China with Polish Characteristics

January 29, 2008

Power of the people… one story at a time?

Filed under: Uncategorized — chinatalk @ 2:27 pm

Misery is common when ordinary people in China clash with the government system, and the tragedy of Wei Wenhua this month does not seem to be an exception:

Wei, 41, general manager of a Tianmen construction firm, was beaten to death on Monday afternoon when he was trying to use his cell phone to record a clash between more than 50 workers from the Tianmen Administration Bureau and villagers. (Xinhua)

For a quick summary of the incident, read this BBC account. Although abuse and corruption are not uncommon in this country, Wei’s senseless death, seemingly on a whim of the municipal security, hit the nerve among others and, once it got on the internet, began snowballing out of control – in their growing outrage, the Chinese people online began questioning the legitimacy of their government, forcing the Party to swift action. Soon the official in charge of chengguan, the municipal inspection force which carried out the beating, was fired, and about 100 other people placed under investigation. Almost just as many chengguan leaders from across the country wrote an open letter condemning the accident. It was incredible to watch how public awareness of Wei’s death forced a response from the government. Thanks to the internet and rise of citizen journalism, this case instantly became a poster child for official injustice. As noted in this Time magazine blog entry:

The Chinese web is a strange place, at once hugely constrained and chaotically free. But if there’s one area where the web’s ubiquity and utility meshes with China’s most pressing social issues, it is that of citizen reporting and the headache it gives local officials who had previously been free to rule the fiefdoms without the danger of interference from Beijing.  

That being said, how much difference will internet ultimately make? Although Wei’s case plainly shows the potential of internet to impact society, it also stands alone in the kind of response it managed to generate. Perhaps this can change in the future, but today most online activity in China is too scattered and wobbly to emerge as a coherent force with any real effect – it is more like a slow, painful process unable to gain proper momentum. And unfortunately even when an incident does inspire attention beyond its locality, the Chinese security apparatus proves ghastly skilled at containing the situation and rising smoke screens. Consider the case most often linked with Wei’s sensation and death – the 2003 beating of Sun Zhigang, which ultimately led to closure of migrant worker detention centers. A young college graduate, Sun has arrived to Guangzhou looking for work in fashion design. One day, after failing to present patrol officer with his ID card and temporary living permit, Sun was taken to the local police station and later, as his friends learned, transferred to migrant detention center. Few days later he was dead. Apparently the beatings started when Sun tried to ‘talk back’ during interrogation, defending his rights – the autopsy revealed that his death was result of shock, numerous burns and heavy internal hemorrhaging. The only reason this accident got nationwide attention and ended up making a difference was the courage of reporters from Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily, currently one of the sharpest, most professional papers in mainland China. The editor at that time, Cheng Yizhong, ran a carefully investigated story, stirring a storm across the country and prompting strong appeals from the public and the legal scholars for migrant law reform – the result was closure of infamous detention centers. One year later however, the officials who ‘lost face’ due to Sun’s story took their revenge:

In late 2003, local authorities in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, China’s richest province, began investigating the finances of the newspaper. Journalists’ salaries in China are notoriously low, and like many media organizations in China today, the paper had a practice of rewarding good journalists with generous bonuses. In December 2003, general manager Yu Huafeng was arrested on suspicion of corruption for transferring 580,000 renminbi (US $70,000) from the advertising department to members of the editorial committee.

On March 19, 2004, Yu was convicted of corruption and embezzling public funds and sentenced to 12 years in jail. Li Minying, an official with the Southern Daily Group, the paper’s parent company, was sentenced to 11 years for allegedly accepting a bribe from Yu. The same day, Cheng was arrested while on a trip to Sichuan Province. Police searched his house and confiscated a number of political books and magazines. Vice Editor Deng Haiyan was also arrested.

This mortified the media community in China and prompted many to speak up for the imprisoned journalists (go to china digital times for the full account), eventually resulting in earlier release for Cheng Yizhong and one of his friends. Cheng however, was expelled from the Party and relegated to a simple office job without permission to return to journalism. “In China, supervision by the media can only proceed within the existing system,” he once said bitterly. “Freedom means knowing how big your cage is.”

Sadly, this case illustrates how the intellectual dialogue and growth among people in China remain crippled by control of the government and its elites, trampling anyone who happens to tug on their status quo. China Development Brief, another fine publication which for ten years provided balanced, informative reporting for those seeking to understand the country and its changes, recently became another victim of this phenomenon – Nick Young, the founder and editor, was ousted from China for refusing to turn CDB into subordinate of the government (read the story) and the publication was subsequently shut down. In similar fashion, especially with the approach of Olympics, blogs are deleted, activists are jailed and even ordinary people harassed for talking to foreign reporters – and the internet as voice of the people and force of their opposition stands little chance of thriving. At best, it remains a medium of private dialogue, a broken archipelago of stories with occasional outpouring into the public.

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