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Justice: Socialist Core Values, Symbols, and Performance

Justice: Socialist Core Values, symbols, and performance

Presentation given at Lund University, Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies

24 February 2016


Justice is a complex idea to analyse in any system. In the People's Republic of China, Justice (公正 gongzheng) is not only a concept in moral philosophy, or political philosophy strictu sensu. Even more importantly, it is one of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s Twelve Socialist Core Values, and a key component of the morality and customs of society. Therefore, while the idea of justice is embedded in the political-legal system, it can also be embodied in fields and activities that go beyond the narrower structures of politics and the law. In this sense, the value of justice – not unlike the other Twelve Socialist Core Values – traverses various fields of knowledge and activity. It cuts across culture and the arts, politics, legal theory, and the practice of law. It is expressed by and through all of these fields. The main questions pursued in this presentation do not concern what constitutes justice in relation to the Twelve Socialist Core Values. The presentation instead discusses how the value of justice is embodied in those symbols which are most representative of Chinese culture, and acted upon in high-profile criminal trials by political-legal organs, the public, and Chinese as well as Western media.

Justice, Myth, and the Law*

In language, justice is a word. In moral and political philosophy, justice is a concept. In law, it is a principle. Justice is a complex idea to analyse in any system of morality. It is complex – not because the idea of justice is inherently difficult to understand. 

Each one of us is familiar with the idea of justice. Each one of us has, at least once, expressed his or her idea of what justice is. We have done so using verbal language, saying that something was just, or that it was unjust. Some of us, those of us who could not speak out in the face of a perceived injustice, may have expressed their ideas using means other than verbal language. That a concept is complex it does not meant it is difficult to understand. It means that the concept, or rather the word that is used to convey that concept, can have several different meanings. The word can be confusing to us because each one of us can, and often does, understand the same word in a different way. 

In a recent work, Delia Lin (2016) has identified at least eight different terms that are used, in Chinese language, to refer to justice. They are: “yi (义), buyi (不义), zhengyi (正义), gongyi (公义), gong (公), gongzheng (公正), yuan (冤) and qu (屈).”

The possibility to refer to the same moral value by using at least eight different words can further complicate any discussion of justice. For ease of reference, I will refer to justice using the word 公正 gongzheng. 

Justice/Gongzheng is a moral value, and a very important one, as it forms part of General Secretary Xi Jinping's Twelve Socialist Core Values.1 The adjective 'socialist' qualifies these values as part of a specific system of thought, and worldview – Socialism – as socialism has been adapted to the Chinese context, and reinterpreted over time. The Twelve Socialist Values are 'Core' Values because each one of them is a key component of the national spirit (民族精神 minzu jingshen) of Chinese society. Together, the Twelve Socialist Core Values constitute the national spirit as it exists at this point in history, and as it has always existed. In China, commentators have not gone further from this point, stating that the Twelve Socialist Core Values constitute a 'value system' (价值系统 jiazhi xitong), and that each one of them exists on a different plane (层面 cengmian). So while wealth-and-power, democracy, culture, and harmony are values that exist at the state level, justice is one of the four values that exist at the societal level.2

Any attempt to understand the idea of justice detached from the context I have just sketched may easily lead discussants astray. A similar point was excellently illustrated by Dr. Jonas Grimheden more than ten years ago. In 2005, Dr. Grimheden wrote a doctoral thesis entitled “Themis vs. Xiezhi: Assessing Judicial Independence in the People's Republic of China.” In his thesis, he explained how the perception of justice in our value system is substantially different from the perception we have of justice in China. To convey this point, the solution he found was using two mythical figures: Themis, the Greek Goddess of Justice, and the xiezhi (or xiezhai), a mythical animal of the Chinese tradition:

“At first glance, Themis, the goddess of justice in ancient Greek mythology, seems to have little or nothing in common with the apparently beast-like symbol, Xiezhi that has represented justice in China since ancient times. Themis, human and graceful, carried the scales and sword as her insignia to balance right from wrong and to defend what is just. This image may appear to stand in stark contrast to Xiezhi − the gruesome beast that gores the guilty with his one horn. Though ancient, these symbols easily reflect the opposing perceptions of justice between the Western world and China today − Themis conjures balance and fairness, while China’s symbol appears brutish and unjust.” (258)
Jonas Grimheden's work did not delve deeper into the symbolism of the themis or the xiezhi either: his work related to judicial independence, a strictly juridical concept, and was not concerned with more abstract principles, or with symbols and their meanings. 
The question of what these two figures have in common deserves a short and simple discussion.

