Writers sued for libel

New York, August 31, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the trial of two Chinese authors who wrote a banned book investigating local corruption and mistreatment of peasants in Anhui Province. The two went on trial for libel in Fuyang Intermediate People’s Court last week, and the proceedings ended on August 28. A verdict is not expected for another month.

In their book, An Investigation of China’s Peasantry (Zhongguo Nongmin Diaocha), husband and wife Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao described cases of abuse and extortion of farmers at the hands of corrupt officials, including Zhang Xide, former Linquan County Communist Party secretary. The book became an unexpected bestseller in mainland China. The publisher, People’s Literature, received a verbal order to stop distributing copies of the book this spring, according to international news reports, but pirated copies of the book continued to sell briskly around the country.

Zhang, meanwhile, sued writers Chen and Wu for damages of around US$24,000. Before the trial began, authorities denied an appeal by the defense to have the trial moved outside Linquan County, according to news reports. Zhang’s son is a judge in the courthouse in the city of Fuyang. Though his son did not hear the case, lawyers for Chen and Wu have stated they did not believe that the two writers would receive a fair trial.

Zhang has also sued People’s Literature publishing house for libel.

More than 20 local government officials testified in support of Zhang at the four-day trial, which began on August 24, according to the South China Morning Post. Several local farmers testified for Chen and Wu.

Libel cases are an increasingly common way of controlling the press in China. According to Yale professor Chen Zhiwu, who has studied recent libel cases, Chinese courts almost always rule against the media. Damages of $24,000 are higher than average, according to Chen.

“Although the Chinese government has encouraged citizens and journalists to expose government corruption, investigative writers like Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao remain at the mercy of the same corrupt system they have worked to expose,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “These politicized libel charges are clearly intended to exact retribution for criticism of public officials, and the case should be dropped immediately.”