A Mud Battle Fought in A Quagmire

by    /  November 20, 2013  / 1 Comment

Censorship and corruption in Chinese journalism.

Chen Yongzhou

Express reporter Chen Yongzhu. Photo courtesy of Tienchi Martin-Liao via news.163.com.

Over the last 18 months Chen Yongzhou, a journalist for the Guangzhou newspaper New Express, wrote a series of articles exposing the wrongdoings of Zoomlion, a giant manufacturer of construction machinery and sanitation equipment. On October 19 Chen was arrested by the cross-province security police of Changsha, Hunan province, who accused him of defaming Zoomlion’s business reputation. Following this, in support of Chen, New Express published a bold appeal in the paper—“Release him!”—along with the statement, “Although our newspaper is small and poor, yet backbones we do have.” Three days later, on October 26, Chen appeared on CCTV. He conceded that he received bribes to compose false reports about Zoomlion. New Express quickly printed an apology on its front page saying, “Chen was instigated by others, accepted bribes and published numerous false reports.”

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison till 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

Alas! Within a week Chen’s backbone was broken, and so was the newspaper’s. Did Chen tell the truth on television or was his confession the result of torture, threats, suppression, and horse trade in a fabricated farce by the authority? We can only guess. Anyway, Chen’s case has not only triggered a discussion about censorship, it has also started a dialogue about the ethics of journalism in China.

The master-servant relationship between the government and the media in China is not a secret. On the day Chen appeared on TV, China Digital Times published a copy of the Chinese government’s censorship instructions under the mocking title “Directives from the Ministry of Truth.” The instructions were as follows: “Central Propaganda Department: New Express reporter Chen Yongzhou accepted bribes to publish a number of inaccurate reports. The media must use the full text of Xinhua News Agency’s wire copy regarding this incident, no exceptions. Do not comment, and do not publish images. All Weibo accounts managed by media must absolutely follow these requirements when posting.”

It’s widely known that Chinese journalists receive daily instruction from “above” and that certain topics and names should not be touched, or mentioned only in a vague way. These instructions are mostly delivered through phones or phonetic means, and are seldom delivered in print so as to remove any evidence of the censorship. However, the authority’s strong reaction to Chen’s criticism of Zoomlion indicates that high-level officials are involved in the company’s business.

The other side of the story is the issue of corruption in Chinese journalism. According to official and unofficial critics, a large percentage of reporters “receive red envelopes” (bribes) to write articles touting the backers. Zhan Jiang, professor of journalism in Beijing University of Foreign Languages, said in an interview with DW that, while there are several thousand media institutions in China, only a few like Southern Weekly, Caijing Magazine (Financial Economics), and Financial News avoid getting involved in corruption scandals. Zhan goes so far as to say that the majority of media personnel accept “red envelopes.”

Corruption is an unspoken rule, an abnormal phenomenon in society. The “red envelope” has become many journalists’ main source of income. Take the”red envelope” and publish “positive coverage,” or receive “hush money” for not publishing “negative reports.” Years ago, when the world was shocked by the numerous, frequent accidents in Chinese coal mines, the perpetrators—irresponsible coal mine owners—often bribed the media so that they’d keep the tragedies quiet. For example: Ten journalists received bribes in 2008 for not reporting an accident at the Zhangjiakou colliery in Hebei province where 34 workers died. In the same year, a similar accident happened at the Hebaoganhe coal mine in Shanxi province. More then 58 media workers received bribes from the mine owner for not reporting the accident. The unusual silence was so disturbing that even the official media criticized the situation.

This year Transparency International’s Integrity Award was given to journalist Luo Changping for his courageous achievement in revealing corruption in China. However, the 33-year-old deputy editor-in chief of Caijing Magazine did not print his award-winning exposes in Caijing. Instead, he posted them to his Weibo account, where he wrote about the rotten behavior of the high cadre Liu Tienan. Liu, who was the deputy chief of the National Development and Reform Commission, was eventually dismissed from his position because of Luo’s articles. Even though such an act could have cost Luo his career, his freedom, and maybe also his life, he was determined to publish, even without the support of his magazine. According to Luo, the three main challenges Chinese media workers face today are political pressure, bribes from businesses, and competition on social media. As a journalist he regrets that many of his colleagues do not use all of the possibilities available and that they fail when it comes to self-discipline, like Chen Yongzhou apparently did.

Can a corrupt journalist expose corrupt government officials? Professor Zhan Jiang has described the paradoxical situation as a mud battle fought in a quagmire. How can the ethics of professional journalism be upheld when media workers are poorly paid and under constant threat and pressure? Luo Changping is an example to all that one can still survive under such hard circumstances. In this extraordinary time extraordinary people are rare, but they do exist and illuminate.

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