Reading Phoenix Weekly: Gao Qinrong, Yu Keping, Kim’s Successor, Etc.

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In the March 25 issue of Phoenix Weekly, an “anonymous” ex-inmate recounts life in the Chinese prison system:

Prisoners who’ve just gone in will get a hazing from long-time inmates. Normally, the block monitor himself – the group leader of the cell – will dress them down, and there are all sorts of ways of straightening out new prisoners.

Like “eating the walnut” (ÂêÉʆ∏Ê°É), for instance, which means taking a stick to the shins. “The happy child descends the mountain” (ÂñúÂÑø‰∏ã±±), a reference to a ballet pose in Peking Opera, means standing on one leg for several hours. “The yurt” (ËíôÂè§ÂåÖ) involves covering someone’s head in a blanket, then pummeling it. And “watching TV” actually means squatting in front of a bucket of piss for hours on end.

“Get up! What you in for?” Right after I went in, a really sadistic brute stood up and laid into me. But what could not have been expected was that after I described my affair, here, of all places, I gained understanding. In an unprecedented turn of events, I didn’t swallow the initiation. I was spared having to sleep with the “toilet”.

The story actually repeats bits of an interview Phoenix Weekly conducted earlier this year with the ex-journalistGao Qinrong, freed in December after being locked up for eight years as payback for unmasking corruption.

A background note on Phoenix Weekly follows, along with highlights of recent stories not yet available online.


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Phoenix Weekly, a magazine arm Hong Kong’s Phoenix TV, circulates on the mainland under “special permission” and is stocked at many newsstands. But you’re unlikely to find it without asking. Vendors in Beijing tend to bury it beneath mountains of other magazines inside their stalls, because they’re forbidden from selling it.

Most say the sticking point is distribution controls. The state postal service owns and regulates newsstands across the city, and only permits them to sell the periodicals it sells; Phoenix Weekly, circulated via the China Book Import Export CompanyÔºà‰∏≠ÂõΩÂõæ‰π¶ËøõÂá∫Âè£ÔºàÈõÜÂõ¢ÔºâÊĪÂÖ¨Âè∏Ôºâ, is not one of those. That does not explain, however, why the same newsstands carry a peppering of other titles not on China Post‘s distribution menu, from English-language National Geographic (also imported) to dusty papers like the Legal Daily’s Fazhi Wencui Bao(Ê≥ïÂà∂ÊñáÁ≤πÊä•) (just recently dropped from the postal list, vendors say).

What sets those titles apart from Phoenix Weekly are the timely, tantalizing headlines. “The content is a problem,” as one vendor noted. Others echoed the sentiment. Covers this past year have probed China’s tourist market for organ transplants, defectors from North Korea, turf wars between house church movements in the northeast, and flashed the mugs of Mao, Deng, and Chen Liangyu.

The copy, alas, often fails to satisfy the promise of the teaser text. Like the pro-Beijing TV station that owns it, run by former PLA propagandist Liu Changle, the thrice-monthly magazine publishes within a regulatory twilight zone. It’s able to make a routine diet of socio-political and regional angles that state-owned outlets can barely nibble at – most of all Taiwan, North Korea, Christianity, and political reform. The condition being that it numbs down anything that might reflect too poorly on the central government. (Phil Pan’s 2005 profile in the Washington Post explains this better).

The magazine’s reach is severely limited as well. Phoenix has been seeking approvals to start a newspaper for several years, unsuccessfully as of it. The Weekly’s best offerings tend to appear online about three issues behind the newsstands.

The last two issues in March carry a representative sampling of the magazine’s blindness and insight:

“Successor of DPRK” (March 15, 2007)
After the 65th birthday of Kim Jong-il passed in February without a peep about who might succeed him, PW investigates whether he might one day choose a klatch of generals and apparatchiks over one of his three less-than-promising sons. Not a word is mentioned China’s interests in this question (or its own upcoming succession dilemma). The nine-page takeout conveys the camp we’ve come to expect of Western depictions of the Hermit Kingdom and is largely reprocessed from Japanese and Korean news dispatches. One of the fresher interludes goes:

Since the success of North Korea’s nuclear test in October, 2006, and especially after the new round of the Six-Party Talks [beginning] on February 13, 2007, Kim Jong-il’s prestige has reached its pinnacle in the time of his rule.

