Lawyers of a well-known Chinese general's son accused of taking part in a gang rape are waging a rare, Western-style war of words against his critics in a reflection of the growing perception that public opinion counts.
The airing of accusations surrounding the high-profile criminal case via the Chinese Internet has been all the more unusual because the teenage defendant is a member of one of China's wealthy and privileged families, who usually prefer to bury salacious scandals — if they can.
Li Tianyi, 17, the photogenic, baby-faced son of Li Shuangjiang, 72, a military singer who holds the rank of general, has become the newest target of popular anger over abuses of power by the country's elite.
"At the moment, public opinion is not on Li Tianyi and his family's side," said Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. "China's public mood is this way when some wealthy or powerful people are involved and the opposing side is a weaker victim," he said.
"It's a protest against Chinese society's lack of fairness," Zhan added.
Since news of his detention in the gang rape of a woman at a Beijing hotel emerged in February, pictures of him and his family have been splashed across Chinese media and websites. The case surfaced after the alleged victim told police that some men she had been drinking with at a bar took her to a hotel and took turns raping her.
This week, just days after state media reported that Li and four others have been charged with rape, Li's attorney Chen Shu said in an interview with the official Legal Daily newspaper that his client would plead not guilty, a report that incited a storm of renewed criticism.
The lawyers also circulated a statement online pointing blame at the unnamed Beijing bar for allowing underage teenagers to consume alcohol. "This case happened after a minor and others who were in a bar late at night were persuaded by adult bartenders to drink large quantities of alcohol, and then checked into a hotel," the statement said.
This prompted the victim's lawyer to issue a statement saying that Li's lawyers' comments caused her great "grief and indignation" on top of all she had already been through and that she had also endured threats after the incident. The victim's identity has not been reported.
"The victim was wantonly beaten, insulted, and offended by Li and the others when she was isolated and helpless," the lawyer Tian Canjun said on his blog, accusing Li of threatening the victim to stop her from reporting the case. "The victim lived in great fear and helplessness for two days and nights, afraid to tell anyone."
Many news commentators also criticized the boy's lawyers' statement. "Not a single word in the statement mentioned the failure of the boy's guardians, instead it's the entertainment venue's fault, or the hotel's, and the adult men and women who accompanied him in drinking or persuaded him to drink. The whole thing gives the impression to people that everyone else is guilty, only Li is innocent," said a commentary in the state-run China Youth Daily.
The strategy adopted by Li's lawyers reflects an increasing recognition that public opinion might have the power to indirectly sway some court decisions. Courts are controlled by the Communist Party and verdicts in many cases, particularly high-profile ones, have to be approved by the party's local politics and legal committees.
But in today's China, where hugely popular social media has enabled the widespread dissemination of information in real time and the monitoring of events, officials are more mindful that some decisions will trigger public outcries — and potentially spark the kind of social instability that the party fears so much.
"Does public opinion help to realize justice, or does it interfere with a fair judiciary? This is in dispute," said Zhan, the Beijing media scholar. "These types of cases are decided by political leaders. The media cannot directly interfere with the judiciary, but the media might influence the political leaders, and then they in turn interfere with the judiciary."
Li's lawyers also sought to appeal to patriotism, saying the media were duty-bound to "protect and cherish the veteran artists who have spent most of their lives bringing songs and laughter to the people" — a tacit reference to the older Li, who is famed for his patriotic odes.
They even invoked China's new leader, Xi Jinping, in a reference to his call for political and legal departments to ensure that the people can feel like fairness and justice has been served in every case.
One of Li's lawyers, Wang Ran, confirmed by phone the authenticity of the statement circulating online but declined further comment. The victim's lawyer could not be reached through his office in Beijing.
The rape charges aren't the younger Li's first brush with the law. He was sentenced to a year in detention in 2011 as a 15-year-old for attacking a couple over a minor traffic dispute and threatening onlookers, in a case that attracted widespread condemnation online.
Li, who was allegedly illegally driving a souped-up BMW at the time, was ridiculed in the media as a spoiled brat and his father was forced to make a public apology for failing to check his son's bad behavior.
Associated Press researcher Flora Ji contributed to this report.