BEIJING: Chinese Customs, which have absolute authority to seize items and stop any illegal activity in customs, have brought the government in trouble as a woman who was having copies of her father’s memoirs accused them for unfairly detaining her.
Chinese customs officials, like the ones shown here in August at the Lukou International Airport in Nanjing, have broad powers to confiscate items. One woman who had copies of her father’s memoir seized has sued the government.
This year, significant legal reforms have tried to make China’s judiciary more accountable, and make it easier for citizens to sue the government.
But those changes may not take effect soon enough to help Chinese citizens who are punished without being told exactly what they did wrong. One Chinese woman is suing the government for what she says is exactly this predicament.
The case will go to trial even as China is taking unprecedented steps to reform its legal system. The Chinese woman, Li Nanyang, is based in the United States and works for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. She recalls coming home through the Beijing airport last year with her family.
“My husband and son-in-law cleared customs smoothly,” she says. “Then customs opened my daughter’s suitcase. They found a dozen or so books. They hauled the rest of us who had cleared customs back in and confiscated all our books.”
Li says the customs officers couldn’t say why they were impounding the books.
The officers told Li: “We don’t know if we’re supposed to confiscate these books or not. We have to give them to our superiors to inspect. Only then can we return them to you.”
“I could tell right off the bat that, unlike narcotics, they had no clear standard by which to judge whether or not our books were illegal,” Li says.
Li says customs let her family go. But they confiscated 53 copies of her father’s memoirs.
Her father, Li Rui served as secretary to Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s. Li later criticized Mao’s policies and was sent into internal exile. Li is now 96 and lives in Beijing. He is seen as the standard bearer of the country’s liberal intellectuals.
The books were published in Hong Kong. That’s where mainland Chinese often publishes books when censorship makes it impossible at home.
Chinese customs declined to be interviewed about the case saying; “We are not clear whether they have a blacklist of banned books, or some sort of ad hoc process,” he says. “We hope customs can make this procedure public during the trial.”
Under Chinese law, 12 kinds of printed material can’t be brought into China. They include, for example, anything that attacks the Communist Party or is obscene or harms national security. It’s also illegal to bring in anything that authorities determine should not enter the country. China’s leaders have recently suggested for the first time that citizens can’t be punished for breaking rules they can’t see.
“People can do anything that the law does not forbid,” Li explained. And the flip side of that, he said, is that “the government can’t do anything it’s not authorized to do.”
But whatever the law says, the political reality is that the Communist Party intends to maintain its control over information, including banning and confiscating books.