Readers of CDT should be well-acquainted by now with Li Xinde. He likes to call himself the “people’s mouthpiece”. Li crisscrosses the country digging up dirt on corrupt cadres, and reports his findings on his Web site, China Public Opinion Surveillance Net (Zhongguo yulun jiandu wang ‰∏≠ÂõΩËàÜËÆ∫ÁõëÁù£ÁΩë) – and on a rotating menu of mirror blogs (e.g., see www.lixinde.com, or click here). He made his big splash in July 2004, when he uploaded evidence of graft schemes that literally brought a vice-mayor in Shandong to his knees.
Featured everywhere from the op-ed page of the NYT to the back page of the China Youth Daily’s Freezing Point, Li has since set a standard for Netizen muckraking that few bloggers in China have dared aspire to. His sites are regularly blocked – now, for instance. But some media analysts argue that he may be just another easily co-opted instrument of Communist Party surveillance – given how the center has long turned unauthorized state media exposes akin to his to its political advantage in weeding out grass-roots corruption. Li is, for the record, an avowedly loyal member of the Communist Party. He claims to have had a hand in a big bust that occurred just this week: that of the party secretary of Chenzhou in Hunan province, which was featured in this week’s edition of Southern Weekend. It was foreshadowed by a report Li filed more than a month ago.
Li Xinde talked to Biganzi earlier this week at his home in the Beijing satellite town of Tongxian, where he rents a dim walk-up flat with stone floors and a modicum of furniture. A rear-view mirror ornament bearing the mug of Chairman Mao dangles askew from the wall by his desk. When not on the road, the 46-year-old lives here with his daughter and his ThinkPad.
Let’s talk a bit more about your big break, the case in Jining. How did you break it?
It wasn’t just me. A lot of traditional media were working on the story: Xinhua, CCTV, Southern Weekend and so on. But we all know they can’t go directly after top officials at the department-level (ÂéÖÁ∫ß) on up. That’s what we in the Chinese media call an unwritten rule (qian guize ÊΩúËßÑÂàô). There shouldn’t be a need for the Central Publicity Department to finger it. Still, “News Probe” [Xinwen Diaocha, Êñ∞ÈóªË∞ÉÊü•, CCTV watchdog program] went to Jining for interviews three times. But in the end they couldn’t run the story…After I exposed it, a metropolitan in Nanjing, the Jinling Evening News, told me they wanted to pay me for my exclusives. Then I sent one to them, the editor told me: “This is mengliao[ÁåõÊñô, lit. ‘fierce material’, trade slang for a hot scoop]. But we can’t use it. It’s too meng.”
So how do you keep yourself out of trouble?
I stick to my principles. Whenever I talk to foreign journalists, it’s on the basis of two principles. One, I’m not out to overthrow the government. Two, I’m not out subvert the rule of the Communist Party…My main responsibility is to the truth. On [the chat site] QQ, I see a lot of Chinese journalists who criticize me. They say my writing is very ordinary. I say, “You’re right.” I never went through the system. I never had any professional training. I didn’t get a good education. But if I was at Xinhua, I’d be as restricted as they are.
You have lots of people coming to you with all sorts of cases and grievances. How do you determine which stories to pursue?
It’s like choosing porcelain. You have all these pretty cups to choose from, but you have to pick the best. I want to do big stories, stories that are going to have a major impact, nationally or even internationally. Wouldn’t any journalist? So I try to choose stories that are newsworthy, that have social significance. I specialize in corruption stories. Let’s just say the market is huge.
What’s your view of all these rules and laws related to the media that have come out since last year?
All these restrictions are shrinking the ability of the traditional media to carry out media oversight. This will only exacerbate social problems. So there will be more and more conflicts in society. And there will be more and more mass incidents. So overall, I’m not very optimistic.
Here you are, all alone in Tongxian. How do you stay in the loop?
[Turns to his laptop] Let me show you QQ. [Clicks open QQ] Look at all these chatrooms. Here’s my “gossip” (Â∞èÈÅìxiaodao) chatroom – 159 contacts. Here’s my “in-depth” (shendu) chat room – 198 contacts. In all these chatrooms combined, there are at least 500 journalists. Many are from party newspapers and a lot are young reporters. Of those, at least 200 do investigative reporting. I can’t possibly keep up with them all.
Would it be easy for a foreign reporter to join one of these chatrooms?
