Guest Post: Shame on Shaun Rein

The following is a guest post by Tom of Seeing Red in China. Of note also is a similar piece on The Peking Duck.

Yesterday Shaun Rein published a piece in Forbes bashing CNN’s lack of journalistic integrity when it helped Christian Bale organize a trip to Linyi. The main point of his article is sound, CNN did clearly cross a line from reporting news to creating news, but in Shaun’s efforts to hawk his new book and attack CNN, he grossly misrepresents what is going on in Linyi, exposing his own shameful lack of journalistic integrity.

Please bear with me as I pick apart the worst paragraphs of the piece:

“My issue here is not with Bale. In general, I believe one should follow the laws of nations that one visits, and that Bale should do so, but I also generally believe in free speech, no matter how misguided.”

It should be noted that it is not against the law to visit the city of Linyi. At no point did uniformed police officers or even the thugs that chased him away claim that what he was doing was against the law. Rein’s implication that it was in someway illegal serves only to obscure the issue.

One of the reasons I wrote my upcoming book, The End of Cheap China, was to dispel myths and distortions in the Western world about China, by covering both the good and bad of its evolution and trying to bring nuance where organizations like CNN bring activism. Far too many news organizations in the West perpetuate outdated or simply wrong views of the Chinese government and its people for the sake of getting eyeballs or, perhaps, to try to help contain the country. It is sad when CNN’s coverage of China becomes more like tabloid fodder than the gold standard it once was.

Here Shaun speculates that CNN might actually be trying to contain China, when it was covering what actually happened when Christian Bale tried to enter the village. Yes, it was 100% wrong for CNN to hire the van at Bale’s request, but CNN didn’t hire the thugs that kept Bale from visiting Chen Guangcheng. Pretending that human rights abuses don’t happen in China is hardly what I would call “nuanced” or balanced. It’s on par with Global Times pretending that the pollution in Beijing is harmless fog, hardly something worthy of Forbes.

I have a chapter in The End of Cheap China on the lessons I’ve learned from China’s sex industry and how it seems contradictory at first glance that brothels exist in the open everywhere, without local police molestation, while the central government cracks down on Internet porn. A closer look shows that China’s sex industry actually is a friction point between the central and local governments, a juncture where interests often diverge.

The central government might try to shut brothels but is stopped by corrupt local officials. President Hu has called local corruption a serious problem and has made rooting it out a major goal of his administration. My book tries to shed light on the interplay and often diverging interests between local and central government officials and why improvements are sometimes much slower than the central government wants.

Through censoring web searches for information on Chen Guangcheng and Linyi, the Central gov’t has clearly displayed that it actually has a similar interest in keeping Chen’s illegal detention a secret within China. While Shaun’s point about the difficulty of controlling prostitution might be true, Chen’s initial detention was the result of him opposing local implementation of a national policy. In this case the central gov’t’s interest in keeping Chen silenced does align with the local gov’t’s interest in saving face.

As a Chinese co-worker told me the other day, when there is one corrupt official, it’s a problem with that official, when there are hundreds of corrupt officials, it’s a problem with the system.

Bale and CNN’s publicity stunt indicts an entire political system without delving deeper into the reality of Chen’s detention and the interplay between the central and local governments.  I have no idea about Chen’s detention, and if he is being wronged or not, but if there are issues with his case, I am not convinced that calling the entire political class “disgusting,” as Bale does, can help.

When I pressed Shaun on his ignorance pertaining to Chen’s detention, he said again that he would not comment on something he had no knowledge of. The documentation of Chen’s abuse has been widely reported for nearly three months. To have “no idea” about it seems like he is feigning ignorance, otherwise he must have only been reading People’s Daily (even Global Times reported on Chen). It’s fine that he isn’t convinced that Bale calling the system disgusting is helpful, but how can he complain that CNN didn’t delve deeper into the reality when he himself has no idea about it?

Far too many in the West indict China’s whole governing class and system when a single local official does something stupid or brutish. Yet they criticized only a lone thuggish police officer in New York for pepper-spraying Occupy Wall Street protesters. They didn’t called [sic] President Obama evil for what that one officer did, or call for an overthrow of all of America. Yet Bale did that in China’s case, and, worse, CNN helped him.

