On November 15th, five brothers and cousins aged between nine and thirteen died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a Guizhou dumpster, where they had lit a fire to keep warm. Their deaths prompted a frenzy of soul searching in both social and state media which echoed the response to the death of a toddler in a Foshan market in 2011. Last week, in an apparent attempt by local government to cut off the flow of information on the case, the former journalist who brought the deaths to light was sent on “vacation” to an undisclosed location. From Josh Chin at China Real Time Report:
Li Yuanlong, who once worked as a reporter for the state-run Bijie Daily in the city of Bijie in Guizhou province, was taken to the airport along with his wife early Wednesday afternoon and “told to take a vacation” his son, Li Muzi, told China Real Time on Friday.
[…] The Bijie Public Security Bureau could not be reached for comment. A person answering the phone at the Bijie city government propaganda office said Mr. Li was traveling with his wife, citing messages posted to former journalist’s account on the web portal KDnet. “They are very happy now! That’s his own personal matter – why are you asking us?” the person said before hanging up.
[…] Li Fangping, a Beijing-based lawyer who has been keeping track of the situation, said that he had talked to Li Yuanlong when he was on his way to the airport. “I can confirm that he is travelling under control,” the lawyer, who is not related to Li Yuanlong, said.
“This is a way for (the local government) to maintain stability,” he added. “The public still wants more details, even though the local government has already dismissed the relevant people. Because Li Yuanlong is the main information provider, and because he was a reporter who has a lot of friends in the media, they authorities are afraid that people will continue to contact him in search of more clues or that Li might even leak out information about other instances of social injustice.”
Chin had previously explored why this story in particular resonated so deeply with the public. Also from China Real Time Report:
Stories of suffering children are always hard to stomach, but they tend to hit with particular impact in China, where the one-child policy and a strong belief in the family as the most basic unit of society have combined to imbue the young with an aura of unsurpassed importance. In this case, the impact of appears to have been amplified by similarities between what happened to the brothers and the Hans Christian Anderson short story “The Little Match Girl.”
The story, about a poor Danish girl who dies from exposure on New Year’s Eve after running away from her abusive father and trying to sell matches on the street, was once included in Chinese primary school text books as an example of the difficulties faced by the poor in capitalist countries.
[…] Cao Lin, a columnist for the state-run China Youth Daily, [wrote:] “At a time when we’re crowing about the rise of the nation and the creation of a moderately well-off society, to have five children die while seeking warmth in a trash bin is truly bizarre [….”]
Cao Lin was one of many in the state media to ask what had gone wrong, and who was to blame. Eight local officials were swiftly identified and fired. From Lin Xi at Global Times:
Eight local officials including two district chiefs in charge of civil affairs and education were dismissed or suspended from their duties by the Bijie municipal party committee on Monday because of the accident. Some people believe that these boys’ families and society should bear the primary responsibility for the accident instead of the officials. They think that it was the ignorance and indifference from the boys’ relatives and society which caused this tragedy.
However, the officials are not innocent because it is their duty to guarantee every citizen’s safety. The death of the five boys reflects management problems within government.
If the education system was better, these boys would have been taking lessons in warm classrooms instead of leaving school. If the assistance system was more active, they could have been found earlier and may have escaped death. Indeed, governments and officials have done nothing which directly caused this accident. However, it was the officials’ inaction which left the boys to die in the cold.
Many doubted, however that the sacking these eight officials had adequately addressed the root of the problem. From Rachel Wang at Tea Leaf Nation:
[…] As @bll2012 opined: “We are used to finding scapegoats when we encounter problems, then they give you a scapegoat! Then you shut up! You are so pathetic! Why not find the real cause: The failure of the social protection system.” Independent Chinese media Caixin (@财新网) also sounded a note of caution: “The tragedy in Guizhou did not only reflect management loopholes in Bijie alone, but also the defects of the mechanism protecting Chinese children’s rights. China is among the few countries that does not have a professional child welfare department. Administrative systems for child protection and rescue urgently need to be built.”
