On June 16, a county court in Hubei Province held a criminal trial in a case that for weeks had been the focus of considerable attention and controversy throughout China. On the docket was the case of a 21-year-old hotel waitress named Deng Yujiao (邓玉娇), alleged to have stabbed a local county official to death during a struggle that reportedly began when the official demanded sex from her. On the Internet—in blogs, chat rooms, and bulletin board posts—people rallied to Deng’s support, scrutinizing every move of police investigators for hints of a cover-up and demanding that she receive a fair trial.

Deng’s case is but the latest in a series of high-profile causes célèbres in which public sympathy is generated for ordinary “underdogs” who have lashed out in one way or another against corruption or abuses of power carried out by officials. Last year saw a similar response to the case of Yang Jia (杨佳), who was eventually executed for stabbing six Shanghai policemen in a bloody attack reportedly carried out in revenge over a savage beating by public security officers. After Deng Yujiao’s case was discussed widely on the Internet and even in official mainstream media, the outpouring of support for her and especially the calumny heaped on officials like the one who allegedly attacked her appear to have become too much for the authorities, who began shutting down channels for discussion as the trial neared.

After a hurried hearing, the Badong County People’s Court convicted Deng Yujiao on the charge of injury with intent, but ruled that she had acted in self-defense—though her actions were deemed to have been excessive under the circumstances. Because she was also determined to have reduced criminal responsibility for her actions (because of reported psychiatric illness) and had voluntarily turned herself in to police, the court decided to exempt her from criminal punishment.

The court’s decision was hailed by many, particularly in the foreign press, as a “victory for online opinion” and a potential “catalyst for social change.” In this view, such incidents, particularly when spread over the Internet, create opportunities for ordinary Chinese to express their opinions, assert their interest in public affairs, and demand accountability from government officials. As Wu Gan, a blogger who helped bring Deng Yujiao’s case to light, put it in an interview: “The final judgment conformed to justice and to public opinion.”

Compared to those who viewed the Deng Yujiao case primarily as a positive example of public opinion being mobilized on behalf of justice, the response from observers of China’s legal system was more ambivalent. Pu Zhiqiang, a veteran rights lawyer in Beijing, welcomed the court’s decision but told the South China Morning Post that it “reflected a limited victory for public opinion, but definitely not a victory for the law.” Weaknesses in China’s legal procedures can be a problem in any criminal case, but their influence is felt even more profoundly in major, important cases like Deng’s, where there is great public interest.

Pointing to some of the procedural problems in Deng Yujiao’s case, Chinese legal experts interviewed by the Guangzhou-based weekly newspaper Southern Weekend (Chinese only) argued that one could not judge whether justice had been done by simply looking at the outcome. They noted that Chinese law places serious restrictions on the ability of defense lawyers to conduct their own investigations and collect evidence during the crucial early stages of a case, giving police a substantial advantage in determining what evidence does or does not appear at trial. Xiao Han, an assistant professor at the China University of Politics and Law in Beijing, told an interviewer: “When the rights of prosecution and defense are not equal, the direct result is that investigators can select evidence according to their own needs, without any oversight over the selection process.” In Deng’s case, this resulted in the destruction of evidence that could have been crucial to proving defense claims that Deng had been the victim of a sexual assault.

The experts also raised questions about Deng’s mother’s decision to dismiss her daughter’s Beijing-based defense team—a decision that some critics allege was made under pressure from local officials. Noting similarities to the Yang Jia case—in which there was also a controversy over which lawyer was authorized to provide defense—Renmin University criminal procedure expert Chen Weidong notes, “These cases seem to have a common pattern: Beijing lawyers are not welcome.” Any use of such pressure to get defendants to drop qualified defense lawyers in favor of more pliable local attorneys would be a major infringement of a defendant’s rights and threatens to further tilt the balance of power toward the prosecution.

Allowing public opinion to have too much influence over the judicial process, as appears to have happened in the Deng Yujiao case, can have negative consequences—especially when China lacks adequate laws and institutions to protect the rights of criminal defendants and their defense lawyers. It is important to allow public opinion to be heard, but the strengthening of legal procedures is the key to developing long-lasting institutions that will truly enable Chinese courts to promote justice, argues Yi Yanyou of Qinghua University: “Their handling of the substance [of a case] might be correct and proper . . . but the problem is that substantive justice is not easily seen, whereas procedural justice is visible justice. If one does not act according to procedure—even if there is no problem with the substance—it will cause people to have