.A deserted high-level North Korean official stood by this assessment. He remarked: “Most recently, word that ‘the general has attained victory in the final showdown (the nuclear struggle) with the United States’ is spreading within North Korea.”

Gaoli University professor Liu Haolie said: “North Korea is intensifying its propaganda, claiming that now not only can it possess nuclear weapons; it can use nuclear weapons to resolve the problems of food and shelter as well.”

“‘Democracy is a Good Thing’ Triggers Notice at Home and Abroad” (March 15, 2007)
PW attempts to decode the significance of the article published in the Beijing Daily last October by Yu Keping, the deputy director general of Central Compilation & Translation Bureau, reputedly a close adviser to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao and the “literary guts” of the leadership (here’s ESWN’s translation. The real peg of the piece would seem to be Wen’s puzzling February 26 article on the universality of democratic values, which sprayed speculation over the leadership’s thinking in divergent directions. This issue of PW appeared just as Wen was asked to explain that piece at his annual Q&A to end the NPC. PW’s spin is positive but concludes on a skeptical note about the role of intellectuals in politics in the era of reform:

A classmate of Yu Keping at Peking University who now does research at Duke University, Shi Tianjian, says that many years of quantitative research show that in recent years, the CPC [Communist Party of China] indeed has turned a corner fast in its attitude toward key terms such as “democracy”, “freedom” and “human rights”. He says that since coming to power, Hu Jintao had a fundamental change in his attitude toward democracy, and he has begun to recognize that democracy is an aim to pursue. One important change is that the CPC has begun to take democracy “as a good thing,” and recognized that a positive reaction will emerge from it

In terms of the significance of this, Shi Tianjian holds that Yu Keping’s formulation does not represent a big breakthrough on the part of the CPC, but rather a summation of an ideological trend within the Party

On February 26, Wen Jiabao published an article in official media. The article mentioned in particular that “science, democracy, rule of law, freedom, and human rights are by no means the sole property of capitalism, but rather are the values commonly pursued and the fruits of civilization commonly forged by humanity over the slow course of history,” which clearly expressed an endorsement of democratic values. At the same time, he stressed that in the building of political democracy there is no uniform model, and China must travel its own road. This formulation ought to reflect the Chinese government’s true opinion and basic attitude toward democracy.

professor Zhao Bao, the famed political scholar and former Peking University Department of Political Science director, who once was Yu Keping’s teaching advisor, believes Yu’s circumstances show that intellectuals have an avenue to serve the country. But at the same time he warns, “Academics, especially political science research, must of course serve politics. Of this there is no doubt. However, scholars should use their own scientific knowledge to serve politics. If they only explain the meaning of the higher-ups, then the value of scholars in politics is lost.”

“The Decisive Battle of 2008 in the Taiwan Strait” (March 25, 2007)
A propaganda cover package about how Beijing is countering Taiwan’s flirtations with formal independence ahead of the elections there next year. The ending piece simulates a battle that would ensue after a hypothetical last-ditch attempt by Chen Shui-bian to push ahead with a referendum on independence. It concludes:

After a week of fierce fighting, the PLA has stifled the Taiwan military’s air force and navy, and successfully occupied the districts of Taoyuan and Binhai. Because the situation cannot be reversed, the president of the Taiwan authorities and key members of the Democratic Progressive Party flee under cover of night by helicopter from Songshan Airport to Okinawa, and request political asylum. Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan is forced to ask the mainland for an armistice and peace talks.

“Famed journalists’ reveals personal experiences from eight years in jail: unlocking the secrets of mainland prison life”(March 25, 2007)
The article was “assembled based on oral accounts with the interviewee”, and the interviewee in question is Gao Qinrong. After granting a series of interviews immediately on being released, Gao has been forced to lay low since early January, sources have told CDT, while domestic outlets were warned off covering his story. But PW leaves little doubt as to whose story this is.

The account opens when the narrator enters a detention house in Autumn, 1998 – as did Gao. The intro reads:

The former journalist not long ago finished eight years of life in prison and reentered society, but his past life of prison reform seems still fresh in his mind. (Because of objective reasons, this publication has concealed the person’s name). Through the gaze of the news profession, everything there gradually has been restored to the way it was. This may be the most authentic report yet about life in a mainland prison.

