The Chinese Court of Public Opinion

In one of my first posts, I asked the question “[w]hat is the place of the court of public opinion in the judicial hierarchy?” I was concerned at a story in which, as I described it, “in a few hours the court of public opinion heard and allowed an appeal from the Québec Court of Appeal, without minding such troublesome technicalities as listening to the other side or looking for evidence of allegations on which a claim is based. And in this instance, its judgment is not subject to appeal.” Now comes an interesting variation on this problem, casting a somewhat different light on my concerns, in the form of a story in the Globe & Mail about the court of public opinion in China.

Chinese courts cannot or will not hold the powerful to account – they are not independent, and perhaps also corrupt. “Thankfully,” writes the Globe,

the Internet – and specifically China’s wildly popular Weibo microblogging services – has rushed in to create a court of public opinion that now presides over cases that the country’s judiciary refuses to. And those public judgments are forcing government officials to reluctantly deal with cases they’d rather not.

Stories that would never have made it into the Chinese media spread on the internet, despite the censors’ best efforts. And sometimes, when online fury is intense enough, official media take up stories that the internet makes hard to ignore. In some cases, abusive officials even face sanctions. Yet even in these – rare – cases, “[j]ustice has yet to be fully served … and there are plenty of reasons to doubt it ever will be.”

In countries where the judiciary cannot or will not do its job of applying the law to both private parties and the state, the court of public opinion is the only one in which any semblance of justice can be done, and my worries about it may seem out of place. And yet they are not. Hearsay is not evidence; passion is not expertise; suspicion is not proof. Natural justice does not prevail on microblogs. Those whom public opinion accuses stand little chance of defence. The court of public opinion will do justice in some cases, but is bound to err in others. This is not to defend any of the Chinese officials – at the very least, they are helping maintain a system of brutal repression, and many of them are personally responsible for egregious abuses. But, while the court of public opinion is better than no court at all, it is no substitute for a real justice system.

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