So much is wrong with this paragraph that it hurts. Firstly, what is happening in Linyi absolutely involves the entire political system. Local officials who were initially involved in Chen’s case have been promoted to provincial level offices, and the brief mention in Global Times indicates that the central gov’t is aware of this illegal detention. Yet, the central gov’t has yet to take any action to help Chen.

The imprisonment of Chen does not rely on a “single local official” but involves village leaders, city level leaders, and provincial level leaders along with a squad of hired thugs.

Shaun pretends that this is in some way comparable to thuggish cops pepper spraying protesters. This would be similar if 1) the police in the pepper spray incident involved faced no punishment, ever 2) similar events happened throughout the US several times each day and 3) domestic newspapers were not allowed to report on the incident and information related to it was scrubbed from the internet. However, Shaun did say that he had “no idea about Chen’s detention”, so I guess it isn’t too surprising how wildly inaccurate his comparison is.

The last thing the world needs is increased tension between the world’s two superpowers. CNN should be ashamed for becoming more like a tabloid and inserting itself into the story rather than maintaining journalistic integrity and providing an objective view of its subjects.

I would argue that it is actually not a journalist’s job to be concerned about whether or not the story they are publishing creates tension between China and the US. The role of the journalist however almost certainly demands checking the facts and reporting the whole story when it does appear.

Shaun argued more eloquently at the beginning of the piece, CNN should not have involved itself so closely in the creation of this story, but it would have been a much stronger piece if he had demonstrated any of the integrity he expects from CNN.

On Chen Guangcheng and Batman

Today, CNN posted a video in which they accompanied actor Christian Bale on a trip to Linyi to visit Chen Guangcheng, where he was promptly (and predictably) roughed-up and kicked out by thugs. They’ve since also posted a follow-up interview with Bale about it.

Anyway, as you might imagine given Bale’s star power, this story has gotten some play today, despite the ongoing craziness in Wukan and the news that Sina Weibo and other Beijing-based microblog providers must implement real-name requirements for all users. (This, I think, will be the death of Weibo as a political platform in China, but there will be time to talk about that later).

The ‘Batman Searches for Chen Guangcheng’ story has also elicited a number of negative reactions on Twitter. There seem to be two main criticisms of it; the first being that CNN was making news here rather than reporting it, and that Bale might just have been doing it as a publicity stunt. Both true, and yet to both I say: who cares?

CNN should not be “making news” by facilitating a confrontation between Bale and Linyi authorities? I’m not captain journalism or anything, but that’s probably true. They say Bale’s camp approached them about it, and we’ll probably never know the full background, but I don’t see it as particularly important. The method employed by CNN may have been unethical by journalistic standards, but the result they achieved via that method is exactly the point of journalism: getting attention to problems that people wouldn’t otherwise hear about. Now, do the ends justify the means? Not always, but here, even if they don’t, I don’t care. CNN has no credibility to lose in China anyway — see their ridiculous doctoring of photos during the riots in Tibet in 2008 — and aside from “you broke the rules” I don’t really see the harm in what they did here.

Bale is just making a PR move after accusations of being a propagandist for appearing in Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War? It’s certainly possible. But again, why does this matter? A good deed done for selfish reasons is still a good deed. If letting people know about Chen’s case is what happens when Christian Bale gets selfish, I hope he spends the rest of his career so self-absorbed that he has to set up permanent housing in Linyi. (Take that, Relativity Media!)

Ah, but is it a good deed? There have also been some suggestions that Bale’s stunt could bring harm to Chen and his family, or hurt the chances of him being released. Of course, we can’t know what’s going on in the heads of the officials who are holding Chen and his family, but I’m not to worried about this, for two reasons.

  • Chen, by law a free man, and his entire family have already been locked away for a year with no charges or legal basis. They’ve been beaten and denied even the most basic access to, well, basically anything. And that’s just what we know has happened. What could Bale’s visit possibly do to make things worse?
  • “Quiet diplomacy,” historically speaking, doesn’t seem to work particularly well on these high profile cases. Moreover, Ai Weiwei’s release showed that with a bit of star power, a Western media firestorm can (potentially) influence things for the better. Of course, the personalities and the cases are different, but as I see it, Bale bringing attention to the subject can only help. If the Chinese government was going to release Chen on its own, they would have done it when he was released from prison. No one was following his case then, nor did it become big in the West until this fall, at which point Chen and his family had been under house arrest for half a year already. Keeping quiet and hoping the government will do the right thing may work sometimes, but it won’t work here.