The Themis is a woman warrior. As such, she does not embody the conventional ideal of graceful femininity, but violence and the power to kill: she carries a double-edged sword. A sword is a weapon, and while weapons may be used to protect the innocent and avert danger, a sword can be used to threaten or inflict punishment. The punishment inflicted through a sword is a punishment that maims or kills. The Themis carries the scales used to weigh human actions, signalling how her judgement is rational. Punishment is inflicted only after right and wrong have been carefully weighed. At the same time, the Themis is often represented wearing a blindfold. The blindfold may be taken to mean that she does not make distinctions while administering justice. Anybody may be equally subject to her punishment, should they be found to be at fault. How is it possible to know who has committed an injustice, and weigh the reasons for and against them, if a blindfold is worn over one's eyes? This is the question raised by the Themis' blindfold. To this question, there can be only one possible answer. The Themis sees. She does not see through her eyes, but through her intuition. 

Some Western and Taiwanese authors have found the equivalent of the Themis in a type of ceremonial column known as huabiao.

A huabiao column is made of white marble carved with images of dragons and clouds, and it is erected at the gates of places of power. Huabiaos guard the sides of the spirit way of imperial tombs, or watch the entrance to the burial sites of marqueses, dukes and princes. More than aestethic, their value is iconic: the huabiao pillar is a heavily stylized representation of a dagger-axe. The placement of a dagger-axe at the gates of palaces of power – be it the power of the living emperor, or the one of his ancestors – is a potent visual reminder of the power to take life, or allow life to be lived. Symbols do not stay the same over time. Changes in their shape and meaning are contingent upon the cultural, political and historical context within which they are created, and used. The dagger-axe was originally a weapon planted in the ground, used both to mark the direction towards which armies marched and to signal military power. The huabiao symbolized the power of the sovereign. By the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the dagger-axe had become a wooden column first, and finally a marble pillar with two stylized wings (Ren 1996). Until then, people had attached their petitions, inscribed their opinions and grievances on two wooden boards that hung from the sides of the wooden huabiao column. This way, the huabiao became a means the king and his officials used to acknowledge and react to popular sentiment. Today, the huabiao – together with the Temple of Heaven or Tian'an Men Square, has become one of the global logos for China. While some, like the Taiwanese historian Li Ao, have equated the huabiao with the tears of China, others have used the huabiao to market commodities ranging from cigarettes to guided tours of Tian'an Men Square. The huabiao perhaps no longer mantains an undisputed, direct relation to ideas about justice. 

The search for a symbol that still bears a direct relation to the idea of gongzheng brings us back to the myth of the xièzhì. Values that belong to a cultural tradition are literally embodied by those symbols most representative of that tradition. In the case of China, the symbol that best represents justice are not the huabiao columns on Tian'anmen Square but, the xièzhì.

It is common knowledge how the xièzhì was a goat-like animal with a shiny black or blue coat, who lived near water courses. Many other animals had two horns but, the xièzhì had only one, long, spiraling horn protuding from its forehead. All mythical animals have their own, distinctive temperament, and the xièzhì was no exception to this rule. The xièzhì was loyal and dependable. But, being an animal, he possessed a wild and violent side as well. Similar to the Themis, the xièzhì had an instinctive ability to tell the righteous from the wrongdoers, the sincere from the obsequious, and to distinguish between truth and falsehood. So uncanny was his ability that, whenever Magistrate Gao Yao was in doubt about the innocence of a person, he would call on to the xièzhì. The xièzhì would then come to Gao Yao's help, solve his doubts by sensing the guilty, and goring them to death. Because of this reason, Gao Yao held the xièzhì in the highest esteem and respect, considering him an auspicious animal.

