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A publication of the
Committee to Protect Journalists
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Chinese sources, especially dissidents and activists, remain at risk of crossing local criminal groups or police. But at least through the Games, foreign journalists no longer need to ask local permission to do their jobs. The lifting of this restriction affects not only those reporters covering Olympic events in the cities of Qingdao, Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Qinhuangdao (or in Hong Kong), but also reporters traveling anywhere within mainland China, government officials said.
How well this order filters down to the county and city levels is still an open question. In the northern city of Pingdu, in Shandong province, officials cited the new rules when directing all local departments to avoid leaks to foreign reporters; annual evaluations would hinge partly on their success in inhibiting negative coverage, according to the South China Morning Post. 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.
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. 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.