Former Journalist Luo Changping Detained for Defaming “Heroes and Martyrs”

Former journalist and anti-corruption crusader Luo Changping was detained by police on Hainan Island on October 7, a day after his personal Weibo account was deleted over a post questioning the justification for China’s involvement in the Korean War and mocking an ill-fated Chinese military unit depicted in a recent big-budget propaganda film.

The nationalistic blockbuster “The Battle at Lake Changjin” dominated Chinese theaters during the October 1 Chinese National Day holiday week, reportedly earning over 3 billion yuan [460 million U.S. dollars] in a single week, but reviews were mixed, and the most critical reviews were summarily deleted from social media. The film tells the story of the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, in which China’s People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) troops forced a much larger American, British and South Korean force to retreat, but at tremendous cost: the PVA suffered nearly 20 thousand combat casualties, and nearly 30 thousand deaths from starvation and cold

Publicity poster for the film “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” depicting Chinese volunteer soldiers braving heavy snows.

Publicity poster for the film “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” depicting Chinese volunteer soldiers braving heavy snows.

The text of the Weibo post that caused Luo Changping so much trouble was brief: 

“Half a century later, our countrymen rarely reflect on the justification for the war, much as those soldiers in ‘Sand Sculpture [idiot] Company’ never doubted the ‘wise decisions’ of their higher-ups.” [Chinese]

Luo’s reference to the soldiers in that ill-fated company (a small military unit with between a few dozen to two hundred soldiers) is a play on words: by replacing the flattering moniker “Ice Sculpture Company” with “Sand Sculpture Company,” he is using current internet slang to suggest that the volunteer soldiers in that company were idiots for following orders that led to certain death.

This is not the first time that Luo Changping has found himself in the crosshairs for speaking his mind. The former head of the investigations department at the Beijing News and deputy editor of Caijing magazine, he authored hard-hitting exposés of official corruption until he was demoted and forced out of journalism in 2014. Prior to that, his personal Wechat account was deleted in a broader crackdown targeting the social media accounts of many other prominent online commentators and journalists. In 2013, Luo was awarded the Integrity Award by Transparency International for his journalistic work in exposing and battling corruption. 

In a 2013 joint interview with the Chinese edition of GQ and Southern Weekly (now censored, but archived at CDT’s China Digital Space), Luo Changping articulated his views on China’s future and the importance of free speech. His use of the term 折腾 (zhēteng, translated here as “political turmoil”) evokes the turbulent top-down political campaigns of the Maoist era, as well as Hu Jintao’s signature political phrase “free from turmoil.”

Interviewer: What is your greatest worry about China?

Luo: Chaos, and political turmoil.

Interviewer: What is your “China Dream”?

Luo: My own “China Dream” is the hope that everyone will be able to express themselves freely. [Chinese]

Legal notices from the local police and procuratorate indicate that Luo Changping will be charged under a law, first adopted in 2018 and put into effect in March of this year, that allows civil and/or criminal penalties for those who insult or defame national heroes and martyrs. In January of 2021, popular blogger Qiu Ziming was charged under this same law, and sentenced to eight months in jail for a social media post in which he suggested that Chinese casualties in the previous year’s border clash with India might have been higher than reported. Some journalists and observers fear that Luo Changping could serve serious jail time if he is made an example of:

@lunanweiyi  “The Luo Changping affair isn’t just a simple detention. The procuratorate has already filed a case, and jail time is a possibility. What this ‘powerful country’ fears most is people who dare to speak.” [Chinese]

State media and nationalist bloggers have amplified the story of Luo Changping’s arrest, as reported by The New York Times’ Steven Lee Myers and Amy Chang Chien: 

The authorities appeared to be trying to set an example with Mr. Luo’s arrest, which was highlighted by state media, including the main television network, CCTV. The arrest — and what appeared to be an orchestrated wave of outrage online — reflected the Communist Party’s prickliness about any efforts to challenge its version of history.

“Some individuals still try to completely deny the War of Resistance against the United States and Aid Korea, question the justice of sending troops, and try to erase the great victory,” a statement that appeared on the social media accounts of the People’s Liberation Army said, using the Chinese name for the war.

[…] According to a police statement, Mr. Luo was charged under a new criminal code that took effect this year, making the defamation of political martyrs a crime. It can result in a prison sentence of up to three years. “Cyberspace is not a lawless place,” the statement said. [Source]

Jingoistic op-ed blogger Li Guangman, who rocketed to fame in August with an essay widely republished in Chinese state media, has also weighed in on Luo Changping’s comments and arrest, as detailed by David Bandurski of the China Media Project: 

The second media case cited by Li Guangman was the detention on October 7 in Hainan of well-known entrepreneur and former professional journalist Luo Changping (罗昌平), who was charged with insulting and defaming the martyrs of Chinese history by criticizing a new film about China’s involvement in the Korean War. Luo’s detention, widely reported by state-run media, underscores the resolve of the Chinese Communist Party leadership in policing the bounds of the CCP’s official narratives, the stories and mythologies that undergird its power and legitimacy.

