Authorities in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang are probing the discovery of a charm to avert demons inside a wall belonging to the Shangzhi Municipal People's Court after the story went viral on the country's Internet, prompting satirical comment from netizens.
"The Shangzhi municipal Communist Party politics and law committee said it had set up an investigation into the reports, involving the party disciplinary and legal affairs committees and the state prosecution service, as well as other departments," state-run news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.
Photos of the magical plaque embedded in the brick wall of the court buildings, apparently by a remodeling project, made the rounds on Chinese social media sites.
The photo showed the plaque bearing the words of a traditional Chinese charm to ward off evil and bring good fortune, including the word "exorcism," or "banishment of demons."
An official who answered the phone at the Shangzhi municipal government offices on Tuesday declined to comment.
"The court doesn't come under our remit, because it is a judicial department, so you'll have to speak to them," the official said.
However, an official who answered the phone at the court declined to comment. "I can't confirm your journalistic credentials by phone," the official said.
Online reaction varied from incredulity to ridicule.
"They've lost all faith and now they're reduced to placating the gods and demons," Sina Weibo user @zhouyijia2012 commented on the photos.
"Shouldn't they get kicked out of the party for using a charm of protection?" @xilunyitianshuishiergexiaoshi wrote, while @xiaoshenting added: "Perhaps they're scared, and got a guilty conscience because of all the miscarriages of justice."
"Officials are so superstitious," wrote @jiuzhoucankao, while @35DUshijiao commented wryly on the atheist ruling Chinese Communist Party's pledge to rule the county by law. "So we're not doing rule of law, we're going to believe in gods and spirits instead," the user wrote.
Beijing-based journalist Zhu Xinxin said the plaque shows that the party's professed atheism is only a thin veneer for many of its officials.
"You'd think that all those court officials would have had years of communist education, and that some of them are party members, and that politically, they're all supposed to be atheists," Zhu said.
"Actually, their political beliefs aren't representative of their personal beliefs," he said. "Communist Party members and officials are divided within themselves on this issue."
"They privately subscribe to a whole different belief system, and all kinds of ghosts and demons and spirits," Zhu said, adding that the plaque could represent officials' fear of millions of ordinary Chinese who can't find redress for grievances against the government.
"At the same time, they see ordinary Chinese people as demons: psychologically, they're definitely on the opposite side to them," he said.
A Shangzhi resident surnamed Liu, who has pursued complaints against the government, said rule of law never existed in the court in the first place.
"Actually, the court already uses its own plaque [claiming to be a court] to fool people," Liu said. "There is no justice in the courts, no transparency, because they are all part of a system of vested interests."
"We are not welcome in the court system, and there is no hope for the rule of law," he said.
Reported by Yang Fan for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.