Tea Leaf Nation

The President that China Never Had

Netizens are using a Korean film about late president Roh Moo-hyun as a subtle form of protest.

An activist lawyer heroically risks everything for his beliefs. Although he fails, his brave stand against authoritarianism wins him lasting admiration and changes the fate of his East Asian nation forever. The plot may sound seditious in mainland China, a country known for treating its activist lawyers shabbily. But it's actually the story of Roh Moo-hyun, former rights lawyer and president of South Korea, who committed suicide in May 2009. A Korean movie about Roh called The Attorney has not only topped the Korean box office shortly after opening December 2013 (and went on to become one of the most popular movies in the country's history) but has found a sympathetic audience among Chinese not quite ready to give up the ghost of idealism.

It has been a rough year for supporters of Chinese rights lawyers. Most notably, on Jan. 22 Beijing authorities sentenced lawyer Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison for "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public space." On June 13, after detaining law firm partner and noted defense lawyer Pu Zhiqiang for weeks, Beijing announced Pu's formal arrest on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and "illegally obtaining the personal information of citizens." Xu's putative crime was organizing to advocate for educational quality and the disclosure of officials' personal assets, while Pu was attending a seminar to discuss the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.

The Attorney -- which has not been screened in mainland theaters but is available on video sites there, where censorship is lighter -- says nothing about Chinese power politics. Its plot is based on the so-called Burim Case. It occurred during the rule of Korean military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, and refers to 22 university students who were arrested and then, after being tortured, tried for forming a seditious book club. Roh left his cushy law job to defend the students during their 1981 trial. Roh lost that case, but it provided a launching pad for his political career beginning in 1988, culminating with a five-year stint as president of South Korea.

It's hard not to see parallels between Roh -- who passed the Korean bar in 1975 while studying in a dirt hut he built with his own hands -- and China's 21st century defense lawyers, a tightly-knit group of self-styled "diehards" known for their pride and seeming fearlessness in the face of official retaliation. On China's censored web, the movie appeals in part because issues like democracy and activism in Korean history have strong parallels to China but are safer to discuss.

Starting on March 2014, users of Douban, a movie and literature review site popular among young Chinese intellectuals, began discussing the film in earnest, many honing in on issues of democracy and activism and taking implicit jabs at Chinese authorities. One user called the erstwhile Korean regime's tactics "child's play" compared to the "party that shall not be named," i.e., the ruling Communist Party. The user noted Korean authorities, even under military rule, "allowed arguments in court, the defendant had his own lawyer, and foreign media were allowed to report from inside the courtroom." (Chinese authorities have not been so forthcoming -- at Xu's January trial, journalists were manhandled outside the courtroom and Xu was not permitted to call a single witness.)

Given this backdrop, it's not entirely surprising that many Douban commenters asserted the quality of The Attorney didn't matter, although the site provides tools to rate films. One was simply impressed "that Koreans can shoot this film and watch it without being stymied by a review process or censorship," or "an invisible hand choking you." Chinese filmmakers, by contrast, need to find "the courage to paint on a larger canvass," even in the face of official censorship.

At least one actor appears to agree. On May 6 -- just a day after Pu was detained -- The Attorney received mainstream cred in China when actress Zhang Ziyi, famous for her martial arts movies (and not for her social activism), took to Weibo, China's massive microblogging platform, to praise the film. She wrote to her 20 million-plus followers that the tale of "a lawyer who seeks democracy, rule of law, and justice, and is willing to fight for reason and truth" is "deeply admirable." That comment was shared over 16,000 times, high even for Zhang's account.

In response, a well known (pseudonymous) liberal Weibo user who calls himself "pretending to be in New York" wrote that the movie brought audiences in Korea to tears because it "touched historical wounds." By contrast, particularly in the month leading up to the Tiananmen anniversary, Chinese authorities were careful to ban virtually all grassroots discussion of the incident. This explains why one commenter wrote, "only Koreans dare to shoot a film like this." But the parallels were too hard to ignore: as another Weibo user wrote, "It seems that every nation's path towards democracy, rule of law, fairness, and justice is full of stumbling blocks and thorny impediments." The solution: "love and hope, and even more than that, courage and determination."

Commentary on the movie continues on Weibo. On June 19, one user opined that Roh sacrificed so that the country's children would "not have to live in an absurd era." It was a principle the user said she would remember, "even if the soil under my feet hasn't changed when I am old." Another wrote on June 20 that the film formed a "gigantic, farcical contrast" with reality. (The user claims to be from Yantai, one of the closest major Chinese cities to the Korean capital of Seoul). But even netizens keen to the film's somewhat heterodox implications in a Chinese context stopped short of calling for change. "Chinese living standards need to rise by a factor of three before our middle class can make revolution," one Douban author argued. "It's not time."

