Saturday, 15 January 2011

Shackled for life

There’s been coverage in the UK recently of the question of prisoners’ right to vote in elections, and a similar story has appeared in the Chinese media.
The Xinhua News Agency has just reported that a prisoner in the southwestern city of Chongqing was allowed out of custody on Wednesday to register his marriage. The fact that Qiu Ke and his girlfriend Huang Ying were positively mobbed by journalists and TV crews as they arrived at Jiulongpo District marriage registry is an indication of how novel an event this was. 
Huang Ying, a 33-year-old divorcee and mother of one from the coastal city of Hangzhou, was reported to have arrived in Chongqing two years ago to find work. There she met 37-year-old Qiu Ke and fell pregnant, but when he was arrested and detained on suspicion of gang-related theft she went to the city’s Public Security Bureau to ask permission for him to be allowed out of gaol to marry. Otherwise, she argued, her child would have been born without a father.

As a legal act, getting married in China is hardly romantic at the best of times: officially at least it’s a matter of handing over some certification and photos to a civil registrar (the extravagant wedding feast normally comes later, and has no legal effect). But when the groom arrives handcuffed and squeezed between policemen in riot gear toting machine-guns it’s certainly not going to be the day every girl dreams of. That probably explains why Huang Ying was in tears throughout the proceedings.
Still, Qiu Ke and Huang Ying have made a little bit of history. It would have been an easy matter for the Public Security Bureau to refuse permission, yet somebody somewhere thought it worthwhile to send a signal that in a small way at least the issue of prisoners’ rights are being given attention. It’s hard to judge whether permission would have been granted had Qiu Ke already been sentenced, but we should remember that it was only in 1983 that statute law in the UK finally granted sentenced prisoners the right to marry. Put that way, China doesn’t seem so far behind.

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