Historical records tell us that from the highest antiquity until the modern era, legal officials would have the image of the xièzhì embroidered on their blue and golden robes, and on their hats. Statues of the xièzhì graced the entrance to magistrates' yamens, and the walls of the residence of imperial censors.

Today, judges no longer wear elaborate robes and hats but, the xièzhì is carved on their gavels, and statues of the xièzhì greet visitors to law courts. They occupy the same place as Themis does in the “West”. Does this mean that Chinese judges embody the xièzhì, or that Western judges invoke Themis? Beyond archaeological relics and other visual representations, the mythical figure of the xièzhì survives, today, in the written word.

The character law/法/fa is one of the two different guises under which the xièzhì presents itself to us, today. Perhaps, not everybody knowns how the three drops of water radical on the left symbolize the waters close to which the xièzhì once lived. These waters were later imagined to be as even as the judgment of the xièzhì...or the scales of Justice. At the same time, if stirred, they could kill as implacably as the xièzhì's horn..or the sword of the Themis. The horn of the xièzhì, and its supernatural ability to drive off (qu) lies and insincerity are stylized in the right part of 法. As the Themis, the xièzhì does not see injustice through its own eyes – he perceives injustice.

The other guise under which we can 'see', the xièzhì, sometimes literally calling on to it, is in the shape of the character gao/告, as it is used in all those composites which, as 控告, 原告, 被告, 告状 relate to the making of accusations against a natural or legal person, or to the state of being accused.

The lower part of the character represents a mouth, while the upper part is a stylized version of the judgment's horn of the xièzhì. If read symbolically, 告 literally stands for evoking the xièzhì and its infallible judgment. In Chinese mythology, the power to call on to the xièzhì was a prerogative of Magistrate Gao Yao only. In China, today the law – the 法, a modern incarnation of the unicorn-goat, has gifted everyone with the same power.



There are many ways in which accusations may be made. Filing a lawsuit against a natural or legal person is only one of them. Many avenues can be used to express the idea that a person did not receive what they ought to have been given, what they were promised, or the treatment that was due to them. Besides the legal system, the internet is perhaps the most popular venue where everybody can perform the role of the xièzhì.

My use of the verb 'perform' is by no means allegorical. In voicing their views on a perceived injustice, speakers are effectively making a judgment that appeals to the higher power of morality, as morality is understood by them – human beings who live in a contingent world, rather than in the world of eternal ideas. They, the ones who live in the world as the world exists here and now, are performing the same role the xièzhì played in myth. While the xièzhì's horn could kill by goring, once they are spoken, words can sometimes lead to comparable consequences.

This dynamic does not belong to myth or to magical thinking (De Martino), but to the actual workings of the legal system, as these workings can be set in motion by all those who make accusations. The case that perhaps, best illustrates this dynamic is a case that saw a 26-years old woman first turned into the conduit of an angry vox populi, then into a proxy to express opinions on China's reform path, and finally into an object of academic analyses (Sapio 2016, forthcoming). The woman goes by name of Wu Ying.


Wu Ying

In 2006, Wu Ying was a 26 year old Zhejiang woman. Having earned a professional diploma in cosmetology, she ran a beauty parlor, then a hair salon and a clothes and accessories shop in her home city of Dongyang. In April that year her life witnessed a major turn: Wu Ying deposited in her bank account RMB 50,000,000, which was used to established the Bense Trading Company Ltd and the Bense Holding Group Ltd. Wu Ying and her sister Wu Lingling were the majority shareholders of the group. Six months after the initial investment, the group had taken control of nine companies that included businesses as diverse as a car wash, a hotel and a logistics company.3

