In Guizhou, Journalist Intimidation On Display

Der Spiegel’s Bernhard Zand recaps the tragic November death of 5 homeless boys in Guizhou, and the official backlash faced by journalist Li Yuanlong after he brought the story to light:

Unemployed journalist Li’s report created so much pressure that the official media finally weighed in on the story as well. On Nov. 19, the government-owned television network CCTV contacted Li and asked him to find the garbage collector. On Nov. 20, Universal Children’s Day, state-owned news agency Xinhua published a report that even pointed out the contradiction between the deaths of the five children and Xi’s rousing words.

Now officials in Bijie released the names of the dead boys: Zhonglin, 13, Zhongjing and Chong, both 12, Zhonghong, 11 and Bo, 9, all had the same last name, Tao. They were cousins, the children of three brothers, two of whom were migrant workers in the booming city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. The boys had been left in the care of the third brother, who was struggling in the bitterly poor village where he lived. Conditions were so bad there that the boys had run away. The city of Bijie also fired or suspended eight officials, including the director of the elementary school the children had attended, and where they hadn’t been seen in weeks.

But the children weren’t the only victims. While he was doing his research for CCTV, state security officers parked their SUVs on Li’s street and knocked on his door. They told him that things had gone too far, and that the case had been solved and he should delete his blogs and stop working on the story. Li refused. They threw him and his wife into a car, took them to the provincial capital Guiyang and put them on a flight to Haikou on Hainan, a resort island in the South China Sea.

When someone recognized the prominent dissident there, two officials dragged him off to another city. They told Li that the authorities had in fact considered issuing him a passport after the 18th party congress, so that he could visit his son. But that, they added, was now no longer an option. “Assume that you won’t see your son for the next 10 years, and perhaps not even for the rest of your life,” they said. They forced him to write a last blog entry, to the effect that he was traveling for personal reasons, to resolve a “family matter.” After that, Li’s voice fell silent, and he disappeared from the radar for the next four weeks.

Zand and a colleague visited Li in December, getting a first-hand glimpse at his situation and running into trouble of their own while investigating the boys’ deaths. From Part 2 of his report:

When Li told us about his arrest, his research and his abduction, it was with the muffled fury of a journalist who has been repeatedly prevented from reporting on what he knows. When he talked about his son in Ohio, he paused and swallowed. And when he reached the point in his story when the police came knocking on his door, there was another knock on the door. Li placed his finger over his mouth, disappeared for a few minutes, returned and said quietly: “That was one of the neighborhood security men. He had noticed movement.” A few days after his return from Hainan, Li said, outgoing President Hu Jintao was in Bijie, and after that he was no longer guarded as closely as before. But that, he said, would likely change again.

When we arrived at the village, neighbors prevented us from meeting with the boys’ family. It was unclear to us whether this was because the family didn’t want to see us, or whether the presence of Zhao and our other escorts intimidated them.

When we returned to the city, one of the police officers from the hotel joined us for dinner. After apologizing for the rude reception on the previous evening, he tried to ascertain what our next plans were. He also suggested that we refrain from reporting too critically on conditions in Bijie, noting that criticism is bad for the investment climate in the region. We remained under observation, and government agents sitting in the lobby filmed us whenever we left the hotel.

When we returned at 10:30 p.m., the light was on in my room, the bedspread had been pulled back and the curtains were closed. When I switched on my camera I noticed that my memory card was empty. My iPad had been plugged in incorrectly and I couldn’t switch it on anymore. Water was dripping from the plugs for the headphone and the charger. A mobile phone that I had left in the room had also been submerged in water. All the files on the desktop of my computer — and that of my colleague — had been deleted. Someone had broken into our rooms while we were out and manipulated and destroyed our devices.

See also censorship instructions regarding the incident sent to the media by China’s Central Propaganda Department, part of CDT’s “Directives from the Ministry of Truth” series.