Deng-Yujiao-Photograph-AFP-Getty-ImagesThe Deng Yujiao case of May 2009 in China came to national prominence. It was also widely reported in western media. Beneath the surface of what seems to be a victory of public opinion and social justice lie structural problems of China’s democratic reforms: weak concepts of rule-of-law and human rights, and a sensational public opinion. For China to move forward, a healthy civil society must develop to spread democratic values. It is the responsibility of intellectuals and elites, as well as every Chinese citizen. Even though the Chinese government has shown little will to reform, every Chinese has the responsibility to act – before it is too late.

The case of Deng Yujiao has every reason to be a landmark case in China. It cuts into the heart of so many issues troubling contemporary China. Apart from the abuse of power and law in favour of vested interest which has dominated the national debate, it shows the nation’s serious deficit of rule-of-law, human rights and dignity, and a rational public opinion.


The case of Deng Yujiao

Ms Deng Yujiao was a waitress at a hotel in the city of Badong, Hubei Province of China. On 10 May 2009, she was doing washing in the laundry room of the hotel spa when Deng Guida, a local Communist Party official, entered and demanded “special services”, a euphemism for sex.

When she refused, Deng Guida and another party official tried to force and push her down on the sofa, slapping her with wads of cash. Deng Yujiao pulled a fruit knife out of her bag, stabbing Deng Guida to death and slightly wounding his colleage.

Ms Deng called the police to try to save the dying man and turn herself in. The Badong police arrested her and charged her with homicide. She was refused bail.

The case came to national prominence through internet fora and chatroom. 4 million posts were garnered across the nation, showing the public sentiment against corrupt and immoral officials . Swells of public protest broke out across the country. At her trial on 16 June 2009, the court found her guilty because she used excessive force even though she was acting in self-defense. However, she was released on account of diminished responsibility and because she has surrendered to the police and the officials had made “major mistakes”.

After the trial, western media reported that Chinese websites were “euphoric”. Internet users hailed the ruling as “a victory for the people, a victory for justice”. Human rights lawyers also welcomed the verdict but said it reflected the anxiety of the authorities about public anger rather than proper justice being realized. Pu Zhiqiang, a prominent lawyer, commented that it was a compromise to find her guilty because that way the authority could save face on behalf of the official who was killed .


Rule-of-law and the public opinion

In China, an effective oversight and monitoring system to check those in authority is non-existent. Abuse of power by those in authority is common. When faced with obstacles, officials will use unjust and illegal ways to achieve their aims. What is unfortunate is that these are often hidden from public eyes, unless disclosed by the media. Some of the cases were brought to social justice because of media and public pressure. The Deng Yujiao case is a perfect example. This showcases the extraordinary value of the freedom of speech in contemporary China.

In the Deng Yujiao case, while she was found guilty, she was released. It was a triumph of justice, but not a triumph of the rule-of-law. One aspect of a modern society – the alignment of legality and rationality – was remarkably absent here.

The reality is that the judicial system is manipulated by different political and social forces, resulting in this separation of legality and rationality. The verdict appears to be a political settlement, a cynical attempt to save face for the authority and defuse public anger.

This would be a Chinese characteristic in the foreseeable future. Without transparency, surveillance and a working judicial system, this kind of public anger eruption against unchecked power abuse will only be replayed again and again.
Without proper leadership, public opinion is a double-edged sword which can lead China into this trap. While there is an awakening of civil rights in the public, it is still expressed as a rudimentary request for a crude form of “justice”. It is a manifestation of the weak development of concepts of citizenship and civil society in China. A more ideal course would be to pursue justice on the basis of formal procedures, legality and rationality – not at the cost of the spirit of rule-of-law.

The transformation of the public opinion into a rational force for good would be an important task for China. China needs more who dare to question whether these kinds of politically state-managed resolution are really a substitute for due process and a fair, transparent legal system in which the ordinary can have confidence.


Human rights and dignity

After the case has galvanized public opinion in China, in a rare move the conservative All-China Women’s Federation and other women’s groups have demanded fair treatment for Deng Yujiao . However, the final verdict is far from a fair treatment.

According to the third paragraph in Article 20 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China , Deng should not be guilty since she is acting for self-defense:


If a person acts in defense against an on-going assault, murder, robbery, rape, kidnap or any other crime of violence that seriously endangers his personal safety, thus causing injury or death to the perpetrator of the unlawful act, it is not undue defense, and he shall not bear criminal responsibility.