Well, you’d have to be invited. Generally, no one would want to invite a foreign journalist. It’s anti-productive. We all have very different backgrounds, but we do share a general consensus. We don’t want to see social upheaval. We rather see our country to proceed toward democracy in orderly way, step by step..
Your sites are constantly being blocked. Zenmo ban?
I have more than 50 different sites set up. I regularly maintain about three at time. If they shut one down, I replace one. Shut down one, replace one, and so on.
To what extent do you blame the blog hosting companies for this problem?
When they get a call from the police, they have to listen. But it’s not right for them to go around boasting at the same time about how they protect press freedoms. You know this guy? [Pulls out the name card of Bokee founder Fang Xingdong]. At a conference in Bejing this summer, Fang Xingdong was talking about how Bokee tries to safeguard all of us… I went right up to the front of the room right in the middle of his speech and showed him my blog that was shut down on his site. I told him to try to open it. Of course, he couldn’t…Later he sent me a letter inviting me to set up a special blog on Bokee. I’ve only gotten around to it in the last few days…
Currently on your home page, you have a photo of yourself with Zhang Tielin, the CCP Central Commission for Discipline Inspection‘s appointee at the General Administration of Press and Publication. Care to explain?
Oh, that photo [smirks]. I didn’t really want to put it up, but I had to [declines to elaborate]. ..My friend says that photo helps me “avoid evil” (bi xie ÈÅøÈÇ™).
As a standalone journo in China, how do you approach officials?
[Pulls out a maroon-covered booklet]. I actually have an official journalist pass. It says I’m a special correspondent (ÁâπÁ∫¶ËÆ∞ËÄÖ) with the Anhui Commercial Leader (Anhui Gongshang Daobao). I’m good friends with the publisher there in Anhui [Li’s home province]. But I don’t necessarily need it. All I need is my name card. Actually [smiles], this is my real name card: [pulls out a copy of the story about himself in the CYD’s Freezing Point, entitled: “The Light That They Fear Most” ] See that…
..Usually, officials will just talk to me. If they tell me, ‘Sorry you have to go to the publicity department of local government and apply,’ then I say to them, ‘Sorry, that’s not my custom.’ Then I just leave my name card and tell them they can get back to me. I say, ‘If you want to talk, then we’ll talk.’ And then I leave…Any real journalist knows that you can’t pin your case on what officials tell you. Do that and you’ll most certainly fail. So what I do is I collect all my evidence first, and then go looking for them.
Have you had any problems with police?
Kristof asked me that after he came to see me last year: ‘Did any State Security people come looking for you afterward?’ he says. ‘Did any Public Security people come to see you?’ I replied, ‘No’. Actually, police have never harassed me, besides blocking my Web sites all the time.
Never? Never been detained?
I’ve never been detained.
Not even on assignment in the provinces?
Why not, do you think?
Because I don’t get my stories wrong.
How is it that you appear to have an impact sometimes on corruption investigations? Who reads your site?
The leaders of government organs all fear the kinds of reports I do. When people search the Net, they can find them right away. In a government office of hundreds of people, all it takes is one person to read my story about it. Then that person can report on up (jubao ‰∏æÊä•) about it. I don’t know exactly who in government reads me regularly. But [pointing a finger upward] the Central Publicity Department, they often read my site.
How do survive? Off freelance fees?
Some freelance fees. But mostly from grants.
Who funds them, foreign or domestic organizations?
Both. Foreign and domestic. The domestic ones are bosses of small companies.
What kind of companies?
For example, one runs a guesthouse, another a restaurant, another does business.
What’s your relationship with them?
We really aren’t close. They just like my work.
And the foreign organizations?
[Pauses] For example, there’s a “rights defense fund”… But I could use more financing. If you know of any other funds, let me know. It doesn’t matter to me where the money comes from, as long as I can do the work I want.
Isn’t that dangerous? Don’t you worry that the authorities could use that against you?
Why should I? All I’m doing is serving the Party, serving the people. That’s what Chairman Mao told us to do. I do good things for them[the party]. So it doesn’t matter to me where the money comes from. It all depends on what you do with it. I’m serving the Party, serving the people.
But didn’t Nicholas Kristof use you as an example of how the Communist Party is digging its own grave by giving the people the Internet?
What he reported about me personally, that was fact. But what he said about the Internet was his opinion. If he said that I was trying to overthrow the government, then I would go looking for him about it.