The conviction of Chinese journalist Gao Yu is proof of how much the Party still fears constitutional transparency, DW columnist Frank Sieren says.
The conviction of Chinese journalist Gao Yu is a setback for the slowly developing constitutional state in China. At the same time, China's President Xi Jinping has taken up the fight against corruption as well as reforming the judicial system. Clear rules provide greater stability, he argues. However, he must also react to increasing pressure from within society as the people's sense of justice deepens.
Without transparency, however, there can be no constitutional state. And there was no transparency for 71-year-old Gao. We know she was convicted because she allegedly leaked a secret party document to a foreign website. We don't know what was secret about it. To top things off, the document, which was published in August 2013, warns of the dangers of press freedom as practiced by the West.
Harsh critic of the system
One thing is certain, however: The journalist is highly critical of the Chinese leadership. Among other things, she accuses it of having created a combination of a "modern Nazi state and Stalinist communism." That can be regarded as irritating, but the reaction could also be the following sentence, falsely attributed to Voltaire but actually by the British writer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, whom Gao surely would have gotten along with famously: "'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That's still a romantic ideal in the West even today.
Of course, few people in the West fight for the right of others to voice an opinion they don't share. But it is a basic right to utter almost any opinion - a right that can be enforced in a court of law. That is still one of the biggest differences between China and the Western democracies today. Gao's conviction clearly showed that once more. It is not in accordance with the rule of law to exhibit Gao confessing on Chinese TV - a confession her lawyer later said was coerced, which is why she retracted it. She acted under pressure to protect her threatened son, the lawyer said.
Little was known just a few months ago about the charges, and little is known today about the verdict. Western diplomats were excluded from the trial. Gao's arrest is one of a surge of detentions of Chinese activists, dissidents, critical journalists and intellectuals that started about a year ago.
Deterrence is the aim
Just a few weeks ago, in early March, the rule of law was the key issue at the Communist Party's 4th plenary session, which is the Party leadership's annual meeting in Beijing. Transparency can't be enforced nationwide from one day to the next. However, it would have been easy to do so in a trial such as Gao's, if that had been the intention.
Once again, this verdict fuels a general suspicion: the Party and the state it controls do not want transparency because it would restrict their scope of power. It's evident, however, what the Party does want, and that is to deter. Which comes at a price. The party is damaging its reputation abroad, but what is even worse: It is gambling away the Chinese people's trust - trust the Party depends on today more than ever.
DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years.