison police have total control over whether to reduce sentences," adding that "the greater the power, the greater the opportunities for rent seeking and exchanging assets for cash."

By and large, Chinese Internet users agreed that flaws in China's justice system allowed Zhang to escape. "The public mainly pays attention to 'entrances' (judicial verdicts), and ignores 'exits,' (sentence reduction, parole, and release for medical reasons)," Ma Changshan, a law professor at the East China University of Politics and Law in Shanghai, wrote on Weibo, China's Twitter. "That's precisely how the rich and powerful have been getting around the law in recent years." In a representative comment about Zhang Hai's exit, another Weibo user wondered, "Is there anything left in China that those in power can't exchange for money?"

Few commenters spared a word for Zhang himself, but one noted that the fugitive "seems to have done well enough for himself in this life," going from a shackled prisoner to a free man abroad. "You could even make a movie about it," he added. Shawshank Redemption it ain't.

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Tea Leaf Nation

Song of Herself

Once again, Australian Open champ Li Na didn't thank her homeland -- and China noticed.

After winning the Australian Open on Jan. 25, Li Na set off a media blitz in her native China, where the 31-year-old tennis star made the front page of most major papers. Much discussion surrounded Li's post-victory speech, where she once again thanked her coach and husband -- but not China -- reigniting debate about what, if anything, she owes her country of origin. While state-run media praised Li's win as a victory for China, many of Li's fans felt that her success had nothing to do with her being Chinese. Some even argued that Li had won the title in spite of it. 

Li previously ruffled government feathers after her first Grand Slam win at the French Open in 2011, when she also declined to thank her homeland. Most Chinese athletes express gratitude to China first, because many have risen to prominence through a state athletic system that selects and trains promising young people with government funds. But in 2008, Li joined with three other tennis players to opt out of that system, which pockets 65 percent of its participants' earnings, as the Chinese Tennis Association (CTA) allowed them to "fly solo." It is difficult for Chinese athletes to escape the state system of training, which begins for many in government-run sports schools and controls almost all aspects of their lives after they join. Even Li was required to continue giving 12 percent of her commercial income and eight percent of prize winnings to the CTA after she left the organization.

The independent path Li has taken since 2008 did not stop China's official news outlets from seeking some credit for her most recent triumph. The state-run Global Times emphasized that there were no hard feelings: "Whether or not Li Na said that she 'thanks the motherland,' she's still Chinese," the paper wrote. "Her success itself is the best thanks, the best way to give back to the motherland." This success, Xinhua argued, "would not have been possible without her time on the national team."

But on Chinese social media, where counter-narratives to the official line often thrive, many felt state media were trying to put words in Li's mouth. She "didn't thank the country," wrote one user of Weibo, China's Twitter, "So they've started to thank themselves." Li has acknowledged the help she received from the state system in her younger days, but she took home both of her major Grand Slam tournament titles after striking out on her own. "She's earned the pride of the Chinese people through her success," not her nationality, one commenter argued. "She didn't thank her homeland, but the Chinese people should thank her for her efforts." One user questioned state media's conclusion that Li Na's victory depended on her earlier time inside China's state athletic system. "By this way of thinking," he argued, "Li Na's success also would not have been possible without the roll she ate at her last meal." 

A number of netizens even alleged that the government had done more harm than good for Li. "It's true, without the state's support, Li Na would never have won the championship at 31," wrote one Weibo user. "She might have gotten it at 21." Another felt it was "shameful" that Li had been unable to develop her talents due to "all kinds of government restrictions." To her fans, Li's Australian victory was symbolic of new possibilities in China. "Li Na proves that you can be just as good without the system," commented one on Weibo, "as long as you have the spirit and the will." 

Li herself would likely object to the debate about whether she represents the triumph of the Chinese nation or the Chinese individual. "I really, truly think that I am just an athlete," Li told the New York Times in a 2013 interview. "I can represent nothing but myself."

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