In the meantime, Wu Ying donated at least RMB 1,800,000 to local government institutions. Each of the known donations contributed in different ways to implementing local and/or central policies. In August 2006 two large donations were made. RMB 800,000 was donated to the Geshan Village Xizhai elementary school, which the school used to construct buildings that met Zhejiang province standards on 'model modern rural schools' (Zhongguo Dongyang 2006), and RMB 500,000 was donated to create a scholarship fund in Pan'an county (Pan'an Xinwenwang 2006). On 2 September 2006, the Group donated RMB 500,000 yuan to the Dongyang Glory Society (Renminwang 2006), a government organized non-governmental organization (GONGO) created 24 hours before Wu Ying made her donation (Zhonguo Dongyangshi 2006). The Dongyang Glory Society was the local chapter of the China Glory Society. Its offices were in the Dongyang City Administration Building (Zhonggong Dongyang Shiwei Tongzhanbu 2006), and its chair, Wu Meirong, was also chair of the Dongyang United Front Department. According to the Zhejiang Higher People's Court, from April 2005 six persons gave Wu Ying a total of RMB 14,000,000. From May 2005 to February 2007, Wu Ying received a further RMB 773,395,000 from 11 more persons. The press claimed she established two informal financial institutions, located in Zhejiang and Hubei, for futures trading and stock markets (Fazhi Zhoumo 2011). How Wu Ying became a highly successful financial trader in a little less than two years still remains a mystery.


Who is the xiezhi? 

The Anonymous Accuser

Wu Ying would have lived her life comfortably, had it not been for the anonymous accusations made against her on the internet. From 23 to 26 September 2006, a person writing under the nickname of “wmf50134” published five heavily sarcastic posts about Wu Ying and her wealth on the Sina bulletin board system. From September 2006 until today, the person no longer used that account.4 Nothing happened, on the internet at least, during the next 29 days. But on 27 October similar doubts about Wu Ying's wealth were expressed on the website Baidu Zhejiang.5 The Zhejiang press began reporting on Wu Ying on the very same day.

The Fourteen Men Without a Name

No sooner had media published it reports than 14 men, all Yiwu residents, kidnapped Wu Ying over a loan dispute, or so it was reported (Sina 2007). During the seven days she was held hostage, Wu Ying was taken to the cities of Hangzhou and Wenzhou and the provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu, where the men forced her to sign blank documents and hand over RMB 3,300,000, her jewels, the title documents to 14 flats, and 29 cars. After her release on 28 December, the blank documents signed by Wu Ying were used to mediate two loan disputes in her absentia, and the 14 men came to own the 14 flats she had purchased.

The Police

Wu Ying reported her kidnapping to the police, who held that there was no evidence to support her claims. On 7 February 2007, shortly after Chinese New Year, Wu Ying was detained on suspicion of illegally receiving public savings deposits (feifa xishou gongqun cunkuan 非法吸收共群存款),6 and was formally arrested after 37 days, on 16 March.7

The Court

Less than a week later, the central-level media leaked news about a list naming 137 Yiwu and Dongyang officials who all had allegedly given funds to Wu Ying (Zhongguogwang 2007). On 16 April 2009, the Jinhua Intermediate People's Court tried Wu Ying on charges of fraudulent fundraising (jizi zhapian 集资诈骗)8 with a maximum sentence of 15 years imprisonment, but the charges were later changed to the capital crime of financial fraud, punishable by death. On 18 December the court found her guilty of financial fraud and sentenced her to death with immediate execution. On December 30 she appealed her verdict to the Zhejiang Provincial Court, but on 18 January 2012 the provincial court upheld the conviction and the death penalty.

