Grass-roots officials in China are learning to counter central policymakers using one of Beijing's own secret weapons - the watchdog press.
Earlier this month in Longyan, a small city in the affluent coastal province of Fujian, the official Xinhua news agency looked into how small coal mines are responding to the latest safety crackdown on China's deadliest industry. Its findings were damning: of 160 mines in two city districts, including one where 11 miners died in an explosion in April, not one had the safety permits required to operate. Local officials contended that certification was a "process" that took time. But the Xinhua journalists, based in the provincial capital of Fuzhou, talked to mine managers, coal truckers and other locals who said mining had continued unabated despite the nationwide clean-up. Xinhua left little doubt that the mines were taking shelter - surprise, surprise - under the umbrella of local government:
The nation's production safety laws and regulations are a high-tension wire, as all local cadres know, so why dare they ignore [the laws]...?
This question was put to two senior researchers within the Fujian government. One told Xinhua that local officials were still focusing their energies , no matter what the human cost. The other suggested they were downright crooked:
"Some local officials are bounded together by countless ties with the mines. They themselves have an interest.."
Just another dirty coal scoop, right? Not so fast...
...Eight days later, on Nov. 12, two Fuzhou-based metropolitans countered with front-page rebuttals. Sourced to the Longyan city government, the leads in the Strait News and Southeast Express carried the same message: reports of malfeasance by "relevant media" (read: Xinhua) were "fundamentally inconsistent with the facts". The stats from Longyan's recent safety sweeps followed: 33 mines suspended for overhaul, 60,000 tons of coal intercepted, etc,etc... Of 202 mines in town, 185 had undergone preliminary inspection and were awaiting permits pending provincial review, the papers said. Only 17 had yet to get their acts in order.
Such protectionist P.R. would appear a grim sign of the times. Central propaganda-meisters have reined in the country's most powerful media, leaving them to make hay of relatively mundane problems like illegal coal mines. Meanwhile, local propagandists are becoming savvier about defending their turf. They're not only resorting to cover-ups and thuggery. They're making like Beijing and enlisting allies in the press. This is not the first time Fuzhou battled back against Beijing media heavyweight. Two years ago, the CCTV investigative news program Focus (Jiaodian Fangtan) ran a expose about Fuzhou covertly ceded a prized strip of property in the heart of town to a local company. A few days later, the local Fuzhou Evening News ran a one-sided interview with the company's former boss, who, though he had since stepped down amid a charges of financial fraud in the land deal, accused the CCTV reporter with bungling her facts. But Focus returned the favor another couple weeks, doorstepping the company boss in Fuzhou. Squirming as the cameras rolled, the boss practically incriminated himself. In the current case, Xinhua has yet to respond...