Will China’s new detention law matter? Ask Zhang Mingyu

“Zhang Mingyu isn’t out of danger yet.”

These words, posted at 7:37 p.m. Wednesday on the Sina Weibo account of Chongqing property developer Zhang Mingyu after his detention by police, mark the latest twist in a story of political intrigue leading up to this week’s legislative meetings in Beijing. As required by China’s hardworking censorship machine, the state media has approached these meetings with a heavy dose of old-school propaganda, along with excruciatingly dull depictions of handshakes and applause and descriptions of work sessions sucked clean of any controversy. 

But there are plenty of controversies–both of politics and policy.

Today, for instance, the legislature publicly introduced a revision of the criminal procedure law. The new law is an apparent improvement over a previous draft, which would have legalized the practice of detaining anyone accused of antistate activity, including journalists, for long periods without notifying anyone. Under this version, authorities will be required to notify families within 24 hours of detaining suspects.

That would be good news if the law were always followed in China. Unfortunately, the repeated disappearances of political activists, journalists, and lawyers into makeshift jails–at their homes or elsewhere–have been taking place for years outside any meaningful legal framework.

And when the stakes of power are high, as they are this week, the law seems especially flimsy. One sure way to be caught in the crosshairs is to deviate in your reporting–whether you are a journalist or not–from the staid official line on an important event.

That’s what happened to Zhang Mingyu.

Here’s a recap of the drama you won’t get from the People’s Daily: A month ago, microblogs broke the news that the former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun had appeared at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, apparently fleeing a criminal investigation. This was a big deal in China because of Wang’s high-powered patron Bo Xilai, who is–or was–a contender for a high-level spot in the upcoming leadership shuffle. The events seemed to indicate that Bo’s rivals were successfully sidelining him. (When Bo didn’t show up for a Politburo meeting today, Chinese netizens and the international media were all over it.)

Enter Zhang Mingyu. Zhang is a high-powered businessman and a member of the Chongqing legislature, according to international news reports. He also has a microblog. A few days ago, Zhang posted information that a Chongqing official with alleged mob ties had committed suicide.

Then, from his apartment in Beijing on Wednesday morning, Zhang blogged that “the jigsaw puzzle of Wang Lijun should be revealed.” He didn’t have a chance to explain what he meant by that. Chongqing police had arrived at his door by the afternoon, and had told him to return to his city and stop writing about Wang, his lawyer Pu Zhiqiang told international reporters.

“Police are in my apartment,” Zhang told the Sydney Morning Herald when reporters reached him by phone. “They want to put me under control.”

What was Zhang about to reveal? Pu says that his client had a compromising voice recording of Wang Lijun, the ousted former Chongqing police chief, The Wall Street Journal reported. More damning news of fallen comrades would complicate the official picture of consensus in Beijing. 

It is unclear where Zhang is now, or if he’s been accused of any crime. He hasn’t written anything since he noted “danger” on Wednesday evening, and he hasn’t been in touch with his lawyer. The Chongqing police have no jurisdiction in Beijing, Pu noted. Zhang’s sudden silence is one more reason for skepticism over the importance of Chinese laws as they are written.