Hopefully that makes sense. It’s been a long few days and we’re off again for a filming trip this weekend, so if I’ve made some crucial logical error here I won’t be able to address it until after we get back.

The Siege of Wukan, Part IV: Seeds of Siege

(Previously: Part I, Part II, Part III)

Followers of of me on Twitter will be aware that of the two videos I mentioned in Part III of my Wukan coverage, I was able to successfully download one before the links were deleted.

That video is now available in full via my server here. It’s all in Chinese (mostly Cantonese with traditional character subtitles). The file is a 1.1 GB WMV file. You can also download via a mirror here thanks to @ptrebor.

Alternately, I made a shortened, edited version of the video which you can stream here. If you find Youtube loads more smoothly, you can see the video on Youtube here. Additional versions (a version without the music) coming tomorrow.

In other Wukan news, this Chinese news report from late last night indicates that some Wukan officials are being investigated by the Party for misconduct. It’s an indication that the Central government may be planning to side, at least to some extent, with the villagers.

The Siege of Wukan, Part III: Making Martyrs

(See Part I, Part II)

UPDATE 3: With regard to the video links below, my connection to the first file was dropped, but I was able to watch the first few minutes. It appears to be a documentary of sorts on Wukan; however, my file ended while the film was still introducing the town’s history. I’m now trying to download both files again.

UPDATE 2: Just spotted the following weibo post from one of the Wukan connections. Not sure exactly what it’s referring to, but it was just posted a few minutes ago:

Just now a person [or people ((Chinese doesn’t always distinguish between singular and plural, and there’s not enough context here to know which was meant))] from the government came to our school and forced students to sign something pertaining to the selling off of the Biguiyuan land. When the villagers learned of it they became agitated and sprayed them [the government person or people] with urine. Running dogs!

UPDATE 1: Information in the first paragraph corrected. Additionally, I have downloaded the second video file linked below, but get an error with any software I try to open it with. The first file is still downloading. Also of note: Malcolm Moore’s explanation of why they opted to leave Wukan (again, I think you probably need a G+ account to see that).

Malcolm Moore has left Wukan. To my knowledge, there are now no reporters in the village. Based on Weibo posts from Wukan residents, it appears there is at least one Hong Kong reporter still in Wukan.

Surprisingly, though, many of the Weibo accounts I found yesterday remain open. I suspect this is in large part because their networks are quite small. None of them are verified users, and most have only a few dozen or a couple hundred followers. It may be difficult for Sina to find them.

In any event, their posts over the past few days have elucidated what a crucial error the government made in detaining five of the villagers’ leaders and in likely killing ((According to two Chinese media reports I spotted yesterday, the government claims two different parties have examined the body and determined he wasn’t beaten to death, but they have failed to determine why he did die, which makes me quite suspicious. Meanwhile, Xue’s family — who was needed to identify the body — says his body was covered with wounds)) Xue Jinbo.

It’s no secret that Xue has become a martyr in the village, and in almost all the Weibo posts I’ve seen, he and the others who were arrested are being referred to as heroes [英雄]. Moreover, the government’s attempts to propagandize their detention and use them to quell the villagers is, if Weibo is any indication, a complete failure.

Take, for example, the video below. In it, Zhang Jiancheng (one of the five village leaders arrested) meets with his sister (according to the video’s timestamp, this happened on Tuesday afternoon). In the video, after a strange moment when the audio completely drops out, Zhang tells his sister he’s being treated well, he hasn’t been beaten, the food is great, the government is good, and that the village should “trust the leaders” to resolve this problem. In short, he says exactly what the government would want him to say.

http://www.tudou.com/v/mRU9K4Vxyqc/v.swf

So, how is this video being interpreted by folks in Wukan? Here’s a quote from one Wukan user I’ve also seen retweeted by several others. ((To make finding these people more difficult for Sina’s censors, I will not provide the original Chinese text))

Ruichao, Jiancheng, and Liehong [three of the arrested “heroes”] have given us words with hidden meanings, and teach us that in a time of crisis you must be clever. Some of our Wukan heroes have been arrested and treated maliciously by the government; from their words we can tell that the government is treating them ‘specially’, and is also telling them to memorize lines [to recite on camera] but they have a secret understanding with us, [so] they speak calmly. The clothes they’re wearing cover up the cuts and bruises all over their bodies.

