Xinhua News Agency revisits the Qin Zhongfei SMS story — ban on television coverage in force, sources say
According to CMP sources, national television media in China have been under orders since late October not to report on the Qin Zhongfei (秦中飞) case in Chongqing, in which a government employee was jailed for writing and transmitting by mobile phone a poem satirizing local leaders in the municipality’s Pengshui County. Despite the order against television coverage, delivered by Central Propaganda Department officials, a major feature story on the case appeared on November 13 in Liaowang, an official magazine published by the central Xinhua News Agency. The story was re-printed yesterday in Jinghua Times, the commercial spin-off of the official People’s Daily, and in Henan’s Dahe Daily. Sichuan’s Chengdu Business Daily ran its own story on November 13 raising four questions about the Pengshui case [see below and PDF above] and reprinting in full the poem that set off the controversy. [PDF: November 13 Chengdu Business Daily story on Pengshui SMS Case].
So what exactly is going on here?
Southern Metropolis Daily said recently in its wrap-up of major journalism events in 2006 that Xinhua News Agency had made a number of “breakthroughs” this year, perhaps referring to cases like Xinhua’s coverage of Typhoon Saomei. The Liaowang feature might be seen as the latest example of “breakthrough” coverage by Xinhua, meaning that top officials at the official newswire, perhaps under commercial pressure to offer more than empty publicity (to be more relevant, in other words), might have chosen to disregard propaganda orders against coverage — not an unlikely scenario given the power of top Xinhua cadres. At any rate, possible changes in behavior at Xinhua are something that should be watched closely.
However, a more likely explanation for the apparent disjoint between television bans and Xinhua coverage is that the Pengshui SMS case is being used by top officials via Xinhua News Agency to highlight local leadership problems in the run-up to Seventeenth National CPC Congress next year. The case might be used to send a message to recalcitrant local officials urging them to cooperate with the policy spirit of the center, particularly Hu Jintao’s notion of a “harmonious society”. The Liaowang feature story comes, significantly, as the party is trying to push the idea (or, at the very least, the perception) of greater participation by larger society in political affairs, which can be seen in the much-touted decision this week to increase by five percentage points the number of “candidates” for People’s Congress delegate positions, which theoretically raises the level of competition [BELOW: Front page article in Jinghua Times, November 13, announces increase in ratio of National CPC Congress candidates to delegates].
The feature article in Liaowang loudly criticizes the actions of local officials in Chongqing in dealing harshly with Qin Zhongfei, and calls their suppression of the right to free expression a “huge step back in an age of democracy and rule of law”. Considering the source, this should be taken with a grain of salt. But the message is clear — in the run up to the Seventeenth National CPC Congress, top leaders wish to project a gentler, more inclusive image, emphasizing the goal of a “harmonious society”. Here are key portions of the Liaowang article:
People on the street believe that despite rapid [economic] growth in Pengshui the common people have not seen the benefits and salaries for government employees are too low. County leaders should take the words of the poem and see them as admonishments promoting [better governance], recognizing them as signs of active participation in political and government affairs by common people, who have an ardent yearning for the healthy development of Pengshui. For them [the officials] to go against this principle in wildly suppressing free expression is a huge step back in an age of democracy and rule of law.
One government cadre in Pengshui who did not wish to give his name said that popular opinion isn’t just a hole that lets the wind through [ie,"gives rise to rumors"] but has increasingly become an important force in monitoring government. County leaders should learn how to have better dialogue with common people, interacting with them more, using various effective means to carry out publicity and education. Using government power to suppress public opinion violates the central [party's guiding] spirit of “building the party for the public, governing for the people” and is a sign of weak intelligence.
Wang Xuehui (王学辉), assistant director of the Political and Government Affairs School of the Xinan University of Politics and Law says that democracy and rule of law are important components of a harmonious society, and the “Pengshui Case” just a few lines criticizing the county secretary [top leader] and county governor were regarded as crimes and more than 40 people were summoned for trial. This is the kind of thing we have seen only in the [old Qing Dynasty tradition of "imprisonment or execution for using language in error" (文字狱).
[NOTE: There are a number of well-known examples from the Qing Dynasty of wen zi yu, or "imprisonment or execution for using language in error". In one case a scholar wrote of the wind whisking through his study: "For the pure breeze words can have no meaning/Why then does it turn these pages?" (清风不识字/何必乱翻书). The first character, qing, or "pure", is the same as the character for the Qing Empire. When the poem was discovered, the writer was executed.]
The November 13 report in Chengdu Business Daily addressed what it said were four key problems in the Qin Zhongfei case:
Q1: Why were county officials troubled by an SMS message? Officials considered that this was a highly sensitive time given the upcoming leadership changes [to come with the Seventeenth National CPC Congress], and some officials might be removed. In order to keep the situation from getting out of hand, authorities pursued the case [against Qin Zhongfei].
Q2: Why was the suspect [Qin Zhongfei] arrested and punished despite insufficient supporting evidence? Local police forces often handle cases in the spirit of, “How can the son sit idle when Father is being attacked?” The police did not handle critical tasks in the case as they should have, including the arrest and case filing. Officer HE (the police chief in Pengshui), placed too much trust in his subordinates. Moreover, despite the extreme sensitivity of the case, police in Pengshui did not report it to Chongqing municipal police. The case was referred to the courts without the knowledge of authorities in Chongqing.
Q3. Why was an earnest criticism from the public being attacked [by authorities]? As the investigation went forward some officials in Pengshui County persisted in holding that the content of the poem written by Qin Zhongfei was problematic. Some senior officials maintained that while the poem had not violated any laws its contents were [politically] incorrect. The investigation turned up no evidence to suggest [Qin Zhongfei's actions] constituted a crime of national security.
Q4. How can the phenomenon of “imprisonment or execution for using language in error” be effectively avoided and civilian requests heard? The poem sent by Qin Zhongfei via short message was a form of expression. But in this case, officials in Pengshui took action against public opinion solely in their own interests and applied the law to exact revenge. This is not permitted under the laws and regulations of our nation and our Party. Criminal Law has established clear rules on abuse of official authority, and the behavior of officials in Pengshui clearly constitutes a miscarriage of law. Moreover, the incident shows that some frontline authorities [local and regional officials] do not possess the correct attitude towards public opinion. They have therefore abandoned the fair tradition of self-criticism within the party.
[Posted by David Bandurski and Brian Chan, November 15, 2006, 3:08pm]