By Michelle Mengsu Chang, BASC Research Assistant
“Sue me if you dare, my dad is Li Gang.” Over the past month, this phrase has become ubiquitous on every Chinese website and online community. It came from a 22-year-old man named Li Qiming, from a small city called Baoding in Hebei Province. On October 16th, Li Qiming, while drunk, drove onto the campus of Hebei University at high speed and ran over two female university students. One of them died on the spot, and the other was badly hurt. Li Qiming did not stop the car but kept on driving toward his girlfriend’s dorm. On his way back he was forced to stop by students and security guards who had gathered around the dead girl. When he got out of the car he said only one thing: “Sue me if you dare, my dad is Li Gang.”
As it turned out, Li Gang was but a deputy police chief at a branch office of the Baoding police force, and Baoding is only a minor city in Hebei Province. Yet even with this low level of influence and connections, his son could boast impunity after taking the life of a girl and breaking the leg of another.
This is not the first time accidents like this have happened in China. Almost every month there is news in China about children of rich and powerful parents speeding down busy streets in luxury cars and killing pedestrians. But Li Qiming’s arrogance, total lack of remorse, and utter disrespect for the rule of law is unprecedented. Immediately, angry citizens took the incident to the Internet and the story spread like wildfire. Millions wrote long articles condemning the abuse of justice, while others made sarcastic comments about social ills in China. The feeling of outrage was universal. Following the incident Li Qiming was temporarily imprisoned while awaiting trial. On October 22nd, China Central Television (CCTV) released a video showing Li Gang making an apology to the public. Li Gang wept in front of the camera, and bowed down for half a minute until the reporter stepped forward to stop him. However, the TV station did not even make an attempt to interview the deceased girl’s family. In fact, around the same time, all major news agencies were recalling their reporters who were reporting in Baoding on developments of the accident and banned further publication regarding the scandal. Critical articles and commentaries also started disappearing from the Internet. Furthermore, the attorney for the girl’s family reported that he was asked to terminate his representation in the case by the Bureau of Justice in Beijing. Meanwhile, legal experts in China revealed that Li Qiming would be sentenced to three years at most.
Today in China, people everywhere are expressing their anger at the Li Gang scandal. University students in China and abroad have been passing around petitions to be presented to the central government, demanding that the Administration take the matter seriously. Yet each of these attempts has been abruptly silenced. The right and wrong in this case is crystal clear and people’s demand is simple: that Li Qiming be severely punished, that the girl’s family be given a fair answer, and that the rule of law be upheld and respected. What an average Chinese citizen is most indignant about is not only that none of these demands have been fulfilled, but that an obscure little bureaucrat like Li Gang can trample on the sense of justice of an entire nation of people. The likelihood of people’s outrage at the scandal transforming into a major social unrest is rather small. In a few months’ time, most people will lose interest in the case, learn to live with reality, and move on to other things. But if this is indeed how the incident will come to end, a sting will remain in China’s collective consciousness.
When debates on the Li Qiming case had barely started to die down, on November 10th, a man named Zhang Lianhai in China was sentenced to two and half years in jail. Zhang Lianhai is the father of a victim during the tainted milk scandal in 2008. That year, tainted milk power produced by one of China’s most trusted companies resulted in the death of six babies while 50,000 other babies were hospitalized for serious kidney problems and 300,000 were sickened to various degrees. Each child diagnosed with kidney stones from drinking the milk was promised 2000 RMB in compensation, equivalent to $300—a pathetic amount in China’s expensive healthcare system. Zhang Lianhai, a former journalist, represented thousands of parents to demand better healthcare packages for their sick children. He rallied legal support and wrote persuasive articles on his blog. While he won the sympathy of the Chinese population, the government still decided to seize him from his home and put him behind bars for “inciting social disorder.” Unsurprisingly, news reports on his sentence that were shared all over China’s online communities spurred an explosion of public anger.
The impunity of Li Qiming and the incarceration of Zhang Lianhai are seemingly unrelated. But these two events, together with thousands of other controversial legal cases, are posing serious questions about the state of the Chinese society. For years, as the West criticized China for absence of democracy, corrupt governance, and human rights violations, the Chinese government and defensive citizens have come up with many excuses. The country is too big. The people are too many. Most of the citizens are not educated enough to make informed decisions. You cannot lift 1.3 billion people out of poverty without hurting a few… But in some cases, where even the least informed of citizens can tell right from wrong, where every sensible person knows that something could be done, there is no more excuse. Today, the legitimacy of the Chinese government depends on its ability to intoxicate its citizens with a 10% annual economic growth rate and appease them with illusions of a harmonious and affluent society. Every Li Qiming, every Zhang Lianhai that emerges is an invaluable opportunity for the government to win the trust and goodwill of its people by upholding the rule of law. Yet almost every time, the government has chosen to disappoint. There might be a day where the Chinese economy will begin to slow down, where people’s demand for justice will have to be answered, and where another Olympics and World Expo and National Day parade will fail to distract them from the real problems in China. There will not be a Li Gang to save the Party. What will the Party do then?
One thought on “To Hell with the Rule of Law, “My Dad is Li Gang””
I agree that China's legal system is in dire need of change. However, while you use repeated Western criticisms to emphasize the Chinese government's lack of legal oversight, I have to question to what extent is such outside censure linked to the China's stubborn refusal to reform.
It seems to me that vilification from foreign powers will not only continue to fall on deaf ears but reinforce China's unwillingness to change due to a strong belief in non-intervention, fear of being perceived by the people as weak and desire to seem like a "global leader" who gives but does not take advice (wonder where we've seen that before).
So far it seems unlikely that Chinese party leaders will pursue fair implementation of the laws without clear evidence that neglecting to combat the egregious corruption that is currently tolerated means losing their legitimacy with the people.
Some, those who are more optimistic, are convinced that this high regard for appearances and "face" will no longer resonate with a younger generation more apt to view both domestic and foreign policy through a more global and progressive lens. Only time can tell if that is case. What is clear is that legal reform remains exactly as the Chinese see it: a domestic issue that demands an internal solution.
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