Shortly after the case, it looked as though Ms Deng was facing a murder charge after defending herself against sexual assault from a number of assailants (indeed that might be the case had there not been a public outcry). In the final verdict, Deng was found guilty of “intent to harm”, but the court used a finding that she had a “mood disorder” to justify the lesser charge. In this case of doubtless self-defense, it is outrageous to see the court distorting the facts and using psychological disorders to discredit the victim.

The act of rape, as an assault on the freedom of women, is a serious crime – a violation of women’s dignity, right and respect. Not so, perhaps, in the eyes of Chinese officials. Therefore, this distorted ruling is possible – basic human rights of individuals have to give way for the dignity of the Communist Party officials.

The All-China Women’s Federation issued only a brief and restrained notice during the investigation of the case (author’s translation): “We are highly concerned about the progress of the Deng Yujiao case. We understand that local authorities and judicial departments put in a lot of attention and efforts to the case. We believe the authorities will process the case according to the laws and we will pay due attention.” Both before and after the verdict, public attention was also predominantly focused on the officials’ abuse of power, but rarely showed concerns of the psychological damage done by the incident to the victim herself.

It is not the intention here to argue that Chinese do not share universal human rights values – this is far from the truth. However, the case makes one wonder whether Chinese social values have been distorted too long by the bitter struggle between the establishment and the disenfranchised – to the extent that the disenfranchised shows more their anger against the strong than care over the weak.

A belief in human rights, dignity and love is the basic foundation for democracy and rule-of-law. It is important for China that these humanity ideals not be poisoned by bitter social struggles, for they are the last guarantee for a peaceful transition towards a democratic society.


The future of civil society in China

We could imagine three outcomes for Deng Yujiao: 1) “guilty, with punishment”; 2) “guilty, but with no punishment”; 3) “not guilty”. The fact that we saw the second instead of the first outcome shows the increasingly powerful influence of China’s civil society, media and Internet.

However, if we are to see the third instead of the second outcome, it requires further strengthening of the concepts of human rights and rule-of-law in Chinese society. Development of a healthy civil society is key. For too long, Chinese society has been polarized between the ruling and the ruled, the rich and the poor – true for the past, true for the present – and made more serious by the recent economic reforms without corresponding political advancement.

What the Deng case shows is that this polarization between the government and the grassroots can only bring about a compromising response from the government, balancing the interests from all different angles: the dignity of the Chinese Communist Party, and the demands from public outrage. Sooner or later, this balance will break.

What China needs is a non-violent sustainable democracy and human rights movements, led by intellectuals and professionals, which can promote democratic values, rule-of-law and human rights. Only in this way can the public opinion be transformed into a rational force for change, opening a frank dialogue with the government to bring about constructive reforms.

Recently, however, the Chinese government is acting in the opposite direction, cracking down human right lawyers and non-governmental organizations (most notably the Open Constitution Initiative) taking cases involving civil rights and corruption .

Today’s China faces an immense challenge of social inequality and collapse, but let both sides join in creating a new endeavour, not a new balance of power, but a new country of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure.

If I may apply the inspirations of J F Kennedy to China: This and the future generations of Chinese have been granted the role of defending freedom in China’s hour of maximum danger. I do not shank from this responsibility – I welcome it.

Refuse to believe in the lies of the tyranny and speak the truth; sign public charter and declare embrace of universal values; speak on newspapers and magazines about social injustices; travel with friends and understand the harsh realities of the countryside in the nation; start free internet campaigns to condemn the firewalls of the government; start a company which emphasizes fairness and care instead of market Darwinism; talk with friends over dinner not about the stock market but a book; talk with friends not about movie stars but human right activists.

This much all Chinese citizens should pledge – and more.

Let the businessmen operate with social conscience; let the journalists uncover social injustices; let the lawyers help the weak and the helpless; let the NGOs lead the mass towards enlightenment; and let the officials be blessed with the vision for political reforms.

Finally, let all of us stop self-criticizing our own inability – my individual power is too small to bring about any changes. Let us now believe that in our own hands rest the final success or failure of this country’s course. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light this country and spread love, justice, freedom and dignity – what China can truly contribute to the world.


Notes and References

“Civic-Minded Chinese Find a Voice Online”, The New York Times, 16 June 2009,

“Waitress Deng Yujiao who stabbed to death Communist official walks free”, The Times, 17 June 2009,

“Chinese outraged over pedicurist who stabbed lecherous official”, The Times, 27 May 2009,

Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, revised at the Fifth Session of the Eighth National People’s Congress on March 14, 1997,

The notice, dated 22 May 2009, is available in Chinese at the website of the All-China Women’s Federation,

“China shuts down office of volunteer lawyers”, The New York Times, 17 July 2009,