You may have been following the sensational case of Li Xingong, the former number two Party official in Yongcheng city, Henan, who is alleged to have raped a number of underage girls. According to Xinhua, Li’s arrest was formally approved earlier today. As lurid as this case is, I wouldn’t normally comment on a criminal matter like this, even noting that Li used to be a higher-up government official. This was not a case of corruption, misuse of public funds, etc. If the allegations are true, the man is a sex offender, and his actions (unless we learn something new) were not directly related to his public responsibilities.
That being said, there is another twist to this case that I’m frankly still trying to unravel: the role of public pressure. As you know, I have a great deal of interest in cases where the public seemingly exerts an influence on the judiciary, prosecutors or the police, usually in criminal matters. As I’ve said many times, the general trend disturbs me; the criminal justice system should generally be immune to public pressure. If not, scary things can happen.
So does the case of Li Xingong fit into this category? That’s certainly the message I get from reading the foreign press, which includes the following writeups:
Keep in mind that these articles, particularly AFP and Reuters, were picked up by a very large number of foreign media outlets.
So what’s the message we are supposed to pick up from these headlines? Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds to me like a government official was held/arrested only after the authorities were pressured into doing so by “bloggers” (most likely a reference to microbloggers on platforms like Sina’s weibo — let’s call these guys “weibots” to keep it simple).
Because virtually every person in the world outside of China who read about this case in English now thinks that this is yet another notch in the belt of weibots who are keeping the cops “honest” in China, I thought I’d read a bit further and see how this public pressure played out in this case.
Imagine my surprise when I couldn’t find any evidence whatsoever that Li’s arrest/detention was the result of online pressure. I am seriously confused. I went back to take a look at the English news and saw that the articles themselves talk about the case as “sparking online anger” and “prompting outraged comments” from the weibots, but nowhere is there any explanation of how that anger/outrage was at all instrumental in Li’s detention.
As usual with a case like this, the facts are unclear. Several local news accounts claim that Li was caught in the act near a Middle School on May 8. He appears to have been formally arrested last Friday, or about 2.5 weeks after he was initially detained for suspicion of rape. An announcement of the arrest was made on Sunday, and the approval of the arrest was issued today.
If the above timeline is accurate, it means that the formal arrest occurred almost three weeks after he was caught in the act. Were the cops dragging their feet? If there was public pressure involved here, that would be my assumption, but the news reports and online chatter I’ve read do not focus on any time delay or outrage with police procedure specifically. (If anyone with criminal procedure experience in China is reading, feel free to chime in if something sounds suspicious here.)
Instead, online comments talk about cover-ups and delays without really explaining when or how that happened. One assumption seems to be that it’s simply not possible that Li could have engaged in this sort of behavior for so long without authorities knowing about it (and covering it up). Maybe, but again, I don’t see where this is all coming from aside from reflexive distrust. Could Li have raped a large number of girls for years without his colleagues knowing about it? Well, why not? I assume he tried to keep his activities secret.
One other thing to note on procedure is that between May 8 and the formal arrest, an investigation was conducted, which included searches of Li’s personal possessions, and interviews of witnesses. Moreover, and I haven’t been able to determine this from what I’ve read so far, I assume that Li wasn’t just released on his own parole during this time but was in custody.
I’m not seeing where the weibots come into the picture. The anger and outrage are real and significant, but did this have any effect on what the police were doing? Is there any evidence that the cops were sitting on this case or somehow being lenient with Li because of his government status? I just don’t see it.
One issue that has been raised by many is the number of alleged victims. The authorities and state-run press seems to have settled on “more than ten” or, as Xinhua stated, eleven. Other sources, including online chatter, puts the number much higher, with one report saying “hundreds.” David at Tea Leaf Nation finds fault with the local authorities:
Making matters worse, local authorities either hid, or completely failed to understand, the extent of Li’s crime. A press release by Yongcheng authorities just two days ago said that “According to investigation, Li Xingong is suspected of raping over ten girls.” But according to the anonymous reporter, “A survey of victims’ families lasting over ten days revealed the number of Li’s victims far surpassed those recorded on his computer, most likely numbering close to 100.” Police have explained that Li himself admitted to over ten.
When in doubt, I’d normally go with David’s opinion. But playing devil’s advocate for a moment, I can also see why the authorities would be conservative with those numbers. I’ve seen this back home with cases involving multiple victims. The cops will often tally up the alleged victims based on those cases for which they think they have irrefutable evidence, even if it appears as though there were many other victims.
In other words, the cops might be in effect saying “At this time, we think we can prove 11 counts of rape, although there may very well be additional victims.” Certainly a possibility, although as David mentions, the weibots are definitely not predisposed to give the local authorities the benefit of the doubt. And let’s face it, no one would ever take that lower number and say “Give the guy a break. He only raped eleven underage girls, not a hundred. He’s not that bad.” I don’t think so.
I don’t usually like to churn out 1,000+ words only to end with “I don’t know,” but that’s where I am with this case. The point is that I fail to see how this can be correctly characterized as an instance where the weibots somehow forced to cops to act. If I’m right, the foreign press, or at least the editors over at AFP and Reuters, screwed this up royally and came to an erroneous conclusion.
More disturbing than any media failure is the rush to judgment by the weibots. The automatic assumption that Li’s actions had somehow been known and covered up prior to May 8 or that the local authorities would definitely try to cover up his crimes even after he was detained, is troubling. It suggests severe credibility problems of local officials, although that’s not exactly news. The level of distrust that is illustrated by these types of cases is startling.