The details of the most famous judicial verdict in recent Chinese history are well known to most educated Chinese adults. Or, rather, they were until Monday, with the shocking disclosure of previously confidential documents in Nanjing.
The ensuing reaction, which is really just getting underway, touches on many of the most sensitive and pressing issues in China today, including the role of the press, the possibility of a politically independent judiciary and the ever-precarious state of the Chinese self-image.
This curious but important tale begins on the morning of Nov. 20, 2006, when Xu Shuolan, a 65-year-old grandmother stepped off a bus in Nanjing, and fell to the ground. Just behind her was Peng Yu, a 26-year-old student. While others passed her by, Peng –- a self-described Good Samaritan -- rushed to her aid, accompanied her to the hospital and even paid her modest bill.
In thanks, Xu Shuolin -– a woman of modest means –- sued Peng for roughly $7,000 in medical expenses she claimed were due to the fall, including broken bones. The judge, in turn, invented a new “everyday experience” standard in the law, suggesting that nobody pays a stranger’s medical expenses without a guilty conscience. And on that basis, he ruled against Peng Yu, turning the case into shorthand for the decline of Chinese morality.
The “Peng Yu case” has become a talisman of modern China's failings, the easiest and most accessible example available to the social commentator looking to make a point about Chinese flaws and moral inferiority. And, to be truthful, since that famous verdict there have been several other high-profile “Peng Yu cases,” in which pedestrians failed to help injured strangers for fear of being sued. The most notorious occurred in October, when a national outcry ensued over a video of pedestrians passing by a fatally-injured 2-year-old who was struck by delivery trucks in a south China recycling market.
In the aftermath of that grisly incident, a real discussion about the need for a so-called “Good Samaritan law” began to take place in China, while one academic in southern China went so far as to form a foundation to provide legal and financial assistance to good Samaritans who specifically help the elderly. Of course, all of the Peng Yu-type incidents can't be blamed on Xu Shuolin’s decision to sue him, but the important point is that the national discussion about China’s so-called Good Samaritan problem was dominated by the injustice done to poor Peng Yu.
Or rather, it was until Jan. 16 -- when, in what seems to be one of the great scoops in recent Chinese journalism, the state-owned news magazine Oriental Weekly revealed the content of some newly discovered and disclosed documents. According to the trove, Peng Yu not only confessed to knocking over that supposedly greedy granny in 2006, but he actively solicited the local news media and online forum moderators to promote him as a martyred Good Samaritan.
On top of that, reports Oriental Weekly, he and Xu Shuolin secretly agreed on a modest financial settlement and had the decision sealed. So far as the two major players in China’s most notorious court decision were concerned, nobody ever had to know the truth of the matter.
The revelation that Peng collided with Xu, alone, would have been enough to send China’s microbloggers into paroxysms of recriminations. But what made the Oriental Weekly's discovery so much more potent, and so much more infuriating, was the revelation that law enforcement officials in Nanjing had received testimony and other evidence to the effect that Peng had knocked over Xu. Why was this testimony and documentation only released this week?
In the eyes of many Chinese, suspicion falls on the article's publicly identified source: Liu Zhiwei, director of Nanjing’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission, one of the city’s most senior judicial officials. The Oriental Weekly story quotes him as saying that he had the consent of Peng Yu and Xu Shuolun to disclose the case documents. But even if he didn’t, he noted, he likely would have done so, anyway, because the case had had a profound effect on Chinese moral standards. He's certainly correct on that count: According to years’ worth of polling on the subject, the Chinese public has become skittish about helping seniors and others in distress, for fear of being sued.
In other words, right or wrong, the disclosure, six years after the fact, has as much to do with politics and policy as with the rule of law. Criticism has come from some very high-level sources of the sort that don’t normally attack senior Communist Party officials. For example, on Monday, not long after the story was released, Yuan Yongjun, the Internet "censor-in-chief" at the Propaganda Department of Xi’an, a western Chinese city of 8 million, logged onto the Sina Weibo microblog to express his anger:
Three questions: 1. Why not expose the truth earlier? Why did you wait until today? What do you expect to accomplish by revealing the truth after a decline in moral standards? 2. Why didn't you disclose the truth during the judicial proceedings? 3. Even if the facts as presented are true, how can the departments that blocked the release of the truth ever make a proper apology?
Yuan is not the only Communist Party voice expressing skepticism about the timing of the disclosure, and its truth. On Tuesday, the influential Beijing-based China Youth Daily (owned and operated by the Communist Youth League, traditionally President Hu Jintao’s power base), ran a scathing editorial on the Peng Yu disclosures written by Chen Fang (likely a pseudonym), in which the truth of the case is tellingly placed in scare quotes:
Four years later, the truth is finally disclosed. If the present 'truth' is real, I'm afraid that what the "Peng Yu Case" has brought to the society is not a question related to social morality, but a question about how to handle the relationship between confidentiality and the right to know in socially sensitive cases. If belated justice is not justice, then what are we to call belated truth?
The answer to that question, from the point of view of this powerful party mouthpiece, is not flattering to those who are charged with maintaining Chinese public opinion:
Reports and opinions that deviated from the truth appeared during the judicial hearing, but the relevant departments didn't pay enough attention and didn’t guide them correctly. The result is that news reports gradually deviated from the truth and created a huge gap between the court decision, and public perception.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most scathing microblog commentary on the Peng Yu disclosures come from Chinese journalists, many of whom take strong exception to the notion that they somehow fell off in their professional duty to cover the case. Li Jifeng, a journalist with the independent Southern Metropolis Daily, possibly China’s best newspaper, took to Sina Weibo to address the director of Nanjing’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission, directly: “Please investigate the police officers who were involved in the investigation of Peng Yu's Case on suspicion of negligence and dereliction of duty.”
But, in the end, many journalists are looking past the matter of what role their profession did or did not have in creating the “Peng Yu case,” and wondering aloud at what such a case -- true or not -– says about contemporary China. Honest Green Beans, the online name of an editor at the Chongqing Business Daily, summarized these sentiments when he tweeted, on Sina Weibo, on Tuesday: “We should note that the reason people tend to believe that Peng Yu is innocent on this matter: it is inseparable from the poor reputation of society in general. The issue is how do we fix this problem systemically, not just control public opinion one-sidedly.”
Among those Chinese who are neither officials, nor journalists, that’s the kind of opinion that resonates most true. Thus, TobyZhang1982, a Sina Weibo user in Shanghai, might have been speaking for the millions who have already tweeted on this matter as of Tuesday: “No matter the truths or falsehoods in this matter, it is a fact that Chinese people have become more and more cold. We can’t turn back.”
In China, no judicial proceeding, or effort at opinion guidance, is going to change a sentiment like that one.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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