Although personally I found Jiancheng’s performance suspicious myself — his “lines” were a little too perfect, and why did the sound drop out when his sister first arrived — I’m inclined to suspect that at this point, there’s nothing any of these men could say while in police custody that would lead the villagers to surrender. There is simply zero trust in the government there, and that people are being tortured and beaten by the police seems to be a baseline assumption.

So, even as the government attempts to use the arrestees for propaganda purposes within the village (see the video above) and outside it (see the news stories about the “five criminal suspects” arrested in Wukan), Wukan villagers are hailing the men as heroes.

I will update this story or post additional stories as the situation warrants. One of the Wukan users has posted two video download links to his Weibo account, and I am currently attempting to download them, but given the speed of my internet, it may be some time before I can properly see what they are.

If you have a faster connection than I and would like to download the videos for yourself, here at the links. I suspect they’ll be deleted soon. I have no idea what they contain, but the user who posted them requested that they be spread and reposted. His weibo post with that request has since been deleted, so the links will likely follow soon.
Part 1 1.1 GB (appears to be a documentary of sorts on Wukan)
Part 2 213 MB (content unclear, file wouldn’t open)

The Siege of Wukan, Part II: Weibo Impressions

(This post will likely be updated repeatedly throughout the day tomorrow, so do check back frequently or follow @ChinaGeeks on Twitter for notifications about updates.)

UPDATE 1: Added video (h/t to CDT), see bottom of post.

Earlier today I wrote a long post about the Wukan protests and siege, which was based primarily on these two articles by Malcolm Moore. If you haven’t already, please read them both now:

Inside Wukan: the Chinese village that fought back

Rebel Chinese village of Wukan ‘has food for ten days’

As I have no way of getting to, let alone into, Wukan, I began to search Sina Weibo for updates from people in that area. Unsurprisingly for a town of more than 10,000 people, there are plenty of them on Weibo. As discusses yesterday, some of their accounts have been deleted, and specific posts about the protests and the siege are being deleted rapidly. But there’s still plenty of interesting stuff worth pointing out.

First, as to how we got here, one user posted this image from earlier in the year, before police had been driven out of the village. In it, you can clearly see (despite the regrettably small size limitation imposed by Weibo) several different instances of uniformed police and what appear to be soldiers beating citizens on the streets, in broad daylight.

Another thing that has struck me reading through these accounts ((I’m not going to link any of them as I don’t want to tip off Sina’s censors, but they’re really not too difficult to find if you want to check for yourself.)) is that these people are not dissidents, at least not in the same sense as someone like Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei. Most of the Weibo accounts I found belonged to young people, and interspersed with the political messages about their hometown and what’s happening there, there are normal posts about all the things you would expect: the weather, school, cute girls (or boys), funny animations, etc.

I feel certain that somewhere after this is over, there will be people who will be looking to write these people off the way they write off any dissident activity in China. But these are not, by and large, dissidents, or even people who seem to be particularly politically inclined, from what I can tell of their Weibo histories. They’re just people who’ve been forced into an extreme political situation and have chosen to stand up for themselves rather than backing down. Good for them. Don’t let anyone tell you they’re being funded by the NED or being misled by Western propagandists. That’s bullshit.

They also are very aware of the thin ice they’re walking on. It seems clear the decision to rise up was not one they came to lightly. Rather, they were pushed to it, it seems, by the wanton greed and utter stupidity of the local authorities.

Being particularly frightened by how that stupidity might well play out as this situation moves toward some kind of resolution, I was moved by this weibo post from one young man in Wukan. He wrote:

It’s dangerous here. I want to get out.

Still, their collective spirit appears to still be strong. Here’s a video from a few days ago; according to the description it says that the same video was also uploaded to Sina and deleted in less than an hour.

The Siege of Wukan

UPDATE 4: Malcolm Moore has posted a new story on this, which I highly recommend you read in its entirety right here. Also added another image from Weibo.

