Judge Imprisoned for Corruption Sues Newspaper for Defamation; Proceedings Conclude Without Verdict

December 6, 2004

Several media outlets in China have reported the conclusion of court proceedings in the defamation suit against the China Youth Daily filed by a judge imprisoned for corruption.

In August 2001, the China Youth Daily published an article entitled "Uncovering Yong Bao's Umbrella: a Godfather, a Godmother, and a Mistress," claiming that three government officials were acting to protect mafia boss Yong Bao. The article labeled one of the three, Jiao Meigui, an Intermediate Court judge in Luoyang, as his "mistress."

In 2003, Jiao was sentenced to 13 years and six months imprisonment for accepting gifts from Yong Bao and other mafioso. In July of this year, Jiao sued the China Youth Daily for defamation, demanding an apology and 20,000 yuan for emotional damage. A court heard the case last Wednesday, but adjourned without issuing a verdict. The China Youth Daily has said it is willing to print an apology.

Jiao was not allowed to attend the trial, but reports in China's state controlled media have focused on the fact that she was allowed to file the suit, despite being in jail for corruption. According to People's University law professor Yang Lixin (quoted in the Legal Evening News): "Because the right to reputation is one type of civil right, it is a right enjoyed by every citizen, and even though a criminal has been sentenced and is currently in prison, the only civil right that the law has deprived them of is their personal freedom, and those other rights that citizens possess for their personal benefit continue to exist, such as the right to dignity, the right to reputation, property rights, etc."

This case is the most recent of several high-profile defamation cases tried in China this year:

  • In October the People's Intermediate Court in Guangzhou's Tianhe district ruled against Guangzhou Huaqiao Real Estate Development, which had sought 5.9 million yuan in damages for defamation from China Reform magazine for its report that the company had been stripped of its assets, posted losses, and laid off workers as a result of its ownership changing hands several times. The court ruled that the publication was not liable for defamation because its sources - company and official documents - were reasonable and believable, and not based on rumors or fabrication.
  • In September, the Nanfang Daily was sued for defamation by one of the subjects of its article "Unsuccessful Emigration Leads to Financial Loss," for comments including "Ms. Hua set a snare".
  • In August, Chen Guidi and his wife, Wu Chuntao, and the publisher of their book - An Investigative Report of Chinese Farmers - were sued by former Linquan county Communist Party secretary Zhang Xide for defamation for allegedly making false accusations against him in the book.

No decisions have been issued in the Nanfang Daily and Investigative Report of Chinese Farmers cases.

China's defamation law remains relatively undeveloped. As one commentator put it:

There exists a significant shortcoming in China’s laws and legal interpretations with respect to defamation regulation, and that is we have never done an in-depth treatment to consider and differentiate the types of defamation litigation that can be instituted . . . For example, it is necessary to further limit the qualification of state official employees to litigate.

"Judicial Protection of News Freedoms," He Weifang, Legal Daily, 15 November 2002.

In Issue 6 of its “Explanation Regarding Certain Issues on Trying Cases of Involving Reputation” China’s Supreme People’s Court has provided some guidance with respect to defamation:

Reports by news units regarding the public documents produced, and public actions implemented, by government organs in accordance with their authority shall not be considered an infringement of a person’s right to reputation if the report is objectively accurate; if, however, the report is not consistent with the facts, or if the aforementioned document or exercise of authority has been rectified and the party refuses to correct its report, and as a result causes a third party’s reputation to be damaged, then it should be considered an infringement of that party’s right to reputation.

Unfortunately, this standard has the potential for chilling free expression in two ways. First, a public figure has no burden to show negligence, much less malice, on the part of the reporter, so there is no protection in the event of even accidental error. Second, what protection this standard does afford seems to be available only to “news units,” which are required to be licensed by the government. Individuals would not, presumably, be protected under this standard.

China's cultural and legal tradition tends to view defamation of government officials not only as a personal tort but also as a political crime in the same category as treason. In imperial China those who were found guilt of even the most oblique slights to the Emperor were considered traitors deserving of the harshest punishments. For example, in 1726 the chief examiner for Jiangxi province, Zha Siting, was found guilty of treason because, among other things, in one of the examination questions he had told his students to comment on the phrase "where the people rest":

Anyone could see, the charge ran, that this not an innocent textual choice; for if one juxtaposed the first and the last characters of the four character phrase, one came up with two characters that were recognizable as the reign name of the current emperor, but in each case missing the top stroke. Zha Siting, in other words, had been luring the students to think of beheading the emperor. . . . The emperor ordered Zha’s execution, but since Zha had died in prison during interrogation the sentence was changed to desecration of his corpse and the exile and enslavement of his entire family.

From "Treason by the Book," by Jonathan D. Spence.

In modern China the use of defamation or rumor mongering to incite subversion of the national regime or the overthrow of the socialist system is a crime punishable by up to five years of imprisonment, criminal detention, supervision or deprivation or political rights. A recent example of the application of this law occurred in mid-February, 2003, when a court in Xinjiang Province sentenced Tao Haidong to seven year’s imprisonment and three year’s deprivation of political rights for subverting the national regime. His crime was using the Internet to publicize "reactionary" essays that "willfully smeared and vilified the leaders of the party and the nation."