A Dismal Chapter in China’s Media History

The Hong Kong-based, Chinese language Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) magazine has published a lengthy article about the recent crackdown on Southern Metropolis News (Nanfang Dushi Bao), in which two employees of the newspaper were sentenced to lengthy terms for alleged corruption and the top editor was arrested and is awaiting trial. Chinese journalists have called these arrests the “darkest moment” in the past 20 years of media reform.

Two Yazhou Zhoukan articles on the case are translated below. The translation was provided by editors at the magazine.

Two additional articles about this case are available at: the Jamestown Foundation and The Guardian.

Translation, from Yazhou Zhoukan (Asia Weekly) The April 4, 2004 issue:

Backlash to Journalists working on Investigative Reports
A Dismal Chapter in China’s Media History

The Guangdong government took revenge on journalists for their coverage of the cover-up of SARS cases in Guangdong, and their unveiling of the corruption of the government. Cheng Yizhong, the Chief Editor of Southern Metropolitan Daily, was arrested and charged with bribery. Yu Huafeng, the General Manager of the newspaper, was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. The authorities even selectively collected and fabricated evidences in order to justify an unjust prosecution.

Guangdong’s media community called March 19, 2004 as a “Black Friday”. That day was regarded as the “darkest moment” in Chinese media’s past 20 years history of reform. It was the day when Guangdong local government filed suits against Yu Huafeng, the managing director of Southern Metropolitan Daily with unwarranted charges. The newspaper was reputed as “China’s No. 1 paper”, and its managing director was sentenced to a twelve-year imprisonment. On the same day at about 3:00am, Guangzhou police force secretly arrested Cheng Yizhong, the executive chief editor of Southern Metropolitan Dail while he was on a trip in Sichuan, and sent him back to Guangdong and kept him in the Guangzhou First Detention House.

Cheng’s family confirmed to Yazhou Zhoukan that officials had searched their house from 1:00pm to 3:30pm on March 19. Not only did the officials seize their house deed and bank passbooks, but they also took away many books. This amazed Xu Zhiyong, a doctorate of Law from the Peking University and a National People’s Congress representative for the Haidian district of Beijing. He could see a well-framed conspiracy. As Yu Huafeng’s defense counsel, Xu witnessed how Cheng’s apartment was being searched. Rummaged items formed a three-page list. Xu noticed that within the list there were mainly books and magazines, information stored in computer, contact lists, and so on.

The forty one books rummaged include, The Disaster of Chinese Leftists (Zhougguo Zuo Huo); The History of Anti-Rightists Movement (Fan You Yun Dong Shi); A Sadness of Literary World: Injustice of Hu Feng (Hu Feng Yuan An Shi Mo); Communist China in Fifty Years (Gongchan Zhungguo Wushi Nian); The Private Life of Chairman Mao: the memoirs of Mao’s personal physician; Tiananmen Paper; Yazhou Zhoukan: The International Chinese Newsweekly, and so on. Xu regarded that these books, among Cheng Yizhong’s thousands of collections in various categories from past till present and from East to West, reflected nothing but Cheng’s wide-range reading interests. “If these books are intentionally picked up and grouped with a particular theme, some people might quickly draw a conclusion: What kind of books does Cheng Yizhong read? Shouldn’t this kind of people be purged? In a society where traditional values are deep-rooted, if one’s political stance is “not right”, who dares to say a word for him? What a terrible conspiracy.”

Xu Zhiyong pointed out that it is even weirder that inspectors spent a long time searching through thousands of CDs from Cheng Yizhong’s collection. The inspectors sorted out those that have covers with nude photos, and took pictures and video records of them. Cheng, being a famous film critic, who may have collected more movies than anyone in the Guangdong province. If you see those CD covers in Cheng’s home, you will be amazed at his collection and research in film studies. However, considering those specially selected “pornographic” CDs which are regarded as “salacious”, Cheng will probably be smeared as “licentious”, “deteriorated” and “fallen from grace”. And the fabricated materials may constitute an “unjust trial”.

Cheng Yizhong was prepared for the jail

This was the latest move by which some powerful members of the CPC (Community Party of China) persecuted Chinese intellectuals. It was believed that the provincial government of Guangdong instructed the judiciary to impose a harsh verdict on Yu Huafeng and detained Cheng Yizhong because of their revealing reports on the SARS and the Sun Zhigang case last year, which damaged the interests of some government officials. For the purge, Cheng Yizhong had already been psychologically prepared.

Not long ago, speaking at the mobilization conference of Southern Metropolitan Daily’s operating committee, Cheng said that Southern Metropolitan dared to be the vanguard of contemporary newspaper reform. A strong tension had developed between the paper’s extraordinary idealism and the harsh reality, and a backlash is inevitable.