UPDATE 3: Additional images from Weibo added, section on Weibo censorship added at the end of the post.

UPDATE 2: One of the accounts posting images from inside Wukan — a young man who lives there — has been closed by Sina. Clearly, they’re taking this pretty seriously. I know of two other Weibo accounts from users inside Wukan, but I wonder how quickly their accounts will be closed, too. Also, Malcolm Moore tweeted that the villagers estimate they have food enough left for ten days.

UPDATE 1: Malcolm Moore has posted some more details on his time in the village — and how he got in there — here (you may need a Google Plus account to see that. I have also added an additional large image to the selection of photos from Weibo.

wukan-rebellionThe Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore published an explosive story today about Wukan, the village in southern China that is now in open rebellion against the local government. This story has been developing for several months, but Moore’s piece from inside the blocked-off town (no idea how he’s managed that) is one of the best and most comprehensive pieces I’ve seen yet. I highly recommend that you click this link right now and read the entire story. I’ll wait here.

Ok, finished? Great. Beyond that, Moore has been live updating this morning via his Twitter account, posting additional photos and information. As of this writing, the most interesting of those is this tidbit, from around 11 AM this morning:

The rumour in Wukan is CCTV may be coming on Dec 16, so the police may try and reassert control before then

I don’t think I need to explain the ways in which this event is amazing, and I mean that in the literal sense of the word. Anyone with a funtional brain and half an eye on the Chinese media is aware that local government land grabs are a huge source of discontent, but if you’d told me a few months ago that a Chinese town would band together, run the local officials out of town, resist a force of 1,000 police officers intent on entering the town again (but, thankfully, not willing to use lethal force to do so, at least not yet), establish their own makeshift government, and keep the whole thing running even this long, I would have told you you were nuts.

Before we go any further, I want to get this out of the way: no, this is not the first spark in some nationwide rebellion that will see the national government overthrown. In fact, it’s not even a rebellion against the central government, as you can tell from the pleas for help from Beijing in Moore’s article.

Still, it puts Beijing in an awfully interesting position. As I see it, they have three basic options:

  1. Come to the rescue of the down, declare the local government officials corrupt, put them on trial and restore order peacefully. This is, I suspect, exactly what the people in Wukan want.
  2. Come to the rescue of the officials and provide them enough manpower to completely crush the rebellion. This would be easy, but would attract a lot of negative attention internationally, and there’s a risk of it leaking online domestically, too.
  3. Do nothing for the time being, and see if the officials can regain control on their own, or if the rebellion spreads.

The last option seems by far the most likely to me, which is good and bad news for the protesters in Wukan. No help is coming from Beijing, but at least that means the PLA probably isn’t coming either.

Of course, the central government isn’t really doing nothing, as mentions of Wukan
are being scrubbed from the media and deleted online. As you would expect, searching for “Wukan” on Weibo gives you the classic “According to the relevant laws, these results can’t be displayed” message. But weibo is a tough thing to keep completely clean, and there are some folks giving updates from inside the town. Here, for example, are some photographs from the past few days that I found on Sina Weibo:

wukan-rebellion

wukan-siege

How exactly the siege will play out isn’t yet clear, but I’ll be keeping as close an eye on it as possible, and if you’re not already following Malcolm Moore, that’s something you’re going to want to do. I truly hope this situation can be resolved in a way that gives justice to the villagers — especially the family of the deceased — without further bloodshed, but I’m not sure how likely that is.

If the police do attempt to enter the village again, I’d guess they’ll be using something a bit more serious than tear gas. And the villagers may not have the firepower to compete with guns, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying. Another update from Malcolm Moore around noon reads:

I’m sitting on a balcony, looking over the village, and above a tidy pile of steel-tipped bamboo spears.

Censorship

Citizens of Wukan are attempting to spread news of their movement via Weibo, but unsurprisingly, posts and accounts are being deleted with great speed. The account through which I found several of the photos above has already been entirely deleted by Sina — attempting to access it suddenly returns a “user does not exist” error. The pages of other Weibo users in Wukan look an awful lot like this young man’s page, in which every single thing he’s retweeted over the past few days has since been deleted:

deleted

In addition, at least one Wukan resident was seen complaining on Weibo that Tencent had shuttered his QQ profile, presumably because it included information about what’s happening in Wukan.

