Tea Leaf Nation

The President that China Never Had

Netizens are using a Korean film about late president Roh Moo-hyun as a subtle form of protest.

Image: Fair Use
Image: Fair Use

An activist lawyer heroically risks everything for his beliefs. Although he fails, his brave stand against authoritarianism wins him lasting admiration and changes the fate of his East Asian nation forever. The plot may sound seditious in mainland China, a country known for treating its activist lawyers shabbily. But it’s actually the story of Roh Moo-hyun, former rights lawyer and president of South Korea, who committed suicide in May 2009. A Korean movie about Roh called The Attorney has not only topped the Korean box office shortly after opening December 2013 (and went on to become one of the most popular movies in the country’s history) but has found a sympathetic audience among Chinese not quite ready to give up the ghost of idealism.

It has been a rough year for supporters of Chinese rights lawyers. Most notably, on Jan. 22 Beijing authorities sentenced lawyer Xu Zhiyong to four years in prison for "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public space." On June 13, after detaining law firm partner and noted defense lawyer Pu Zhiqiang for weeks, Beijing announced Pu’s formal arrest on charges of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble" and "illegally obtaining the personal information of citizens." Xu’s putative crime was organizing to advocate for educational quality and the disclosure of officials’ personal assets, while Pu was attending a seminar to discuss the June 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing.

The Attorney — which has not been screened in mainland theaters but is available on video sites there, where censorship is lighter — says nothing about Chinese power politics. Its plot is based on the so-called Burim Case. It occurred during the rule of Korean military strongman Chun Doo-hwan, and refers to 22 university students who were arrested and then, after being tortured, tried for forming a seditious book club. Roh left his cushy law job to defend the students during their 1981 trial. Roh lost that case, but it provided a launching pad for his political career beginning in 1988, culminating with a five-year stint as president of South Korea.

It’s hard not to see parallels between Roh — who passed the Korean bar in 1975 while studying in a dirt hut he built with his own hands — and China’s 21st century defense lawyers, a tightly-knit group of self-styled "diehards" known for their pride and seeming fearlessness in the face of official retaliation. On China’s censored web, the movie appeals in part because issues like democracy and activism in Korean history have strong parallels to China but are safer to discuss.

Starting on March 2014, users of Douban, a movie and literature review site popular among young Chinese intellectuals, began discussing the film in earnest, many honing in on issues of democracy and activism and taking implicit jabs at Chinese authorities. One user called the erstwhile Korean regime’s tactics "child’s play" compared to the "party that shall not be named," i.e., the ruling Communist Party. The user noted Korean authorities, even under military rule, "allowed arguments in court, the defendant had his own lawyer, and foreign media were allowed to report from inside the courtroom." (Chinese authorities have not been so forthcoming — at Xu’s January trial, journalists were manhandled outside the courtroom and Xu was not permitted to call a single witness.)

Given this backdrop, it’s not entirely surprising that many Douban commenters asserted the quality of The Attorney didn’t matter, although the site provides tools to rate films. One was simply impressed "that Koreans can shoot this film and watch it without being stymied by a review process or censorship," or "an invisible hand choking you." Chinese filmmakers, by contrast, need to find "the courage to paint on a larger canvass," even in the face of official censorship.

At least one actor appears to agree. On May 6 — just a day after Pu was detained — The Attorney received mainstream cred in China when actress Zhang Ziyi, famous for her martial arts movies (and not for her social activism), took to Weibo, China’s massive microblogging platform, to praise the film. She wrote to her 20 million-plus followers that the tale of "a lawyer who seeks democracy, rule of law, and justice, and is willing to fight for reason and truth" is "deeply admirable." That comment was shared over 16,000 times, high even for Zhang’s account.

In response, a well known (pseudonymous) liberal Weibo user who calls himself "pretending to be in New York" wrote that the movie brought audiences in Korea to tears because it "touched historical wounds." By contrast, particularly in the month leading up to the Tiananmen anniversary, Chinese authorities were careful to ban virtually all grassroots discussion of the incident. This explains why one commenter wrote, "only Koreans dare to shoot a film like this." But the parallels were too hard to ignore: as another Weibo user wrote, "It seems that every nation’s path towards democracy, rule of law, fairness, and justice is full of stumbling blocks and thorny impediments." The solution: "love and hope, and even more than that, courage and determination."

Commentary on the movie continues on Weibo. On June 19, one user opined that Roh sacrificed so that the country’s children would "not have to live in an absurd era." It was a principle the user said she would remember, "even if the soil under my feet hasn’t changed when I am old." Another wrote on June 20 that the film formed a "gigantic, farcical contrast" with reality. (The user claims to be from Yantai, one of the closest major Chinese cities to the Korean capital of Seoul). But even netizens keen to the film’s somewhat heterodox implications in a Chinese context stopped short of calling for change. "Chinese living standards need to rise by a factor of three before our middle class can make revolution," one Douban author argued. "It’s not time."

HT/Susan Jakes and "TK"

David Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.

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