Villager detained for satirizing officials over environmental inaction

Demonstrators hold banners with slogans to protest against a paraxylene project in Jinshan district in Shanghai in 2015. Photo: AFP

The criminal detention of a Chinese villager who sent "ironic" silk banners to government officials to voice his anger over their inability to tackle environmental pollution in his village has triggered public debate over the spirit of rule of law.

Recently, Feng Yongjun, 43, a villager living in Huanglong village in the western Chinese province of Sichuan, was apprehended by the police for "illegally organizing demonstration and assembly". The arrest was made during his trip to the local Party committee office and environmental protection bureau, to which he and his fellow villagers planned to send two silk banners in a desperate move to raise the government's attention about the unsolved environmental problems in the village. Feng was later detained, while his fellow villagers were released.

The two silk banners respectively read "a unit good at passing the buck" and "inability to deal with pollution and serve the public". In China, a silk banner is normally awarded to a person or an organization doing good deeds. But here in Feng's case, it was used to satirize the government which has failed to perform its duties.

A relative of Feng said that the idea of sending "ironic" silk banners was a result of desperation after the 43-year-old villager was irritated by the local environmental authorities which failed to take efficient action to stop fish farmers from dumping droppings into an outsourced reservoir near the village, according to a report by the Beijing Youth Daily, a Party-controlled newspaper.

The report also quoted several villagers living near the reservoir as saying that the content of colibacillus in the well water in the village was found to surpass the national standards for drinking water safety.

Legally, the police defended its arrest and detention by citing Article 296 of China's criminal law, which states that a person should be convicted of illegally organizing demonstration and assembly if not allowed by the government or if the time, place and route of the demonstration and assembly are not in accordance with what the government stipulated previously.

However, some legal experts do not think that the villagers' behavior constitutes the crime of organizing unlawful protest and assembly because it did not disturb the social order, a key criterion for the sentencing stipulated under China's criminal law.

Ironically, Internet users began criticizing the local police for having double standards in its law enforcement operations by citing a newspaper report which said that Feng mobilized a team of his fellows in 2007 and 2014 to praise the government agencies for what they did also with silk banners and that the action, accompanied with drums and gongs, was not stopped by the local government.

On Monday, Zhang Zhiyong, a famous lawyer in China, said on his verified Weibo account that a local procuratorate has dropped the decision to arrest and detain Feng in accordance with the law after his colleague, the lawyer of Feng, shed light on the reasons why the villager's act did not constitute the crime of illegally organizing demonstration and assembly.

"It seems too arrogant (for the government) to have few demands on its administrative action while asking villagers to show their discontent in an euphemistic way," wrote an editorial of the Party-owned Guangming Daily.

The editorial also highlighted the role of the press in exposing the event, which forced the local government to terminate the outsourcing contract with the fish farmers.

In recent years, mass environmental protests have gained strength in China with people's increased awareness of the environmental protection. Protests in which demonstrators petitioned the local governments to drop planned projects of building chemical plants, waste incinerators and coal-fired power plants have always hit the headlines of newspapers and news portals, leading to the cancellations of the projects which were widely said to cause pollution and harm human health.


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