The Western and the Chinese press

The Western press reported the Wu Ying case as one of the proverbial female tycoon battling obstacles to financial market deregulation, weaving the narrative of the case around the theme of informal finance. While this was no doubt an important side to the case in China, arguments about the informal financial sector could not appease the Chinese public, whose rage continued to soar. For its part, Sina stoked the fire by stating that local officials had pressured the Jinhua court (Fazhi Zhoumo 2011) to use the death penalty in sentencing Wu Ying. Midst the all-too foreseeable denial by the Zhejiang Higher People’s Court that the Jinhua court was influenced by local officials urging capital punishment for Wu Ying (Zhongguo Guangbowang 2012), just one week before the second instance hearing, Wu Ying named her accomplices: the Jingmen People's Congress deputy chair, and the deputy director of the Jingmen branch of the People's Bank of China (Sina 2010). The Zhejiang HPC’s decision to uphold Wu Ying's death sentence opened the floodgates of the internet to a tsunami of insults, complaints, and accusations. On 21 May 2012 the Supreme People's Court refused to approve the death sentence and sent the case back to the Zhejiang HPC ordering a new trial. Wu Ying thus saw her sentence reduced to death with a two year reprieve, which is typically commuted to a life sentence. Oblivious to the fate of Wu Ying, the Anglo-American and European media advanced positions compatible with PRC pronouncements on the death penalty, on financial reform, and on enhanced public supervision of and participation to decision making.

The Public

By mid-December the public was engrossed by the media’s narration that gave important clues as to officials' involvement in the illegal fund-raising scheme. The public could at least hypothesize or speculate that Wu Ying could have been the figurehead for the Yiwu, Jingmen and Dongyang officials, that something had gone wrong with the investment scheme they ran together, and that Wu Ying had been scapegoated. For these reasons, the vox populi believed that the sentence imposed by the Jinhua court was unjust, and that Wu Ying was innocent, despite her involvement in a scheme totaling almost RMB 1 billion. In other words, the public held that Wu Ying's involvement in the scheme was not a crime. Such was the common feeling of all those who, in the days following the verdict's announcement, flooded the internet with angry postings, and supported the online campaign Wu Ying's father ran to try and save his daughter's life and reputation.

The first result after the uproar was the admission made by the deputy director of Yiwu's Commission for Discipline Inspection that at least 25 officials had been involved in the scheme and that some of them served in the public security and court systems. But, so the deputy director explained, these officials could not be investigated because fraudulent fundraising did not fall within the Party's jurisdiction (Zhongguo Xinwenwang 2010). Although intended to dispel suspicions about officials' interference in the case, a report by the China News Network (Zhongxinwang 中新网) instead poured more oil on the fire. And making matters even worse, the press once more leaked classified information about the involvement of two Yiwu officials, Ji Chengsong and Ying Junjun, in the scheme. This admission allowed the media to reframe the entire case as one of underground private lending (minjian jiedai 民间借贷), which China News Network did. The Jinhua presiding judge talked to the press to introduce a series of distinctions between underground lending and illegal fundraising, and calling for more regulation of the informal financial sector.

'Theoretical', 'heuristic' and 'epistemic' constructs

How could, then, the Wu Ying case be conceptualized? What theoretical, heuristic, or epistemic constructs, could be used to make sense of what happened, and place the events within a broader context, one conducive to a better understanding of justice in China? The possible constructs were three at least:

(1) Spectators of Justice

All those who were exposed to media accounts of criminal cases, included the Writer and her Readers, could be conceptualized as 'Spectators'. This choice would rest upon a careful consideration of the meaning of these terms. 'Spectator', which in English maintains its original Latin spelling, means not only 'to view' or 'to watch' but also 'to evaluate' and 'to judge'. Those who consume media reportage of a criminal trial, do more than just take in what has happened in court through trial footage aired on the evening news. They formulate judgements about the moral character of the parties involved in the case, they evaluate these parties, and articulate their own conception of whether or not justice has been brought to bear through the case. This moral dimension could be captured by 'Spectator'.

(2) The Public Opinion

All those who were exposed to media accounts of criminal cases, included the Writer and her Readers, could be conceptualized as 'public opinion'. The ultimate referent of 'public opinion' is the vision of an ideal liberal-democratic polity, which is absent from both the political order of the PRC and its ultimate goal, and from the Chinese equivalent term yulun (舆论) that is translated as ‘public opinion’. Yulun can, and indeed does, articulate moral judgments, but the most immediate connections that 'public opinion' evokes are to a 'public sphere' and to a 'civil society' understood as two components of a liberal-democratic political order. While some in China may have beliefs about the desirability of a liberal-democratic order, 'public opinion' is unable to account for the full spectrum of views about political morality that have been advanced in Chinese society. Also, this concept is foreign to the Twelve Core Socialist Values.