Well, not everything. The narrative is generalized much more than it is experiential, which is not surprising: according to what Gao has told other Chinese reporters, he spent his much of his time in the can penning 768 letters petitioning his case. Still, he has come away with many keen insights on the disciplinary regime, notably point-based assessments that help decide prisoners’ chances of reduced sentences. They’re penalized 0.5 points for not finishing their “reeducation studies”, three points for fighting or oversleeping, and so on:

Because the grades are directly linked to reduction of sentences, there are times when prisoners would prefer to take a beating or a scolding without raising a racket. If they stand up to the prison guards and get written up for ‘refusal to obey discipline,’ then a whole year’s hard work will have been in vain. So prisoners are really afraid of the guards.

Inmates appear react just the opposite to solitary confinement, which costs them 30 points and a full year of eligibility for early release:

Because they know that that they have wasted a year, prisoners put in solitary confinement just give up. They curse when they want and foul up when they want, and other prisoners don’t dare provoke them. The prison guards have no way of dealing with these prisoners, because the harshest means of punishment is no use. Therefore under normal circumstances, prison guards rarely deduct points from prisoners, or place them in solitary.

The most poignant passage comes from the early days of Gao’s incarceration. He recalls:

Within the detention center was a jumble of characters, both good and bad. The detention centers predominately keep criminal and civil cases together. No matter whether the prisoners are suspected of murder, theft or economic crimes, they’ll all be locked up in one cell, more than ten of them altogether, depending on the facility. In some detention centers, the management is no good, and prison bullies and gang leaders arise from time to time. When suspected criminals first arrive, they cannot avoid bodily suffering.

Shaweifeng (ÊùÄ®ÅÊ£í) and xiamawei (‰∏ãÈ©¨Â®Å) [roughly, ‘initiation’, ‘hazing,’], these terms you’ve only read of in books, here can become reality. Prisoners who’ve just gone in will get a hazing from long-time inmates. Normally, the block monitor – the group leader of the cell – himself will dress them down, and there are all sorts of ways of straightening out new prisoners.

Like “eating the walnut” (ÂêÉʆ∏Ê°É), which means taking a stick to the shins. “The happy child descends the mountain” (ÂñúÂÑø‰∏ã±±), a reference to a ballet pose in Peking Opera, means standing on one leg for several hours. “The yurt” (ËíôÂè§ÂåÖ) involves covering someone’s head in a blanket, then pummeling it. And “watching TV” actually means squatting in front of a bucket of piss for hours on end.

“Get up! What you in for?” Right after I went in, a really sadistic brute stood up and laid into me. But what could not have been expected was that after I described my affair, here, of all places, I gained understanding. In an unprecedented turn of events, I didn’t swollow the initiation, and I was spared having to sleep with the “toilet”.

Still, in a instant, this place will make you clear about your status. More than ten people unfamiliar with another sleep together on a single kang, and all you can see are the walls and those faces of complete strangers. Here, most of the new guys get their first taste of the pain of losing one’s freedom.

“I, new prisoner so-and-so, request permission to enter the cell!” The first rule new prisoners have to learn is that they have to report when they enter their cells. This is the biggest test of all new prisoners. If they can’t learn this line, they’ll be punished. Light punishment means having to stand. Heavy punishment means physical labor. Because a lot of new prisoners don’t believe they’ve committed a crime, it’s very hard to transform their minds. For some people it takes three days before they’re even able to open their mouths.

I was troubled and confused, and wished to go out for a walk. But reality told me this was a fairy tale. The controlling cadres came and harshly reprimanded me for not observing the rules. But I was at a loss to understand. I thought it nothing to do with me.

Only when I was reprimanded a second time did I finally wake up to reality. In here, you don’t have a name anymore. As a member of society, you’re nothing but the number on your prison uniform. Yet in truth, this was only the beginning. “People in prison have no dignity.” A lot of people only come to realize this later on.

PW follows up the letter from prison with an update on reforms to China’s corrupt and under-funded prison system. Pilot projects are plugging ahead across half the country, but the article sees little in the way of demonstrated improvements.