By William Nee, China Researcher at Amnesty International
The execution of a former senior Chinese Communist Party official last month could have been lifted straight from the plot of “In the Name of the People”, the hugely successful anti-corruption drama that is currently captivating mainland audiences.
Zhao Liping, the former Communist Party Secretary of the Public Security Department of the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, had been convicted of murder, a charge which brought him the death penalty, as well as corruption and other charges.
A short state media report on his execution received a flurry of positive reactions on social media. One popular post read, “Wow, this is the real life version of Qi Tongwei!” – a reference to the corrupt and scheming high-level police official in the TV series.
The blockbuster series has quickly become one of the most popular in Chinese television history, in part for its depictions of decadent corruption: senior officials hiding literally tons of cash in luxury villas, top judges sleeping with foreign sex workers, sons of high-ranking officials using political connections to build massive business empires, and networks of corrupt officials suppressing workers’ rights by bending the law.
But – spoiler alert – in the TV series corrupt officials can never, ultimately, escape the long reach of the law. All corrupt officials and their family members eventually get lengthy prison terms, and one even gets a death sentence.
At the same time, anti-corruption agents come off as earnest and honest. They are depicted as dedicated in getting to the truth in investigations, no matter how many obstacles they face.
And the highest ranking Communist Party official in the drama, Provincial Party Secretary Sha Ruijin, in a not-so-subtle idealized version of President Xi Jinping, is as determined to crack down on corruption as he is to “Serve the People”.
But if Zhao Liping’s execution was seen by audiences as akin to the corrupt officials from “In the Name of the People” getting what they deserve, was the case actually as clear cut as the public was made to believe?
No state media reports mentioned the troubling issues raised by Zhao Liping’s family and legal team: allegations of torture and other ill-treatment to extract a “confession” used to convict him, the fact that he spent nine months in detention without ever seeing a lawyer, and evidence of conflicting witness testimonies.
Three witnesses to events in the case identified another suspect, but they were not called to give evidence at Zhao Liping ‘s first trial. During the second trial, only one witness was called, and he substantially changed his original testimony.
There is more than enough evidence to suggest that Zhao Liping did not receive a fair trial and at the very least should have been granted a retrial.
The fact that state media omitted such serious allegations shows the lengths the government is prepared to go to manipulate public opinion and ensure support for government policies, including those on corruption and the death penalty.
China claims it is making progress towards transparency in the criminal justice system but executions remain shrouded in almost absolute secrecy. The selected cases that receive national media attention almost always serve a political purpose.
As Zhao Liping’s case shows, it is hard for the Chinese public to engage in an informed debate on the death penalty since they can only view a scatter shot of cases that make it to the media.
Judicial authorities have a duty to address claims about unfair trials, and especially so in death penalty cases since mistakes can not be rectified. Transparency in the legal process is an essential safeguard of fair trial but in many of these cases important concerns are air-brushed from government narratives.
The clear aim is to skew public opinion and avoid scrutiny of the defects of a judiciary that is not independent but led by the Communist Party.
An exhaustive Amnesty International investigation published in April showed that despite claims of progress towards transparency, China continued to enforce an elaborate secrecy system designed to obfuscate the extent and details of the thousands of executions taking place each year.
Only a fraction of the cases believed to have been conducted were included in the database, including several hundred cases that had been reported in state media.
And so while the public is led to believe that the fight against corruption is as simple as it appears on TV, the reality is very different. Sometimes even a police chief, as seems possible in the Zhao Liping case, is denied a fair trial and is subjected to torture or other ill-treatment.
If the government truly wants people to trust the law, it must end its reliance on fiction when it comes to how the justice system works—and how much it has to progress. Undertaking such transparency really would be “In The Name of the People”.