Therefore, according to the lawyer Li Fangping, Li Yuanlong was detained to prevent the damage from spreading any further. At The Daily Beast, Duncan Hewitt linked his treatment to the cases of Zhai Xiaobing (@stariver) and Ren Jianyu, and suggested—as did Charles Custer at ChinaGeeks—that while local government may be directly responsible, the political climate in which such actions are tolerated and encouraged is one of Beijing’s making:
Li’s detention echoes what is now a common pattern in China, in which sensitive individuals are removed from circulation at sensitive times, and held either under effective house arrest at home, or in what are known as “black [i.e. unofficial] jails.” During the run-up to the recent Communist Party Congress, rights groups say over a hundred people faced such treatment—including the well-known human-rights activist Hu Jia, who was only released from a three-year jail sentence last year.
In some cases the hard line taken against dissidents may be the choice of local authorities rather than necessarily being decreed from the center, says Professor Kerry Brown, executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, but he adds that it is nevertheless a sign of the prevailing mood in Chinese political circles:
“The golden rule seems to be that no one gets bad marks for picking on dissidents and others labeled trouble makers,” he says, “while for those who are lenient, on the other hand, the risks if things go wrong are still high.
Furthermore, a Central Propaganda Department directive previously published by CDT suggested that Beijing, while allowing some coverage, had chosen to grant local government considerable control:
[… Y]ou may report moderately on the incident according to Xinhua wire copy and authoritative information released by the local government. Do not put this news on the front page, do not lure readers to the story, do not link to the story, to do not comment on it, and do not dispatch journalists to the scene.
Li, the primary remaining conduit of information on the case, had long been a thorn in the side of local authorities. In 2006, he was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly inciting subversion in a series of articles posted to overseas Chinese websites. From the Committee to Protect Journalists’ report on his trial in May 2006:
“Like many committed reporters in China, Li Yuanlong began posting his articles online after facing censorship at his newspaper,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “He is guilty of nothing more than expressing his criticism of official actions and should never have been brought to trial. We call for his immediate and unconditional release.”
Li reported for Bijie Ribao on rural poverty and unemployment in his native Guizhou province and had frequently been censored in recent years because of complaints by local officials embarrassed by his reports, according to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights in China and CPJ sources.
[…] Li pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and his lawyer rejected the notion that his criticism threatened state authority.
“He only criticized wrongdoings of some Communist Party officials or local governments,” the lawyer told Reuters. “The Communist Party and state power is not the same concept.”
At EastSouthWestNorth, Roland Soong translated one of Li’s essays, On Becoming an American Citizen in Spirit, originally posted to exile site Boxun under the pen name Ye Lang (Night Wolf). In it, Li pecked at the raw nerve of China’s ‘crucifixion’ by foreign imperialists, defending former Peking University professor Jiao Guobiao‘s suggestion that it would have been better for the U.S. to “liberate” China from Communist rule at the end of the Korean War:
[…] If America really sent its soldiers to drive for Beijing, then this is more than ‘interfering internal politics of other countries’ and it is really the invasion by the ‘world police.’ I have been pondering why interfering in the internal politics of other countries and being the world police man have become terms of denigration that are natural and indisputable in “our” vocabulary. If your internal politics is a totalitarian regime covered up by dark curtains, then why should not the police in charge of maintaining world peace come and show you? As a common example, I am beating my wife and kids at home and someone else (such as the police) comes to stop me. I yell: “I’m beating my wife and my kids. What is this to outsiders? Why are you entitled to mind my family business?” Is that acceptable? As another example, a Chinese person falls into the river, or his house catches fire. There is an American on the side, but the patriots won’t let the Chinese person accept the help of the American. Instead, the Chinese person must wait for other Chinese to save him. The Chinese person will have to “sacrifice himself for the greater good.” Is this not the modernized version under the cover of patriotism of the old saying “It is a minor matter to starve to death; it is a major matter to lose your chastity”?