“At first glance, Themis, the goddess of justice in ancient Greek mythology, seems to have little or nothing in common with the apparently beast-like symbol, Xiezhi that has represented justice in China since ancient times. Themis, human and graceful, carried the scales and sword as her insignia to balance right from wrong and to defend what is just. This image may appear to stand in stark contrast to Xiezhi − the gruesome beast that gores the guilty with his one horn. Though ancient, these symbols easily reflect the opposing perceptions of justice between the Western world and China today − Themis conjures balance and fairness, while China’s symbol appears brutish and unjust.” (258)
Historical records tell us that from the highest antiquity until the modern era, legal officials would have the image of the xièzhì embroidered on their blue and golden robes, and on their hats. Statues of the xièzhì graced the entrance to magistrates’ yamens, and the walls of the residence of imperial censors.
Today, judges no longer wear elaborate robes and hats but, the xièzhì is carved on their gavels, and statues of the xièzhì greet visitors to law courts. They occupy the same place as Themis does in the “West”. Does this mean that Chinese judges embody the xièzhì, or that Western judges invoke Themis? Beyond archaeological relics and other visual representations, the mythical figure of the xièzhì survives, today, in the written word.
The character law/法/fa is one of the two different guises under which the xièzhì presents itself to us, today. Perhaps, not everybody knowns how the three drops of water radical on the left symbolize the waters close to which the xièzhì once lived. These waters were later imagined to be as even as the judgment of the xièzhì…or the scales of Justice. At the same time, if stirred, they could kill as implacably as the xièzhì’s horn..or the sword of the Themis. The horn of the xièzhì, and its supernatural ability to drive off (qu) lies and insincerity are stylized in the right part of 法. As the Themis, the xièzhì does not see injustice through its own eyes – he perceives injustice.
The other guise under which we can ‘see’, the xièzhì, sometimes literally calling on to it, is in the shape of the character gao/告, as it is used in all those composites which, as 控告， 原告， 被告， 告状 relate to the making of accusations against a natural or legal person, or to the state of being accused.
The lower part of the character represents a mouth, while the upper part is a stylized version of the judgment’s horn of the xièzhì. If read symbolically, 告 literally stands for evoking the xièzhì and its infallible judgment. In Chinese mythology, the power to call on to the xièzhì was a prerogative of Magistrate Gao Yao only. In China, today the law – the 法, a modern incarnation of the unicorn-goat, has gifted everyone with the same power.
There are many ways in which accusations may be made. Filing a lawsuit against a natural or legal person is only one of them. Many avenues can be used to express the idea that a person did not receive what they ought to have been given, what they were promised, or the treatment that was due to them. Besides the legal system, the internet is perhaps the most popular venue where everybody can perform the role of the xièzhì.
My use of the verb ‘perform’ is by no means allegorical. In voicing their views on a perceived injustice, speakers are effectively making a judgment that appeals to the higher power of morality, as morality is understood by them – human beings who live in a contingent world, rather than in the world of eternal ideas. They, the ones who live in the world as the world exists here and now, are performing the same role the xièzhì played in myth. While the xièzhì’s horn could kill by goring, once they are spoken, words can sometimes lead to comparable consequences.
This dynamic does not belong to myth or to magical thinking (De Martino), but to the actual workings of the legal system, as these workings can be set in motion by all those who make accusations. The case that perhaps, best illustrates this dynamic is a case that saw a 26-years old woman first turned into the conduit of an angry vox populi, then into a proxy to express opinions on China’s reform path, and finally into an object of academic analyses (Sapio 2016, forthcoming). The woman goes by name of Wu Ying.
