6. Local Threats: The Bureaucrat's Tyranny
Violence, criminal prosecution, and censorship are often local affairs, initiated not by central authorities but by low-level bureaucrats, businesspeople, or criminal gangs.
Less than a hundred years after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, proximity to the seat of power still makes all the difference in political and cultural affairs. As in imperial days, edicts from the central government look different when they’re carried out in places like Guangzhou, in southern China’s wealthy and rapidly developing Guangdong province. The media in that city remain stubbornly independent of their masters in Beijing despite repeated attempts to draw them under official control.
But just as regional variation accounts for some of the best Chinese reporting and writing, in many other instances it allows local officials to suppress news coverage for their own parochial reasons, using weapons more brutal than those the central government employs. Violence, criminal prosecution, and censorship are often local affairs, initiated not by central authorities but by low-level bureaucrats, businessmen, or criminal gangs. Journalists who face reprisal at the local level are unlikely to get help from the capital city.
“In terms of personal safety, what investigative journalists fear most is the local mafia, hooligans, and thugs, and also the police,” said prominent Beijing-based journalist Wang Keqin at a May 2007 lecture at Princeton University. Wang said that he is regularly threatened for his investigative work around the country. In 2001, mobsters in the western province of Gansu put a 5 million yuan (US$650,000) price on his head after he exposed a securities scam. More recently, in March 2007, he was beaten with an iron rod while reporting in Shanxi province.
And while the actions of the central government and the Central Committee of the Communist Party are often predictable, the whims of the lower-level official are not. In the case of a 41-year-old Taizhou newspaper editor named Wu Xianghu, it was traffic police who killed him.
Wu was deputy editor-in-chief of Taizhou Wanbao (Taizhou Evening News), in the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, south of Shanghai. In fall 2005, the newspaper—with the approval of city authorities—reported that traffic police had been demanding unreasonable fees for the licensing of electric bikes. As many as 50 police officers descended on the paper’s offices while Wu’s colleagues shot photographs. The men beat Wu on the head and body, dragged him into an elevator, and lifted him into a police van as he cried out for help.
He was in and out of the hospital for several months, but he never fully recovered from his internal injuries, his wife told reporters. He died in February 2006 of liver and kidney failure, and no criminal charges were reported in his case.
COMMON SENSE AS A WEAPON
“Using common sense as a weapon, we will surely destroy the nightmare woven with fear and lies.”
Violent attacks, though relatively infrequent in Beijing, are an increasingly common risk elsewhere. Online reporting forums such as Xici Hutong post regular accounts of assaults by irate businesspeople, police, or young men hired by local officials to scare off reporters. City and provincial authorities protect their own, and they are unlikely to prosecute attacks on reporters unless higher-level officials demand it. With no law explicitly protecting the rights of journalists to investigate and report the news, central government intervention is rare.
Physical threats are only one tool at the disposal of provincial and county officials. Local courts often do the bidding of party bosses, so a criminal prosecution initiated at the behest of local authorities is likely to result in a conviction. This was the fate of Gao Qinrong, a Shanxi-based reporter who served eight years in jail; Li Changqing, a Fujian editor who completed a three-year sentence this year; Jiang Weiping, jailed for five years in the northeastern province of Dalian; and three Nanfang Dushi Bao journalists jailed in Guangzhou. All of these journalists offended provincial officials by exposing corruption or misdeeds; all found themselves accused of crimes such as leaking state secrets, corruption, spreading alarmist information, embezzlement, and even pimping.
Complicating this picture are unethical practices by the press itself. In 2005, central authorities issued new regulations that steepened punishments for journalists found to be taking bribes or seeking “illicit benefits,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency. This was a response to rampant corruption in the media industry.
“Reporters are subject to many tortures,” said Wang, the investigative journalist. “And they are also subject to many seductions.”
Unethical activities are by no means limited to provincial journalists, and one of the highest-profile news extortion cases involved Xinhua reporters. But low pay among provincial reporters—and an unclear line between editorial and advertising content—provides an extra incentive to make money through soliciting “subscriptions” and advertising revenue, and by accepting cash-filled “red envelopes” for positive coverage, or hush money to suppress bad news.
