Social Order & the Expectation of Justice: The Death of Zhao Wei

China’s central committee should spend less time worrying about what its citizens are reading on the internet or the threat of a jasmine revolution and more time worrying about the fact that its structure is systematically failing to deliver basic security and legal recourse to its people.

I grew up under a right-wing dictatorship in Spain, I have lived in countries with multi-party democracies like Canada and the UK. Since 1999, I’ve lived in The Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  I’ve seen many political and social systems at work. Unlike many westerners, I don’t hold up multi-party democracies as the only civilized system of governance; they all have their strengths and their weaknesses.

However, historically, one thing is very clear: when the majority of citizens in a country no longer believe that civil justice is available to them through the established legal channels, you have a serious problem if you want to hang onto power. Any political system can cope with and survive a certain level of corruption. And there is no political or judicial system on earth that doesn’t have its serious flaws. But there is a tipping point at which expectations of fair treatment by the civil authorities drop so low, that people take justice into their own hands and, ultimately, become convinced that it is worth considerable bloodshed and instability to establish a new system with a civic structure that serves the majority better.

In January of 2011, Zhao Wei, a student from Inner Mongolia studying at the Hebei University of Technology, boarded a train to go home for the Spring break. It is extremely hard to know exactly what happened to him, but what is clear was that, over a dispute about moving seats on the train, he angered someone in a position of minor authority. He died in the custody of the Railway Police. Not only was there clear physical evidence that he was very badly beaten, but also evidence that an effort was later made to cover up this mistreatment. Read the outline of his story here.

Of course, most countries on the planet have their share of police brutality. Many societies have tolerated very high rates of this kind of behaviour. The difference in the case of Zhao Wei is that there is obvious evidence that news of his murder has been muzzled at extremely high levels. Many newspapers ran stories that were then suddenly pulled. Online reports disappeared.

Zhao Wei’s case is just the last in a long line of criminal cases which have been systematically buried by a collusion of a number of government branches. And this is what China’s leaders should REALLY BE FEARING. There is a clear accretion of simple, unpolitical crimes that are not being properly and fairly processed by the judiciary arm of the government. It’s just another example, after almost an entire village was infected with HIV, after a vast number of parents lost their only children as shoddily built public schools collapsed during the 2008 earthquake.

In any given society, people will tolerate only a certain level of systematic criminality before the leaders in power need to start worrying about their longevity. Oddly enough, the larger the cover-up, the more societies seem to tolerate it. The triggers, historically speaking, seem not to be the big offenses but the small ones. Perhaps this is because the public imagination has a hard time conceiving of the large scale offenses. So it’s the single, seemingly senseless individual tragedies that seem to stick in the craw most and become the rallying cry for change.

If China’s leaders want to hang onto power and maintain the system they have, Zhao Wei’s case is exactly the sort of thing they need to keep an eye on. Too many Chinese can personally identify with that poor student and his fate.

Too many young Chinese can stand in his shoes.

Zhao Wei