[First image via the Telegraph]

Thoughts on China’s Big Child Trafficking Bust (and Comments Policy Revised)

child-kidnapping-china

Thoughts on the Child Kidnapping Bust

For the past few days, news of China’s big kidnapping bust has been making the rounds. In case you’ve missed it, here are the basic details, via Shanghaiist:

Chinese authorities have arrested over 600 individuals related to child trafficking in a joint operation which involved more than 5,000 agents in 10 different provinces. 178 children were rescued in the bust, and are currently residing safely in different orphanages while authorities are trying to reunite them with their families.

Police unwittingly stumbled upon a child trafficking group while investigating a traffic accident on May 5th in the province of Sichuan. The youngsters were allegedly either purchased or abducted by the group and distributed from Sichuan to clients in central China’s Hebei province and elsewhere.

Because I’ve been working on a documentary film about this very issue for the past year, a few people have asked for my thoughts, so here they are.

The good: First of all, even one child getting rescued is good news. 178 kids getting to return to their real homes is great news, and 600+ traffickers off the streets is great news too. So regardless of everything else, there’s plenty to celebrate here.

Secondly, it appears from the news reports that once they had gotten the initial clue, the police did exactly what they need to do to solve cases like this — pooled resources, collaborated across large distances, cooperated with police organs at different levels in different areas, etc. From one angle we’ll discuss in a second, it’s kind of bad that this bust came from a chance traffic stop, but on the other hand, it’s good news that the local police handled that well enough to know what they had, and the higher-ups were smart enough to listen to them and begin coordinating to accomplish something real.

Finally, since July the government has implemented a new policy that states kidnapped kids whose original families can’t be found cannot be returned to the families who bought them, and must instead be put into government care. Unfortunately for the kids, the care they’re likely to get from many of these government homes isn’t great, but I still think this is a necessary measure to stamp out the idea, still prevalent in some parts of China, that it’s OK to purchase children (and that if you get caught doing this, the worst that happens is you pay a fine).

The bad: That said, it is a bit disconcerting that this huge bust, coming amidst a bunch of high-profile crackdown campaigns, came to the police almost entirely by luck, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Among other issues, one thing we’ve seen in all the cases we’ve looked at is that local police are (to put it nicely) slow to respond to initial reports of kidnapping, and don’t tend to do much of anything until the first 24 hours — by far the most crucial time in a kidnapping case — have already elapsed.

Moreover, while 178 sets of parents may get a happy ending, there are hundreds of thousands of parents out there who won’t. Even by the Chinese government’s official numbers there are around 10,000 children kidnapped in China each year. Realistically, the number is higher than that. 178 kids rescued is great, but it’s a small drop in a big bucket.

Anecdotally, over the course of shooting we’ve had direct contact with around a dozen sets of parents, who themselves are connected via their own networks to hundreds of others. Over the past year, we’ve heard of exactly one family getting their child back. None of the families we’ve talked to have even heard anything new about their cases from the police since we first spoke with them.

So, in short, this is case is a good sign, but there’s still a long, long way to go.

New Comments Policy

On an unrelated note, followers of this comments thread will already be aware, but I have finally had enough of the bullshit that has been occurring in the comments here. It’s stupid and unproductive, and if I have to I’ll just close the comments permanently, but first, we’ll try out this new, harsher regime. So be warned. I’m going to be reading all the comments again, and I will be deleting comments and banning people like it’s going out of style (if they violate the comments policy).

So, read the comments policy. If you’re already familiar with it, please take note of the following additions, effective immediately:

  • Comment with a spirit of productiveness and openness, and support your points with evidence and reason. (Yes, this is subjective, but in actuality, it’s very simple to abide by this rule.) Failure to make productive comments will result in deleted comments and eventually the blocking of your account.
  • Comments along the lines of “But [Western country] does [object of discussion] as well….” are generally irrelevant, and will be considered off-topic spam, except in discussion of posts that explicitly invite comparison between China and other countries.This is a blog about China. The Western world has many social problems, but generally speaking, this isn’t the place to discuss them.

Note that nothing has been removed from the comments policy, so all the other rules remain in effect. To read the full thing, click here.