In 2006, Wu Ying was a 26 year old Zhejiang woman. Having earned a professional diploma in cosmetology, she ran a beauty parlor, then a hair salon and a clothes and accessories shop in her home city of Dongyang. In April that year her life witnessed a major turn: Wu Ying deposited in her bank account RMB 50,000,000, which was used to established the Bense Trading Company Ltd and the Bense Holding Group Ltd. Wu Ying and her sister Wu Lingling were the majority shareholders of the group. Six months after the initial investment, the group had taken control of nine companies that included businesses as diverse as a car wash, a hotel and a logistics company.3
In the meantime, Wu Ying donated at least RMB 1,800,000 to local government institutions. Each of the known donations contributed in different ways to implementing local and/or central policies. In August 2006 two large donations were made. RMB 800,000 was donated to the Geshan Village Xizhai elementary school, which the school used to construct buildings that met Zhejiang province standards on ‘model modern rural schools’ (Zhongguo Dongyang 2006), and RMB 500,000 was donated to create a scholarship fund in Pan’an county (Pan’an Xinwenwang 2006). On 2 September 2006, the Group donated RMB 500,000 yuan to the Dongyang Glory Society (Renminwang 2006), a government organized non-governmental organization (GONGO) created 24 hours before Wu Ying made her donation (Zhonguo Dongyangshi 2006). The Dongyang Glory Society was the local chapter of the China Glory Society. Its offices were in the Dongyang City Administration Building (Zhonggong Dongyang Shiwei Tongzhanbu 2006), and its chair, Wu Meirong, was also chair of the Dongyang United Front Department. According to the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court, from April 2005 six persons gave Wu Ying a total of RMB 14,000,000. From May 2005 to February 2007, Wu Ying received a further RMB 773,395,000 from 11 more persons. The press claimed she established two informal financial institutions, located in Zhejiang and Hubei, for futures trading and stock markets (Fazhi Zhoumo 2011). How Wu Ying became a highly successful financial trader in a little less than two years still remains a mystery.
The Anonymous Accuser
Wu Ying would have lived her life comfortably, had it not been for the anonymous accusations made against her on the internet. From 23 to 26 September 2006, a person writing under the nickname of “wmf50134” published five heavily sarcastic posts about Wu Ying and her wealth on the Sina bulletin board system. From September 2006 until today, the person no longer used that account.4 Nothing happened, on the internet at least, during the next 29 days. But on 27 October similar doubts about Wu Ying’s wealth were expressed on the website Baidu Zhejiang.5 The Zhejiang press began reporting on Wu Ying on the very same day.
The Fourteen Men Without a Name
No sooner had media published it reports than 14 men, all Yiwu residents, kidnapped Wu Ying over a loan dispute, or so it was reported (Sina 2007). During the seven days she was held hostage, Wu Ying was taken to the cities of Hangzhou and Wenzhou and the provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu, where the men forced her to sign blank documents and hand over RMB 3,300,000, her jewels, the title documents to 14 flats, and 29 cars. After her release on 28 December, the blank documents signed by Wu Ying were used to mediate two loan disputes in her absentia, and the 14 men came to own the 14 flats she had purchased.
Wu Ying reported her kidnapping to the police, who held that there was no evidence to support her claims. On 7 February 2007, shortly after Chinese New Year, Wu Ying was detained on suspicion of illegally receiving public savings deposits (feifa xishou gongqun cunkuan 非法吸收共群存款),6 and was formally arrested after 37 days, on 16 March.7
Less than a week later, the central-level media leaked news about a list naming 137 Yiwu and Dongyang officials who all had allegedly given funds to Wu Ying (Zhongguogwang 2007). On 16 April 2009, the Jinhua Intermediate People’s Court tried Wu Ying on charges of fraudulent fundraising (jizi zhapian 集资诈骗)8 with a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment, but the charges were later changed to the capital crime of financial fraud, punishable by death. On 18 December the court found her guilty of financial fraud and sentenced her to death with immediate execution. On December 30 she appealed her verdict to the Zhejiang Provincial Court, but on 18 January 2012 the provincial court upheld the conviction and the death penalty.
The Western and the Chinese press
The Western press reported the Wu Ying case as one of the proverbial female tycoon battling obstacles to financial market deregulation, weaving the narrative of the case around the theme of informal finance. While this was no doubt an important side to the case in China, arguments about the informal financial sector could not appease the Chinese public, whose rage continued to soar. For its part, Sina stoked the fire by stating that local officials had pressured the Jinhua court (Fazhi Zhoumo 2011) to use the death penalty in sentencing Wu Ying. Midst the all-too foreseeable denial by the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court that the Jinhua court was influenced by local officials urging capital punishment for Wu Ying (Zhongguo Guangbowang 2012), just one week before the second instance hearing, Wu Ying named her accomplices: the Jingmen People’s Congress deputy chair, and the deputy director of the Jingmen branch of the People’s Bank of China (Sina 2010). The Zhejiang HPC’s decision to uphold Wu Ying’s death sentence opened the floodgates of the internet to a tsunami of insults, complaints, and accusations. On 21 May 2012 the Supreme People’s Court refused to approve the death sentence and sent the case back to the Zhejiang HPC ordering a new trial. Wu Ying thus saw her sentence reduced to death with a two year reprieve, which is typically commuted to a life sentence. Oblivious to the fate of Wu Ying, the Anglo-American and European media advanced positions compatible with PRC pronouncements on the death penalty, on financial reform, and on enhanced public supervision of and participation to decision making.