In the northern coal-mining province of Shanxi, where thousands have died in work accidents and mine bosses collude with the government to keep the news quiet, an industry has emerged in which fake reporters fabricate press cards simply to reap the kickbacks. (The government-issued cards, which all journalists are required to have by law, are designed to monitor and vet the ranks of media workers; many reporters manage without them, however, or purchase them on the black market.) In one of the best reports to emerge on the kickback phenomenon, Henan Shang Bao (Henan Business News) published a detailed exposé of a city official in the central Chinese town of Ruzhou who paid 200,000 yuan (US $26,000) in hush money to dozens of real and fake reporters who arrived at the scene of a fatal mine flood. Reporters from national and provincial news services were paid on a sliding scale of 100 to 1,000 yuan (US $13 to $130); more money was paid to the national news reporters, less to those who covered local beats.
“Compared to other cities, these are tiny amounts,” the city official told the reporter. “But Ruzhou is poor; it is all we can afford.”
Henan Shang Bao, whose operations are supervised by Henan provincial authorities, was suspended for publishing the exposé. The article appeared briefly on the popular news portal Sina before it was removed, according to Hong Kong blogger Roland Soong. Sina operates under instructions from propaganda authorities in Beijing.
Under these circumstances, it is not difficult to see why so many press workers choose to take the money.
At the same time, the policies of President Hu Jintao have further empowered local authorities. The censorship system long placed all provincial and county-level news outlets under the oversight of local agencies, subject to the orders of both the local and central propaganda departments. For that reason, the practice of yidi jiandu, or reporting across regions, emerged as an effective method of investigative reporting. Journalists traveling from Guangzhou or Beijing, for example, could get in and out of Shanxi or Fujian province before local propaganda officials had time to alert the Central Propaganda Department to shut down coverage. If not detained or physically attacked, or if they did not succumb to the temptation of bribes, these outside journalists could break news that their local counterparts could not.
But under Hu, and with the support of central authorities, local propaganda departments have improved their system of cooperation and communication. Guidelines that came into effect in 2005 prohibit provincial media from reporting outside their own region. Though some news agencies choose to break the rules, police and others use them as a basis to detain, harass, or attack journalists. As a result, local officials have more power than ever to influence coverage of their affairs.
Traditionally, foreign journalists were required to seek official permission to report in each locality, a law sometimes used as a club against the press. In October 2005, when men apparently hired by the local government beat two foreign reporters and viciously attacked a Chinese activist in the southern town of Taishi, the response of the Foreign Ministry was to berate the foreign media for failing to obey reporting guidelines.
“We express regret over these journalists repeatedly breaching relevant rules to carry out such reporting activities, especially when some media are always criticizing China for the lack of laws,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan, according to Agence France-Presse.
Temporary Olympic regulations—introduced in January 2007 and set to expire in October 2008—were intended to ease travel and reporting restrictions on foreign journalists. Under the temporary rules, foreign reporters no longer need advance permission from provincial authorities for every interview they conduct, and they are free to visit “places open to foreigners.” The looser restrictions were supposed to apply not only to those reporters covering Olympic events in the cities of Qingdao, Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Qinhuangdao, but also journalists traveling anywhere on the mainland, central government officials said.
But county and city officials have repeatedly disregarded the liberalized rules. In the first 16 months after the rules were enacted, the Foreign Correspondents Club of China (FCCC) recorded more than 230 instances in which local officials obstructed journalists in defiance of the looser regulations. In Zhushan, a town in the central province of Hunan, two BBC journalists reported being detained and interrogated in March 2007 when they tried to cover a riot. As is often the case, local police had a different interpretation of the rules than the central government. The Zhushan version won, and the reporters were ejected.
The same approach was evident in the days and weeks after the March 2008 demonstrations in Lhasa that led to riots by ethnic Tibetans. Protests spread to at least three provinces neighboring Tibet. More than 50 foreign journalists were turned away by police when they attempted to enter areas where disturbances were reported, according to the FCCC. Local authorities invoked emergency powers to effectively overrule the reporting regulations.
Local officials can themselves be ineffectual when a lucrative industry is involved, as New York Times business reporter David Barboza discovered when he, a translator, and a photographer were detained at a factory in June 2007. While reporting on a supplier of toys said to contain lead paint, the journalists were kept inside a factory complex in the southern city of Dongguan by a team of private security officers. Police and government officials who arrived at the scene were able to secure their release only after hours of negotiations with the factory bosses.
“We noticed that while our translator was giving an account of the day to the police,” Barboza wrote in the Times, “the factory bosses were laughing and dining in another room, making the nexus of power in these parts and in this age ever more clear.”