Yesterday’s New York Times reports that a truck driver from Henan province in central China, Shi Jianfeng, has received a life sentence in prison and a fine of $300,000 for avoiding paying the equivalent of more than $550,000 in road fees during eight months of highway driving.
Just the authoritarian Chinese government delivering justice as it usually does?
Perhaps. But Chinese legal experts are noting that this is the first case of a toll-evader receiving such a heavy sentence. And it seems that Shi’s case is rather a sign of changes in China:
With private car ownership soaring in China, the episode seems to have stoked mounting aversion to the tolls that have grown along with the nation’s rapidly expanding highway network. The county has been adding tens of thousands of miles to its highway system, and the vast majority operate with user tolls. A World Bank report in 2007 estimated that mile for mile, Chinese toll rates rivaled those in Germany, where incomes are far more extravagant. One of the capital’s more unpopular highway tolls, for example, is the $1.50 charged for access to the 12-mile highway to Beijing’s international airport. ……
Popular aversion to such fees has been inflamed by media reports of freeloading government motorcades and inflated tolls that end up in the pockets of local officials
Shi Jianfeng’s case is not the only instance of Chinese authorities acting in what seems like a rather heavy-handed way, to understate the matter. Early Tuesday morning, the artist Ai Weiwei went to his studio in Shanghai, to find workers and heavy machinery knocking it down. Ai had been told that an order to destroy the studio had been issued, but that this would not occur until after the first date of the new year which, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, starts on February 3rd.
Ai is, according to the January 12 New York Times, ‘one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party. ‘ He has supported Liu Xiaobo, the political prisoner who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year; demanded democracy for China; and criticized the government in the death of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Others championed by Ai include a Beijing man, Yang Jia, who, after being arrested and beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle, killed six policemen in a Shanghai police station. Yang ‘became a hero among many Chinese,’ and was later executed. And, Ai has made a documentary about the case of lawyer and activist Feng Zhenghu, who spent more than three months in Tokyo’s Narita Airport after denied entry by Shanghai officials.
It’s particularly important to keep China’s harsh treatment of its people—and of those who oppose its government—as, next week, President Hu Jintao is scheduled to make a state visit to Washington, D.C. Some experts are calling this visit the ‘most important visit by a Chinese leader to the United States in years.’ On Friday in a speech to the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated that the U.S. is not ‘bent on containing China,’ but is seeking to cultivate other allies in Asia, as Beijing continues to build up China’s military and economic power.
Yesterday’s Washington Post reported that President Obama plans to refocus attention on China’s record of suppressing free speech and political freedom, even at the risk of endangering U.S.-China relations. Said Clinton:
“America will continue to speak out and press China when it censors bloggers and imprisons activists, when religious believers, particularly those in unregistered groups, are denied full freedom of worship, when lawyers and legal advocates are sent to prison simply for representing clients who challenge the government’s positions.
“Many in China resent or reject our advocacy of human rights as an intrusion on their sovereignty……..But as a founding member of the United Nations, China has committed to respecting the rights of all its citizens.”
Clinton also discussed China’s conflicted relations with its neighbors and ‘its reluctance to bear down on a belligerent North Korea’; China needing to allow its currency to ‘rise more rapidly to ease the trade imbalance with the United States.’ Clinton also called on the Chinese military to be ‘open to more extensive ties with the Pentagon to ease American concerns about its motives.’ Her speech follows an economic address by Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and a visit to Beijing by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Commented Orville Schell, who directs the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society: “She’s saying, ‘We’re still trying to have a reciprocal relationship, but if it doesn’t work, we’re hedging our bets.’”
Keeping in mind the cases of truck driver Shi Jianfeng, of the artist Ai Weiwei with his demolished studio, and of the imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Liu Xiaobo, even if discussion about the economic and military issues occurs, many questions still remain about how China treats, or rather mistreats, its own people.
Photo by Jakob Montrasio.