HT/Susan Jakes and "TK"

Image: Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

Leaning In -- to Chinese Corruption

Looks can be deceiving. In China, official bribery -- even exchanging sex for power -- is still too normal.

It's no secret that graft is an essential part of climbing the Chinese Communist Party ranks. Now, according to Chinese state media, ambitious female cadres are increasingly being caught taking bribes and trading favors. On June 16, the state-controlled (but liberal) Beijing News named and shamed 12 female officials targeted by anti-corruption investigators in the first half of 2014. The report said most offenders were city officials in key posts. Four have already been charged; eight remain under investigation, although in the Chinese justice system the ultimate conviction rate of defendants is exceedingly high.

The Beijing News report didn't give detailed accounts of the alleged crimes. Instead, it was about a trend: female officials abusing their power. It cited government figures showing a 33 percent increase in the number of corruption cases involving female officials in the first 11 months of 2013, as compared to 2009. The dozen women listed as more recent offenders ranged from ages 41 to 60, and many had either taken bribes or traded sex for power. Headshots of the women that appeared to have been downloaded from official government websites were widely shared on Chinese social media site Weibo, with many users dubious about the sexual charisma of the mature, buttoned-up-looking offenders. "Their bosses must have pretty strange taste," wrote one commenter.

The photos were a stark contrast to the sultry female figure usually seen at the center of many Chinese corruption dramas: the mistress. The famous femme fatale Li Wei, busted on tax charges in 2006, reportedly raked in millions of dollars in stock, gifts, and real estate proceeds from deals facilitated by her well-connected paramours, including a former governor of the southern province of Yunnan and the chairman of oil giant Sinopec. Sometimes, usually when scorned, mistresses have also become whistleblowers, posting intimate photos and financial secrets online -- revelations that have led to probes. Top Chinese economic official Liu Tienan was sacked in May 2013 and expelled from the party after his mistress told an investigative journalist that Liu had embezzled $200 million and threatened to kill her. In June 2013, a district official in the southern megacity of Chongqing was sentenced to 13 years in jail for bribery. The investigation was triggered when a tape showing the man, Lei Zhengfu, having sex with an 18-year-old woman went viral online.

By contrast, the report on dirty female cadres felt novel, not because women officials are ordinarily so virtuous but because ranking female officials are so few. Political participation by Chinese women remains low, and has been for decades, despite repeated pledges by the party to bring more women into the political process through affirmative action.

But looks can be deceiving. Though they represent a minority in government, female officials have still been linked to a number of high-profile corruption cases. In November 2011, China executed Luo Yaping, known as Liaoning province's "land granny," for making off with more than $23 million in bribes and illicit wealth. Luo was a relatively low-level land development official in the rust belt city of Fushun but when she was detained she had more than $8,000 in cash in her purse and multiple bank cards, including one linked to an account with more than $3 million in it. In June 2005, a 49-year-old female police chief in Shenzhen was sentenced to 15 years in jail for taking bribes. State media said the cop, An Huijun, also doled out promotions in exchange for sexual favors from young officers.

The latest report underscores how in the Chinese system, corruption appeals to male and female alike. A June 16 China Daily article quoted Peking University researcher Li Chengyan as saying Chinese graft was gender blind. "Corruption has nothing to do with age and gender," Li said. Indeed, while some argue that getting more women into power results in cleaner government and less corruption, research suggests that women are actually just as likely as men to take bribes in an authoritarian system like China's. A 2013 study by a pair of scholars at Rice University and the National Democratic Institute found that female officials avoid risk, so were less likely to be corrupt in democracies but more likely to be corrupt in authoritarian systems where graft was pervasive. The scholars wrote, "Where corruption is stigmatized, women will be less tolerant of corruption and less likely to engage in it compared to men." On the other hand, if corruption is an ordinary part of governance, "then there will be no corruption gender gap."

The Beijing News article leaves the jump in female corruption cases unexplained. After all, there has been no corresponding spike in new female government recruits during that span. The increase is most likely linked to an anti-graft campaign launched by Xi Jinping shortly after he took over as China's top party official in November 2012. The government says that in 2013, 182,000 officials were punished for corruption violations, an increase of 20,000 dirty officials from 2012. It would seem men and women alike are being caught up in the graft crackdown -- a rare instance of gender parity in Chinese governance.

Images compiled by FP. Fair use. Do not reproduce compilation without permission.