A Recent Brush with Gao Qinrong

At a big annual conference on watchdog journalism late last month in Beijing, the bill was stacked with reporters and editorialists behind some of the more daunting stories of 2006. The show-stopper, though, was an ex-journalist whose case dated back to 1998: . The event was off-the-record, and many of the journalists, while speaking candidly about their struggles in the field, also specifically requested that their words not appear either in print or on the Web. Not Gao. Here, with the subsequent consent of the organizer, Biganzi would like to share a few moments from the sidelines of the conference with him.

Gao’s ordeal is old news by now. His release from prison earlier in December, after eight years behind bars, enabled him to show up in Beijing. He’s since become a cipher domestically for an implicit push for press freedoms. During his talk, to put it vaguely, the man recalled how he cracked the case of a spurious irrigation project in Shanxi province in 1998, and was soon framed and jailed by local leaders for doing so. This may have been the 50th time he’d relived those events with Chinese colleagues in the fortnight since he got out, not to mention the 768 petition letters he counts having written while inside. Still, he told the tale raw, as if it only happened yesterday. The pressure of an ongoing crusade to clear his name clearly weighed on Gao. Twice he broke down, in hot but silent tears. Each time, a packed hall of academics and journalists applauded. And so Gao gathered strength enough to continue. With him he was carrying a square swatch of a bed sheet from jail, on which he’d scrawled an abridged version of his will in pen and an “SOS” message in blood, out of fear of what might befall him once he got out. His hands trembled whenever he held up the banner (Southern Metropolis Weekly has a photo).

Some of the denizens of Beijing’s liberal watchdog scene were in attendance that day: reporter Wang Keqin, defense lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, media scholar Xu Xun and so on. At a lunch in-between sessions, one by one, all came over to salute Gao. With him they clasped hands, shared smokes, clinked glasses of Yanjing. Scrawny campus newspaper journalists jostled for position to ask questions, as they would continue to do for the duration of the afternoon. Gao, a teddy bear-like figure in a sweater and a jacket, sat there graciously. He looked spent from the media circus surrounding his release. But he wasn’t. At his table were four editorial department heads of the latest paper to be doing a feature on him – Xi’an’s Huashang Bao.

Just that week, of course, the keyword “Gao Qinrong (È´òÂã§Ëç£) was X’d out of the biggest portals and search engines after interviews in Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend put his case back in the spotlight. But a few other publications have persisted in running stories and interviews. Gao confirmed what media observers (ESWN, CMP, Danwei) correctly suspected: “I haven’t been explicitly fengsha – snuffed – from the press.” Gao’s has become an interesting case of divide-and-conquer censorship. It suggests the propaganda-meisters’ awareness that progressive state newspapers, even left to their own discretion, can only take a story as flammable as his so far without Sohu and Sina. Meantime, Huashang Bao’s interview has yet to see the light of day. Said an editor on Monday (Jan. 8): “Here they say it’s too risky.”

January 8, 2007, 10:24 PM