He also said the newspaper angered some powerful figures in Guangdong. All these showed that conflict was inevitable. He said in early June 2003, when the case of Sun Zhigang was about to end, that investigations targeting at “unlawful activities” committed by the newspaper had already begun. From then on, almost all companies which had close business ties with the newspaper were ordered to give evidences on “questions” concerning the “unlawful activities” of the newspaper. “Some people are ready to clamp down, claiming in the public that they must persecute Southern Metropolitan Daily with the weapons in their hands. Many people have no choices but to comply. This is an open secret in Guangdong and among the public”.

During that time, Cheng Yizhong quoted Deng Xiaoping’s saying and said, “The trouble will come sooner or later. We are prepared for it. For the progression of our country, the modernization of our society and the well-being of the people, it is worth undertaking these sufferings.” It turned out that when the newspaper once again gave reports on the return of the SARS in Guangzhou, the provincial authorities finally took action. Yu Huafeng was arrested, and Cheng Yizhong was detained for nearly 10 hours. Although he was released later, he was under 24-hour close surveillance after his release.

Lin Shushen and Huang Huahua with a strong hand

The second step is to force Cheng Yichong to resign from his post as the chief editor of Beijing News in Beijing. According to Xu Zhiyong, Cheng would not resign, but would wait for a dismissal. He was prepared to go to the jail. He thought that pressure from various forces was unimaginable, and it was not uncommon for the Chinese government to adopt the oppressive and fraudulent practice. Finally, Cheng resigned on March 9. Ten days later, he was arrested. Anonymous sources from Southern Metropolitan said that the authorities just could not wait even for another minute.

The arrest was ordered by Lin Shushen, the Secretary of Guangzhou City Committee of the Communist of China. Governor of Guangdong province Huang Hua-hua said that a thorough investigation was needed, and Secretary of Guangdong Provincial Committee of the CPC Zhang Dejiang claimed that Southern Metropolitan could not merely monitor others, but also be monitored. It is reported that Lin was determined to thoroughly investigate the matter due to political factors, in revenge of the SARS reports last year as well as the trouble brought by Sun Zhigang’s case to Guangzhou, which caused Lin and Huang to almost lose their jobs. It is also because Lin would like to help the rival media of the Southern Metropolitan in Guangzhou to retaliate.

It was told that the Guangzhou government and key officers of the Guangdong province were instructing their staff to adopt a “severe and immediate punishment” approach in this case. Under such guidelines, the trial of Yu Huafung started on March 4, and within fifteen days the court decision was made. The so-called “¬•100,000 bribery” led to ten and a half years of imprisonment. It was estimated that taking a ¬•100,000 cash award (around US$12000), Zheng was likely to be imprisoned for 10 years.

Mourning for the Chinese Judiciary system

According to Xu Zhiyong, when Yu Huafung heard the court decision on March 19, he completely broke down. He felt he was too helpless and desperate to face an institutional and tyrannical prosecution. “I plead to the judges to consider, how this society can still preserve my faith when an innocent person is punished so ruthlessly?” Xu Zhiyong said he was as afflicted as Yu Huafung. “Like how he felt, at that moment, the grief was not just for an individual’s fate, but we also felt desperate for our judiciary system and society! This court decision was unjust. I mourn for China’s judiciary system.”

Xu Zhiyong said that Yu’s case may well be different from Cheng’s in that there was a possible political color embedded in the Guangdong Provincial Government’s “design” of Cheng’s case. This can be inferred from the books and magazines they have seized from Cheng’s home and their related actions. In addition to the charges stated in his criminal detention sheet, which are “bribery” and “misappropriating state properties” (under the crime of graft), the provincial government may smear Cheng by claiming that he is “corrupted, immoral” and politically felonious. The alleged reason why graft can be made a charge is that Southern Metropolitan has accepted goods as payment for advertisement and has subsequently sold to its employee at a slightly lower price. This has been interpreted by the authorities as “misappropriating state properties”.

Cheng Yizhong will be charged with corruption, similar to what Yu Huafeng has been charged, that is dividing up and appropriating public funds which amounts to ¬•580,000. It was alleged that Cheng and Yu appropriated ¬•100,000 each, and other seven members of the editorial committee appropriated the rest (Zhuang Shenzhi, Chen Zhaohua and Ren Tianyang appropriated ¬•60,000 each and Yang Bin, Song Fanyin, Deng Haiyan and Wang Peixing appropriated ¬•50,000 each.) However, up until now, despite the fact that Cheng Yizhong and Yu Huafeng are already arrested, and Deng Haiyan, another assistant of the editor being responsible for managing office work, has been arrested before Chinese Lunar New Year, all the others “work as usual”.

