The Story of a Chinese Internet Writer-turned Journalist
Eighteen months ago, Shen Yachuan was a greenhorn Internet writer hurting to seek cyberspace justice for a murdered high-school teacher. Now, he is a journalist and has worked at some of China’s most daring newspapers.
After bringing the story to national attention through an exclusive online report, Shen said he had finally found some peace of mind. But the fact that the brutal murder of the whistle-blower remained unsolved would keep prodding him in his pursuit of justice – through both journalism and the Internet, he said.
It was in May 2002 that Shen Yachuan read of high-school teacher Li Shangping. Shen had quit his job as a primary school teacher only a few months before and gone to Shanghai for a white-collar job at a small company.
One day, a brief story in the newspaper China Education Daily gave him a shock. A high-school teacher from his home province of Hunan had been murdered. Assassinated, to be exact. The newspaper, which had run opinion pieces by the deceased teacher accusing local education authorities of graft, hinted that Li Shangping might have been killed by a professional hit man hired by his powerful enemies, but it stopped short of further investigation. The report gave sketchy details of the case, and no other media picked up the clue.
The story haunted Shen like a curse. He became sleepless thinking it over.
“It just made no sense,” Shen said. “There are a lot of whistling-blowing on the grassroots level in China, with ordinary people accusing the rich and powerful of corruption, but how often do you hear of a hired killer?” Besides, like the deceased teacher, he too was from a whole family of teachers from a small rural town in the southern Chinese province.
“I felt pained at heart to know that this happened to a fellow teacher, a townsfolk,” Shen said. He did an Internet search on the teacher and found out that the latter had written to many newspapers and posted numerous articles on the Internet exposing the corrupt activities of education officials in Hunan Province. A major accusation was, they embezzled millions off the paychecks of thousands of local teachers, landing them in abject poverty. It was an egregious but common crime in China, and one the central government had vowed to strike hard against over the years.
Shen had started to surf on the Internet barely a year ago, and had become a frequent of some of China’s liberal Web forums. Through some of these he quickly got into touch with a close friend of the victim, who happened to be a local TV journalist. A trip was soon arranged for him to travel to the victim’s hometown.
“I wanted to do some investigation, find out as much as possible about the teacher and his murder.” Shen said. After all, it was not the first time he had done something like this. Only a few months before, an established journalist from the official China Youth Daily had threatened to sue him after he published another investigation on the Internet over one of the reporter’s stories. He had criticized the story, also on educational issues in Hunan, for its over-speculation and weakness in factual reporting. The lawsuit never materialized, and he had heard from the reporter no more.
Shen posted his story, titled “A Personal Investigation into the Murder of Teacher Li Shangping” , on the Internet in July. He had traveled to the victim’s hometown, inspected and taken photographs of the very spot where Li had been found, 400 yards from his home, with a bullet hole through his head. The damage was such that local police, upon finding the teacher’s body the next day, at first concluded he had been crushed by a heavy truck in a hit-and-run at night.
Shen had also visited Li’s family, talked with his distraught father and heart-broken mother. But he admitted at the end of his report that he could have done better; had he been a professional journalist assigned to cover the story, he should have interviewed witnesses of the murder scene, local police and government officials, including those the teacher had accused of corruption.
“The curious circumstances of this case are strong enough to raise suspicions that it’s not a random incident but a well-plotted murder, (with) all traces indicating the work of a professional hit man,” Shen concluded in his report. He also noticed that local police authorities had been exceptionally slow announcing progress in the case, which seemed to have been practically shelved.
But his report hit the cyberspace like a bomb. Within weeks hundreds of comments had piled up on his original post, making the file so big and the page so slow to open that forum managers had to create a separate page for comments. Most of the voices were sad, indignant, and many outraged. Some accused the local government of covering up the murder and dragging its feet in the investigation. The discussion was at times so hectic and the language so fierce that management at Guantian Tea House Forum, already among China’s most daring and tolerant of dissident voices, had to temporarily remove the page.
And the establishment got the message. Many official media outlets had picked up the now all-too-conspicuous scent, and asked to interview Shen. Like the deceased teacher, who had become a hero and role model to him, Shen put his email address and business phone numbers at the bottom of his post. His office in Shanghai were soon overwhelmed with phone calls from readers. He gave all the information he had garnered on the case to media outlets that contacted him, only withholding the names of some of his contacts for fear that local authorities might retaliate against them.
“All I wanted at that point was for people never to forget Teacher Li’s story, and to press for a sooner resolution of his case,” Shen said.
Within a few days of his post, Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), a Chinese newspaper known for its courageous, in-depth investigation on sensitive issues, published its own story on the case. China’s official TV station, after obtaining information from Shen, spent months producing a news documentary that further revealed the rampant corruption still plaguing the local education authorities. It was later aired on a show similar to CBS’s 60 Minutes.
Shen himself also felt the heat, but of a different kind. Some officials approached him and warned him against “pushing his luck”. For his personal safety he declined to give many details about such encounters. “But I think it’s a small miracle after all, for such a controversial post to remain undeleted for more than a year by now.”
In fact, “A Personal Investigation into the Murder of Teacher Li Changping” had become one of China’s all-time most popular Internet stories. As of Nov. 19, 2003, the article had received 51,475 hits and 4,173 comments.
Within months of the report’s publication, Hunan provincial authorities felt so much media and popular pressure that they were ready to speed up processing the case, Shen said. “Friends told me that the provincial government had appointed a special working group concentrating exclusively on the case,” he said. “Everything had seemed so right on course, but in early 2003 SARS and the War ruined everything.”
The outbreak and aftermath of the killer disease, as well as the U.S. War on Iraq, effectively distracted media and government attention for well over half a year, and by the latter half of 2003, the murder of Li Shangping seemed again to have been completely swept off the government’s top priority list.
“Government attention to the case seemed to have vaporized,” Shen said of the current situation. “The special working group hasn’t been dismissed yet, but without major new discoveries and evidence it would be very hard for the case to move on under current circumstances,” he said.
Despite the frustrations, Shen said he was probably the person whose life had been changed most by the investigation. In late 2002, he gave up his job in Shanghai to become a reporter at 21st Century World Report, a young newspaper with a distinct liberal voice. Earlier this year, he joined the Shanghai Bureau of the prestigious Southern Weekend.
“My becoming a journalist comes mainly from my personal interest in truth,” he said. “But this experience played a very important part in prompting my decision.” The Internet was still a very important tool for his reporting; on one occasion, he coordinated with Chinese journalists in California over the Internet in an investigative reporting project on the witch-hunting of Chinese high-tech “commercial spies” in the Sillicon Valley area.
“I realized that the Internet is such a formidable thing; as a means of preserving public memory and hunting for news clues, it is permanent,” he said. “Some things people will never forget.”