Law in the Digital Age

At a workshop  on legal issues in China arranged by the Centre last week, I discussed how ICTs are used by legal institutions, how Chinese citizens get access to legal information on-line, and how legal debates and struggles are conducted in the digital age. In this blog I will address some of these issues.

In previous blogs we have touched upon the issue of how the Chinese government use ICT to improve governance, and in recent year also microblogging/weibo accounts with this purpose. Legal institutions are quite active in using ICTs for various purposes, including digitizing legal information, cases and judgements, improving their work and internal communication, as well as communicating with citizens. The on-line government project that begun in 1999 led to legal institutions, including justice bureaus, courts, procuratorates, and the police, at different levels establishing their own websites. These websites’ content and functions have developed over time, and most today include news, laws/regulations, selected cases and judgements, as well as in some cases more interactive features. The Zhejiang Provincial Court  website for example has news, case materials, information on how to bring a suit, legal forms for different types of cases, as well as provide a chat forum with court presidents. In 2000 the Ministry of Justice set-up a special Law Dissemination Website (中国普法网) to complement traditional law dissemination work. Provincial and municipal justice bureaus have also set up their own websites, for example Hangzhou). These websites provide Chinese citizens with easy access to relevant laws, regulations, and legal news, providing of course that they have access to the Internet in the first place as there exist huge digital divides.

Legal institutions have realized that they also need to have a presence on weibo, and 17.550 of the 60.064 government accounts belong to different legal departments.The belief is that weibo is a good platform to spread legal news and educate citizens about the workings of the legal system. Sina is an active actor in this respect and it encourages governments’ use of weibo and also provide daily rankings of the most influential government weibo. In late November Sina organized a special meeting to address “law dissemination in the age of weibo” 微薄时代的普法宣传. Sina, although being a private company, clearly has a position that is close to the government and explicitly argue for weibo playing a role that help “push for openness of the legal system, establish open information in legal work, actively establish a platform for dialogue between government bodies and the public, as well as raise the level of weibo use among government bodies.” A representative from the Sichuan Justice Bureau, whose weibo currently has 452.770 followers, gave a speech at the meeting explaining their use of weibo. A video of the speech can also be seen on the justice bureau’s weibo.

There is as yet not much research among scholars in the West on the use of ICTs among legal institutions but this would seem like a fertile field of research. However, Benjamin Liebman and Tim Wu as early as 2007 addressed the issue of how the internet could provide better communication tools between judges that would improve their work, and an article last year by Shumei Hou and Ronald C. Keith in China Information discussed how the Internet can facilitate judicial transparency and strengthen both judicial work and citizens’ right to know through publishing judgements on-line.

The Chinese police is also actively using ICT. They are also the most active government body on weibo with 10.152 accounts; and the Beijing police has as many as 4.5 million followers. The issue that has drawn the most attention in recent years is probably the rapid growth of surveillance cameras in Chinese cities as part of the development since 2005 of Skynet, a surveillance camera network that is used not only to capture crime and traffic accidents but also to mobilize security forces in cases of unrest. Dissidents and human rights activists are very concerned about how new technologies are used to monitor them, and how new social media apps, such as the up-and-coming and very popular WeChat, also can be used by the police for surveillance purposes.

There is thus a dual edge to the use of ICTs among legal institutions, on the one hand they can be used to strengthen transparency and legal work, but on the other hand they can also be used to control and monitor citizens with serious human rights consequences. However, it is not only the state and legal institutions that use ICTs. Legal scholars, lawyers, NGOs, and ordinary citizens also use ICT to spread information, question and supervise the workings of legal institutions, reveal power abuse, engage in legal debates, push for legal reforms, as well as provide information on individual cases. Their use signify an alternative vision of justice and provide a challenge to the official narratives. Many legal scholars have their own blogs where they discuss legal issues and reforms. Just this week some 100 scholars, lawyers, and journalists came together to call on the government to immediately ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that China signed already in 1997 but has not yet ratified. Information about the petition was quickly spread on social media. He Weifang, a well-known professor of law at Beijing University, was one of those who signed the petition and he also published it on his own blog.

Another very active group in legal debates on-line are lawyers. Many of them today have their own blogs and weibo accounts. Lawyer Si Weijiang 斯伟江 with a blog on the magazine Caijing, and 255.608 followers on weibo, has even put together some short video lectures on different legal issues that he has uploaded on his weibo. Lawyers use weibo to publish information on cases they work on and that traditional media might not be able to report on, to engage in legal debates, post legal news, and also engage in other public debates. Zhou Ze (127.419 followers) for example used weibo to create publicity on a case he was working on which encountered many difficulties and which the traditional media had problems reporting. He and others involved posted regular updates on their weibo during the trial, and thus served as their own media.

Many lawyers have developed quite a following on weibo thanks to their active use and the issues they address. Pu Zhiqiang 浦志强 had around 100.000 followers before his Sina account for the up-tenth time was closed down some weeks ago after he made critical comments about former security chief Zhou Yongkang. But Pu has now been “re-incarnated” on weibo under the new name @我爱岳西翠兰 Many people, including lawyers, who write sensitive things risk having their accounts deleted, or temporarily suspended during sensitive periods, although they often manage to re-register, which Chinese netizens’ jokingly describe as being “re-incarnated”. During 2012 Pu Zhiqiang was deeply involved in several re-education through labor cases in Chongqing while at the same time pushing for abolition of the system itself. Many people were sentenced to re-education through labor in Chongqing, sometimes just for simply criticizing the local government. Pu kept his followers updated on these cases on his weibo, and several of those sentenced to re-education through labor, such as Ren Jianyu, have now themselves opened weibo accounts and engage in the debates.  The re-education through labor system has long been criticized by many Chinese legal scholars and lawyers, and the government has recently indicated that the system is up for reform, if not necessarily abolition as Pu and others want.

It is not only legal experts and lawyers who are engaged in legal debates and expose cases of injustices on-line, ordinary citizens and victims of injustices also use ICT to get their stories out. There are many examples of petitioners and victims of land expropriation taking their cases on-line, although they often still need people with social and cultural capital such as lawyers and journalists to spread information about their cases. Teng Biao, with 28.498 followers on weibo, recently wrote an interesting article in China Perspectives that illustrate how different groups of people use ICTs in their legal struggles. He and many others talk about the simultaneous rise of the weiquan/rights defence movement and the development of the Internet in China.

Reflecting upon recent developments and legal struggles on-line it is worth commemorating the tenth anniversary of Sun Zhigang’s death in police custody. Sun was a migrant worker who in 2003 was beaten to death in custody where he had been taken because he didn’t have his ID with him. The case was exposed by journalists in the Southern Metropolitan News, and legal scholars then used this case to argue for the abolition of the custody and repatriation system itself. The Sun Zhigang case was one of the first cases where the Internet played a central role.

There are many problems with the legal system in China, and the use of ICTs can only partly help address some of those. Off-line actions by the government and concrete legal reforms are needed to improve the situation. Furthermore, many new legal problems have appeared as a result of the rapid development of ICTs and social media. Some of these problems are found in other countries as well, such as crime on-line, pornography, privacy issues, and hate speech, and some, such as  human flesh search, trying to identify and shame corrupt officials and others that might hurt innocent people, are more unique for China. However, how to protect individual’s free speech and privacy on-line against both governments and corporations, while at the same time protecting individuals against ever new forms of cybercrime, are global challenges that we all face. The specific challenges in the Chinese case and commonalities and differences with other countries are something that we will address in our project.






February 27, 2013

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