All Southern Metro staff has committed the corruption offence?

However, Cheng Yizhong firmly contested that the charge was ill-founded. This is because the ¬•580,000 in question was not public funds but a legally made cash award which they deserved according to the relevant regulations of Nanfang Corporation. The decision of awarding the cash was made after due consideration by the whole editorial committee of Southern Metropolitan in accordance with the regulations. A legal expert thought that according to what the court said in the judgment of Yu Huafeng case, “awards should be formal and legal, that is a decision to award should have legal grounds and conform with legal formality”, wasn’t a decision made after due consideration by the whole editorial committee of Southern Metropolitan in accordance with the regulations “formal and legal”? The judgment of Dong Shan district Court was a weak decision unfounded by legal grounds.

Xu Zhi-yong also believed that since Southern Metropolitan is a semi-governmental organization run by business corporative management, income of the newspaper is first submitted to Nan Fang Daily Corporation, and then part of it is returned to Southern Metropolitan. There are regulations governing these transfers. After that, Southern Metropolitan has the discretion to decide how to distribute the income. The ¬•580,000 regarded as “public funds” was actually part of the award, which was about ¬•6,000,000, given back to Southern Metropolitan by Nan Fang Daily Corporation some time ago. Xu said that according to the court statement, the distribution mechanism being used by most of the newspaper corporations in China would be illegal.

An ex-editor of Southern Metropolitan and editor of Beijing News, Wang Xiao-shan, verified that the charge was ridiculous by his own experience at Southern Metropolitan. He said there was two bonus distributions before charge against Yu and Cheng were made, and as an editor, he received ¬•14,400. “If Yu is imprisoned for 12 years for a bonus of ¬•100,000, then I should also get a year and more.” He said the editorial board of Southern Metropolitan had the power to decide on the bonus distribution and this power had been conferred by all of the staffs. If Yu and Cheng are guilty, “then all staffs would be bribery criminals.”

He added that the basic monthly salary of a Southern Metropolitan’s staff is ¬•800. A layout editor’s salary ranges from ¬•250 to ¬•300. Together with the commissions, an ordinary editor earns at least ¬•8,000 per month. As to end-of-year bonus, the staffs take the first bite, then the operational staffs and finally the Editor-in-Chief and Deputy Editor. Wang said if an ordinary editor could get approximately ¬•14,000, “¬•100,000 for an Editor-in-Chief is not much.” He stated that as the general manager of Southern Metropolitan, Yu obtained about ¬•1,000,000 from the Nan Fang Daily Corporation as his annual salary-bonus. He said if Yu and Cheng could be said to have committed “bribery” for the ¬•100,000 received in such a bonus distribution, then it was totally frivolous.

The mean and tactful trick played by provisional government on the pretext of judiciary greatly distressed the journalists in Guangdong. According to sources, the provisional government had set to frame up the crime half a year ago. Effort was made in choosing the criminal charges and collecting “criminal evidences”. Even the judges, Qiu Jian-ming, Cui Xiao-jun and Li Kai, were carefully selected for their “political reliability”.

It is hard to believe that the verdict made by Qiu and Cui was an independent judicial decision. They were puppets sitting on the judge chair, manipulated by the top officials of the Guangdong province.

Taking revenge on the Southern Metropolitan aroused much anger from the press of Guangdong, even many journalists from the Southern Metropolitan voiced out the truth. On the 21st of March, Chen Feng, a famous journalist who first reported the Sun Zhi-gang case, issued a letter to the provincial government of Guangdong. He pleaded for a fair trial on Cheng and other people involved. He suspected that the arrest of Cheng and the verdict on Yu were framed up by the provincial government. “Are we judging people according to the rule of law or by the power of authority?” he questioned.

Being a member of the newspaper, Cheng Feng learned that the 580,000 which Yu and Cheng were accused of mishandling was the bonus issued by NanFang Daily Group to the executives of the Southern Metropolitan. According to Chen, the amount was the bonus Yu and Cheng deserved to receive, not the “public fund” as the authorities claimed. “If things continue to be like this, how can there be anything called ‘private property’? Who can excuse oneself from being accused of corruption?” He confirmed that after reporting the case of Sun, there was rumours saying that some officials in Guangzhou, especially those involved in the Sun’s case, wanted to make use of judiciary to take revenge on the newspaper. The unusual investigation conducted by the authority of Guangzhou city on Yu and Cheng for more than six months, especially the heavy sentence of Yu and the arrest of Cheng, seemed to affirm this speculation.

