Guangdong’s media regulator has ordered editorial changes at the New Express following its bold two-day appeal for the release of detained reporter Chen Yongzhou last week. The campaign ended abruptly after Chen appeared on state television, confessing that he had accepted money to publish damaging articles about construction machinery firm Zoomlion. Chen was formally arrested on Wednesday. From Mimi Lau at South China Morning Post:
“Preliminary investigation shows New Express under the Yangcheng Evening News Group published numerous incorrect reports about Zoomlion from September 2012 to August 2013. The editorial management of New Express was chaotic,” it said.
It ordered Yangcheng Evening News to revoke Chen’s journalist accreditation and overhaul New Express. The reshuffle of the management should start immediately, the statement said.
[…] A reporter with New Express said “provincial propaganda department officials had already paid a visit to the newspaper and spoke with editors who have handled the problematic articles” prior to the announcement by the Guangdong press regulator.
Another reporter with the tabloid felt sorry to see their chief editor leave because “he is a professionally capable editor”. [Source]
Lau later added that the editor, Li Yihang, has been replaced by a member of Yangcheng Evening News’ Party committee.
The Express had previously made a front-page U-turn on Chen’s case, but with nothing like the zeal of its original pleas: as conservative professor and blogger Wu Fatian complained, “they issued a paltry apology right behind the backside of a soccer player. No wonder one netizen commented that the apology was more like a fart.” The announcement of the reshuffle was broadcast on national news, part of an apparently choreographed sequence of reports and statements over the course of the last week. None, though, has attracted more attention than Chen’s own unexpected confession. From China Media Project’s David Bandurski on Wednesday:
There are so many lingering problems and questions in this case. But one of the biggest ones, obviously, is whether Chen’s confession was coerced. It’s a fact that he was marched in for his televised confession between two police officers. He was in handcuffs and wearing a prison jumpsuit. Web users in China also noted what appeared to be (but no one can possibly confirm) an abrasion on his neck just inside his collar. Can anyone with half a brain for law and reason take this confession to mean anything at all?
Here is what Wei Yongzheng, China’s most prominent media law expert, said in an article today:
This program of China Central Television’s, allowing a detained suspect to face the television camera and confess before the whole country . . . directly violates Criminal Procedure Law, which states that “no person may be forced to confess their own crimes.” When someone has been deprived of their personal freedom, and when they are escorted out in prison garb and in handcuffs by a pair of brawny police officers — to say that they are consciously and willingly confessing their wrongs in their own words wouldn’t fool even a three year-old child.
[…] The upshot here is that the broadcast “confession” by CCTV’s Morning News program should be understood not as evidence of Chen Yongzhou’s guilt, but as a bleak illustration of how his rights have been violated by both police and the media. [Source]
Chen’s is the latest in a series of televised confessions that have caused growing alarm. At Christian Science Monitor, Peter Ford listed five other cases including those of Charles Xue and Peter Humphrey, and noted that another New Express journalist detained in August was allegedly offered his freedom if he would admit on camera to defamation. The reporter, Liu Hu, reportedly refused, and was subsequently arrested.
At The New York Times’ Sinosphere blog, Austin Ramzy wrote that the confessions have become a favored means of trying to cut short argument over controversial cases:
The confessions have short-circuited public debates that have at times been highly critical of the role of government officials and powerful commercial interests. At the same time, the confessions have undermined China’s efforts to cast its legal system as making steady progress in the direction of greater rights for suspects and court rulings less subject to the dictates of party officials.
“This is a pattern. When there is difficulty convincing people, the best way to kill a conversation is to have a CCTV announce that he’s guilty,” said Fu Hualing, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “Society is just so divided. They monitor the Internet so closely that sometimes they feel they have to end the debate.” [Source]
At Tea Leaf Nation, Yiqin Fu noted online ridicule aimed at the confessions, including mocked-up images of the great writer Lu Xun owning up to having falsely claimed authorship of his essays.
Lu Xun’s “confession” serves to poke fun at the Communist Party’s attempt to sway public opinion against the suspects before the law has had its say. Chinese netizens often resort to satire to express political opinions, particularly when direct criticism of central authorities is likely to lead to censorship, detention, or even physical harm. A popular cartoonist who calls himself Rebel Pepper captured this fear when he took to Weibo to post a cartoon of a man hanging from CCTV’s iconic Beijing headquarters as if in the gallows [here]. The accompanying text reads, “Finally I’m on CCTV.” For many Chinese entangled with the judicial system, the less famous they are, the better. [Source]
However dubious his confession, the charges against Chen are not inherently far-fetched. From Kathleen McLaughlin at The Economist’s Analects blog:
It is standard procedure to lay out red envelopes filled with cash for reporters who do nothing more than turn up to corporate press conferences; this climate threatens to make it impossible to determine who is a real journalist and who is a rogue. The problem is hardly new.
[…] The fundamental problem goes beyond the state’s disregard for the constitutional right to a free press. Corruption is so ingrained in the world of Chinese journalism that reporters, who are typically low-paid, often accept gifts or cash, and think nothing of it. Pay-for-play reporting is common in the newspapers, where companies can buy their coverage by the column-inch, and pay to block it at another rate. Not all Chinese journalists accept compensation from their subjects, far from it. But the dirty work of a few does enough to stain the whole system. [Source]
See more on the problem from Deutsche Welle.
Even Chen’s guilt, however, would not rule out foul play on the part of Zoomlion and the authorities. At ChinaFile, South China Morning Post online editor Wang Feng proposed a scenario in which Chen became first an instrument and then a victim of a long-running feud between Zoomlion and its rival Sany:
I am convinced of the authenticity of the investigative work done by microbloggers, that the car Chen was taken away in belonged to Zoomlion, the company he was accused of publishing more than a dozen hit pieces against.
[…] Some Chinese financial media have reported that the chairman of Zoomlion, Zhan Chunxin, is the son of Hunan’s former top judge. There also were unverified rumors that Zhan’s wife is the daughter of a former deputy Party secretary of Hunan, and that a vice president of Zoomlion is the son-in-law of another former Party leader in the Central Chinese province. Given these backgrounds, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that Zoomlion had put pressure on the Changsha government to launch another major assault on Sany by arresting and investigating Chen for the articles he had published. Although no one has pointed a finger at Sany, the obvious suspicion is that Sany orchestrated and funded Chen’s alleged attack stories against Zoomlion. China Central Television—where Chen’s confession aired on Saturday morning—most probably had the whole story handed to them by Zoomlion and its allies in the Hunan government, maybe even higher up. [Source]
Wang’s scenario highlights the fact that, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out, the handling of Chen’s case is an issue not only of politics, but also of business:
Improved transparency is the best way for both companies and investors to sort through all this. If, as Zoomlion says and analysts believe, the company’s accounting is above board, it would have an interest in suing Mr. Chen and allowing the truth to out in an open courtroom.
[…] Even if Mr. Chen was wrong about Zoomlion, persecution of the press is bad for the Chinese economy. A healthy capital market can function only if investors can obtain accurate information about companies. Cases like Mr. Chen’s that show the authorities might be willing to suppress bad news about a company harm China’s ambitions for a healthy domestic financial market. [Source]