[…] For Li Guangman, who cites Luo Changping’s detention as further evidence of the “profound transformation” underway in China, action against public intellectuals is long overdue. For too long, he says, the country’s martyrs have been neglected. The situation has improved since the implementation of the 2018 law, but still “people like Luo Changping have not hesitated to test the law.” Li quotes from Jun Zhengping (钧正平), a writer at the People’s Liberation Army Daily, who said in a recent commentary venting outrage at Luo Changping’s remarks that, “We must not let those who malign the martyrs do whatever they want with impunity.” [Source]

A day after Luo Changping’s arrest, another blogger was jailed for 10 days for a Weibo comment that was, if anything, more irreverent, voicing the theory that the death of Mao Zedong’s son Mao Anying in a bombing raid during the Korean War saved China from a hereditary political dynasty similar to the Kims in North Korea. (Here, the term “egg fried rice” refers to a story about Mao Anying supposedly giving away his location by breaking battlefield blackout rules to cook a meal of egg fried rice.)

@左右的佑佑  “The greatest result of the Korean War was egg fried rice: thank you, egg fried rice! Without egg fried rice, we [China] would be no different from North Korea. Sadly, there’s not that big a difference nowadays.” [Chinese]

These arrests and detentions are the latest salvos in an ongoing campaign to exert greater CCP control over the historical narrative, particularly as it relates to the role of the Party in historical events. In April of this year, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) established a hotline for reporting “historical nihilism,” a vague term that encompasses views that “‘distort’ the Party’s history, attack its leadership and policies, defame national heroes and ‘deny the excellence of advanced socialist culture.’” In July, the CAC went a step further, releasing a list of 10 “historically nihilist rumors,” including both the circumstances surrounding Mao Anying’s death and whether China’s entry into the Korean war was truly a matter of self-defense.

There have been occasional victories in the uphill battle for historical heterodoxy. In September, Chinese netizens accused of defaming China’s paratroopers (by using “sanbing,” or “paratrooper,” as an online euphemism for a common Chinese curse word) scored a victory against the censors when Baidu agreed to unblock the curse word “shabi” on its platform. There is a similarly grassroots online campaign underway to shame the actors and producers behind “The Battle at Lake Changjin”—which boasts a production budget of $200 million dollars and A-list directors Chen Kaige, Hark Tsui and Dante Lam—into putting their money where their mouths are by donating box office profits to Korean War veterans and their families. The grassroots social media effort can be seen in part as pushback against the jingoistic tone of “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” as well as the strict censorship of critical online reviews of the film and the perceived hypocrisy of those who would profit from the pain and suffering of China’s veterans by rewriting history in a manner flattering to the CCP. The filmmakers have not yet responded to the public appeal, but it is being followed closely on social media:

@ZhangDong_SCH  Dr. Yang Peichang’s [donation] proposal has generated a groundswell of social support. Many WeChat groups have responded proactively, launching appeals and urging the cast, crew and producers of “The Battle at Lake Changjin” to donate box office revenues to volunteer veterans and martyrs’ families. […] [Chinese]

State media has responded to the grassroots pressure campaign by lobbing charges of “moral hostage-taking” and “forced donations.” Although many social media posts supportive of the grassroots campaign to donate box office profits to veterans have been deleted, CDT Chinese has collected a number of Weibo comments, a selection of which are translated here:

巴赫***咯: Chen Kaige and Wu Jing shouldn’t eat buns made from human blood [i.e. profit from bloodshed] – the agreed-upon “common prosperity” will only work if we take practical action.

吃瓜***好: [They] smear themselves with heroes’ blood, steal the copyright to the heroes’ stories, make money by invoking those heroes, swindle people under the name of those heroes, but refuse to donate even a penny to the real heroes, and then [when people demand they donate box office profits], they act righteous and complain about “moral hostage-taking”! Ugh! Shameless.

赵**010: Someone suggested that the cast and crew of “The Battle at Lake Changjin” donate money to the surviving family members of martyrs. After all, they packaged the blood of the martyrs and turned it into a saleable commodity, and it’s not like it’s a public-service film free for everyone to seethey trampled over the blood of the martyrs to fill their cofferswould you call that patriotic? What’s so wrong with suggesting that they donate a bit of money to the martyrs’ families? Why do some media outlets see that as “forced donation”? Besides, it’s not like we netizens have weapons or the law on our side: how could we possibly “force” them to make a donation?

**S怡Y: I firmly support this! If a film has patriotic themes, all box office revenueminus production costs and salariesshould be donated to the nation.

zhqliber*****: Set aside a bit to cover production costs or make a little profit, and establish a fund to take care of Korean War veterans. Of course, not donating isn’t a crime, it’s just bad manners and bad optics.

自***6: Calling again on Wu Jing and the others to donate all of “The Battle at Lake Changjin” box office revenue (now nearly 4 billion yuan) to Korean war veterans and the surviving family members of war martyrsthis is a topic on which pretty much everyone can agree. Even Sima Nan made a rare sensible comment about it. Those old volunteer veterans really are the loveliest people, and also the most wretched. My late father was a veteran of the volunteer army. Fortunately, he didn’t lose his life in North Korea, but after demobilization, he spent his lifetime farming, and in his old age, received just a pittance for his volunteer service. Donating the box-office profits from “The Battle at Lake Changjin” will be a great comfort to our volunteer veterans! [Chinese]


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