Under this circumstance, news media which stands by conscience and justice, and aware of practicing the role of a watchdog, will be thrown into danger. Under close scrutiny by the authority, these media will be facing an extremely dominant government and misleading institutions, one would easily be imprisoned without cause, what happens to Cheng and Yu today are likely to happen to other journalists in the future. “Journalism in China will go backward by no less than 20 years”, “The black cloud of human rule is going to hover around the air of China and haunted the media industry”. These exclamations constitute an angry outcry from the hearts of many journalists. In the past few days, Cheng’s arrest has been widely discussed on the Internet among editors in China. They cried, “The tragedy in the history of Chinese media!”, and “Another frontier falls!”

From Monitoring to being monitored
Northern Expedition Fails
The Beijing News was reputed as the “southern media’s first northern expedition towards the north” when it was first published. However, with the arrest of Cheng Yi-zhong, the “first warrior of the northern expedition” and the sentence of its general manager Yu Hua-feng, a great impact has been made on the staff.

The Beijing News, with Cheng Yi-zhong as the first chief editor, caused a bang when it was first published in Beijing last November, and was reputed as the “southern media’s first northern expedition”. Now the “the first warrior of the northern expedition in southern media” is detained because of being “economically incorrect”. How is the Beijing News being operated at present?

According to some staff of the Beijing News, starting from two weeks ago, the paper has omitted two masthead pages starting from two weeks ago. The formerly published names included the Publisher Dai Zi-geng, the Chief Editor Cheng Yi-zhong, the Deputy Chief Editor Yang Bin, and the Managing Director Yu Hua-feng. After Yu was arrested, the Beijing News was under pressure from the management and this led to the omission of the masthead page. Besides Yu Hua-feng, other department heads were in office as usual. Unexpectedly, a week after the incident, Cheng Yi-zhong was arrested by the police in Guangdong for economic reasons.

Although the Beijing News has already received a notice about the case, the management has yet reorganized itself. The paper is now headed by Dai Zi-geng, and Yang Bin is responsible for the general editorial work. Sources disclosed that all staff in the Beijing News had been warned not to answer any questions raised by reporters from outside on Cheng’s arrest. He said, however, “We felt shocked and sorrowful about his arrest.”

The Beijing News is owned jointly by the NanFang Daily Group and the GuangMing Daily Group. The latter holds 51% of shares but many staff in the Beijing News came from media organizations related to NanFang Daily Group. This is why Cheng’s arrest has made a great impact on them. However, the overall legwork and editorial work are not affected currently. This is due to the frequent travelling needs between Beijing and Guangzhou by Cheng as he held two positions at the same time. As a result, Yang Bin has been the supervisor of the editorial work of the Beijing News in Beijing.

The concern from the media was aroused when the news about the arrest of Cheng had been spread. Beijing News reporter Chen Feng who covered the Sun Zhi-gang case, disseminated an open letter to the chief officials of Guangzhou municipal government, Guangzhou People’s Procuratorate and Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court. Being a citizen of the People’s Republic of China, he called upon the chief officials to respect the constitution and the law, to respect the truth, the history and the people, to uphold the value of human rights, and to provide an open and fair trial on Cheng Yi-zhong, Yu Hua-feng and Li Min-ying. He pointed out that the rumor regarding the authorities making use of the law as a tool to attack the Southern Metropolitan is worrying.

Inconsistency with the local government

Media in China remained silent since the arrest of Yu. As Yu handled mainly the managerial work, it is not surprised if he is charged with committing economic offence. However, it is difficult to find an excuse to charge against Cheng. A scholar in Media Studies said that, in the philosophy of Chinese officialdom, the relationship between the local government and the media is very important. He said, being an important media based in Guangdong, the Nanfang Daily Group has been inconsistent with the local government in reporting the case of Sun Zhi-gang case and SARS epidemic. That is one of the reasons why Nanfang Daily Group being attacked by the government from time to time.

In response to the rumor spread on the internet that the firing of Southern Metropolitan staff was caused by its disobedience to the Guangdong government and its boldness of breaking the reporting restrictions, the scholar was reluctant to comment. However, he admitted that looking at the whole incident this would not be totally impossible. Accusing someone for “economically incorrect” instead of “politically incorrect” is a brand new tactic in Chinese media control.

Human Rights Effort Wiped Out

When Cheng was in detention, the amendment bill of the new Constitution has just been adopted by the National People’s Congress a few days ago. Many media workers felt that the effort made by the new government in protecting human rights and freedom was wiped out by this small incident. Chen Feng admitted that individual citizens might be trivial to the powerful government. But no matter how powerful a government is, it is trivial in front of History. Be it privileged officials or ordinary man, they will have to face and be judged by History when the day comes. History will evaluate everyman’s role in his times. The sufferings of Cheng and Yu today will definitely be written as a painful page in the History of Chinese Journalism.


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