(3) The Surrounding Gaze

All those who were exposed to media accounts of criminal cases, included the Writer and her Readers, could be conceptualized as 'surrounding gaze'/围观/weiguan. The concept of weiguan, translated in English as 'surrounding gaze' (Teng 2013; Teng and Mosher 2012) is to anyone familiar with the semantics of the characters wei and guan, not simply devoid of any moral connotation. As it has been constructed, the concept of the collective gaze of a crowd that has gathered to watch an event can entail an element of moral agency. Or, it cannot. But, the nexus between moral agency and the concept of 'surrounding gaze' is un-interrogated. Moreover the watching gaze观/guan - at least as the character is sometimes used and commented upon in the Chinese classics - is a gaze that watches from an elevated place, such as a tower, a building or even a Taoist monastery (guan can also designate a monastery), rather than a gaze placed on the same level of what is observed.

Wu Ying 

To date, no one knows where Wu Ying is, what she does, or whether she had a chance to explain what justice means to her.

*Thanks to Nazarena Fazzari (Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan), for our discussion of etymology.

1The other ones are wealth and power (fuqiang), democracy (minzhu), culture (wenming), harmony (hexie), freedom (ziyou), equality (pingdeng), rule of law (fazhi), patriotism (aiguo), dedication to one's work (jingye), integrity (chengxin) and friendship (youshan). See “Opinion of the General Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on promoting and putting into practice the socialist core value system”, issued on 23 December 2014; also “Opinion of the Communist Party Group at the Ministry of Education and of the Central Committee of the Communist Youth League on promoting the construction of a long term mechanism to promote and put into practice the socialist core value system in all schools at all levels”, issued on 17 October 2014.

2The other ones are freedom, equality, and rule of law.
Dongyang Development Zone Bense Car Wash (Dongyang Kaifaqu Bense Qiche Meirongdian 东阳开发区本色汽车美容店); Dongyang Development Zone Bulanqi Laundry (Dongyang Kaifaqu Bulanqi Xiyidian 东阳开发区本布兰奇洗衣店); Zhejiang Bense Advertising Ltd. (Zhejiang Bense Guanggao Youxian Gongsi 浙江本色广告有限公司); Dongyang Bense Cleaning Services Ltd. (Dongyang Bense Xiye Guanli Fuwu Youxian Gongsi 东阳本色洗业管理服务公司); Zhejiang Bense Hotel Ltd. (Zhejiang Bense Jiudian Guanli Youxian Gongsi 浙江本色管理有限公司); Zhejiang Bense Computer Network Ltd. (Zhejiang Bense Diannao Wangluo Youxian Gongsi 浙江本色电脑网络有限公司); Zhejiang Bense Decorating Materials Ltd. (Zhejiang Bense Zhuangshi Cailiao Youxian Gongsi 浙江本色装饰材料有限公司); Dongyang Bense Wedding Ceremony Services Ltd. (Dongyang Bense Hunqing Fuwu Youxian Gongsi 东阳本色婚庆服务有限公司); Bense Logistics Ltd. (Bense Wuliu Youxian Gongsi 本色物流有限公司).
The Dongyang Bense Group. Black horse! Black horse!” (Dongyang Bense jituan, heima! Heima!), 27 October 2006, post available at

Art. 176, Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Xingfa 中华人民共和国刑法), promulgated on 1 July 1979 and effective from 1 October 1997.

First Instance Criminal Judgment no. 1 of 2009, Jinhua Intermediate Criminal Court of Zhejiang Province (Zhejiang sheng Jinhuashi zhongyuan xingshi panjueshu (2009) zhe jin xing we chusi di 1 hao 浙江省金华市中院刑事判决书 (2009)浙金刑二初字第1).

Art. 192, Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Xingfa 中华人民共和国刑法), promulgated on 1 July 1979 and effective from 1 October 1997. 


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