By mid-December the public was engrossed by the media’s narration that gave important clues as to officials’ involvement in the illegal fund-raising scheme. The public could at least hypothesize or speculate that Wu Ying could have been the figurehead for the Yiwu, Jingmen and Dongyang officials, that something had gone wrong with the investment scheme they ran together, and that Wu Ying had been scapegoated. For these reasons, the vox populi believed that the sentence imposed by the Jinhua court was unjust, and that Wu Ying was innocent, despite her involvement in a scheme totaling almost RMB 1 billion. In other words, the public held that Wu Ying’s involvement in the scheme was not a crime. Such was the common feeling of all those who, in the days following the verdict’s announcement, flooded the internet with angry postings, and supported the online campaign Wu Ying’s father ran to try and save his daughter’s life and reputation.
The first result after the uproar was the admission made by the deputy director of Yiwu’s Commission for Discipline Inspection that at least 25 officials had been involved in the scheme and that some of them served in the public security and court systems. But, so the deputy director explained, these officials could not be investigated because fraudulent fundraising did not fall within the Party’s jurisdiction (Zhongguo Xinwenwang 2010). Although intended to dispel suspicions about officials’ interference in the case, a report by the China News Network (Zhongxinwang 中新网) instead poured more oil on the fire. And making matters even worse, the press once more leaked classified information about the involvement of two Yiwu officials, Ji Chengsong and Ying Junjun, in the scheme. This admission allowed the media to reframe the entire case as one of underground private lending (minjian jiedai 民间借贷), which China News Network did. The Jinhua presiding judge talked to the press to introduce a series of distinctions between underground lending and illegal fundraising, and calling for more regulation of the informal financial sector.
‘Theoretical’, ‘heuristic’ and ‘epistemic’ constructs
How could, then, the Wu Ying case be conceptualized? What theoretical, heuristic, or epistemic constructs, could be used to make sense of what happened, and place the events within a broader context, one conducive to a better understanding of justice in China? The possible constructs were three at least:
(1) Spectators of Justice
All those who were exposed to media accounts of criminal cases, included the Writer and her Readers, could be conceptualized as ‘Spectators’. This choice would rest upon a careful consideration of the meaning of these terms. ‘Spectator’, which in English maintains its original Latin spelling, means not only ‘to view’ or ‘to watch’ but also ‘to evaluate’ and ‘to judge’. Those who consume media reportage of a criminal trial, do more than just take in what has happened in court through trial footage aired on the evening news. They formulate judgements about the moral character of the parties involved in the case, they evaluate these parties, and articulate their own conception of whether or not justice has been brought to bear through the case. This moral dimension could be captured by ‘Spectator’.
(2) The Public Opinion
All those who were exposed to media accounts of criminal cases, included the Writer and her Readers, could be conceptualized as ‘public opinion’. The ultimate referent of ‘public opinion’ is the vision of an ideal liberal-democratic polity, which is absent from both the political order of the PRC and its ultimate goal, and from the Chinese equivalent term yulun (舆论) that is translated as ‘public opinion’. Yulun can, and indeed does, articulate moral judgments, but the most immediate connections that ‘public opinion’ evokes are to a ‘public sphere’ and to a ‘civil society’ understood as two components of a liberal-democratic political order. While some in China may have beliefs about the desirability of a liberal-democratic order, ‘public opinion’ is unable to account for the full spectrum of views about political morality that have been advanced in Chinese society. Also, this concept is foreign to the Twelve Core Socialist Values.
(3) The Surrounding Gaze
All those who were exposed to media accounts of criminal cases, included the Writer and her Readers, could be conceptualized as ‘surrounding gaze’/围观/weiguan. The concept of weiguan, translated in English as ‘surrounding gaze’ (Teng 2013; Teng and Mosher 2012) is to anyone familiar with the semantics of the characters wei and guan, not simply devoid of any moral connotation. As it has been constructed, the concept of the collective gaze of a crowd that has gathered to watch an event can entail an element of moral agency. Or, it cannot. But, the nexus between moral agency and the concept of ‘surrounding gaze’ is un-interrogated. Moreover the watching gaze观/guan – at least as the character is sometimes used and commented upon in the Chinese classics – is a gaze that watches from an elevated place, such as a tower, a building or even a Taoist monastery (guan can also designate a monastery), rather than a gaze placed on the same level of what is observed.
To date, no one knows where Wu Ying is, what she does, or whether she had a chance to explain what justice means to her.