In Brief: Who’s Really Disappearing Reporters

At this point probably everyone is familiar with the “Bijie Boys” and most of you are probably also aware of how that turned out for the reporter who broke the story. The fact that a reporter would be held for reporting a story no one disputes the veracity of should surprise exactly no one, but there is one aspect of this story I’d like to explore a little bit.

Now, before I start, I want to say that I love Beijing Cream. I find the site both informative and funny and it has been one of my favorite China blogs for a while now. Moreover, I think every writer there is probably at least familiar with the argument I’m about to make, so I’m really just using the Beijing Cream article as an example here. In fact, I suspect Anthony Tao might actually agree with what I’m about to write, but going into all this was rather outside the scope of his article, so he understandably didn’t. Anyway, my point here is that this article shouldn’t be taken as a critique of Tao or Beijing Cream in general.

That said, this section of Tao’s take on the Li Yuanlong’s arrest jumped out at me:

What we shouldn’t assume is that higher levels of government had anything to do with this, considering no one — and I mean no one — would be dumb enough to think punishing a journalist here would be a good idea. If there’s one thing we know about how business is done in these fourth-tier, hinterland-type counties, it’s that the powerful can do whatever the fuck they want, and someone with some power in this case must have decided to act out on his vendetta.

While the latter half of this paragraph is undoubtedly true, I do disagree to a certain extent with the first half. On the face of it, of course, it is quite true: I’d bet an awful lot of money that the decision to detain Li was made and executed by local officials who were not in any contact with higher authorities.

But I wouldn’t say it’s really true that higher authorities had nothing to do with it. The central government’s inability to control, or perhaps lack of interest in controlling, local governments fosters and facilitates an I-am-king-around-here attitude in local officials, and that inevitably leads to stories like this. Central authorities didn’t order the arrest of Li, no, but they have for decades presided over and molded a system that allows local authorities to do things like arrest reporters with minimal consequences, and often no consequences at all.

In fact, the system often offers de-facto rewards to local officials who keep their regions quiet by quieting anyone publicizing negative stories, because the officials that get promoted are often the ones who come from the most “stable,” “harmonious” districts. Officials have long-since learned that the surest route to apparent “harmony” is threatening, arresting, coercing, and censoring the people who would spread negative stories about their districts — reporters, petitioners, protesters, bloggers, etc. This way, higher authorities don’t often have to order the detention of people like Li — they have set the system up in such a way that people like Li can be silenced without anyone in the central government getting their hands dirty.

Moreover, if I — some random dude living halfway across the world — am aware that Li Yuanlong has been detained and “vactioned” at this point, certainly the authorities theoretically responsible for overseeing this sort of thing should be aware of this particular case by now. If they disapproved, undoing it shouldn’t take more than a phone call — the story could have been killed before I even woke up this morning, probably — and yet something tells me that phone call isn’t coming. Even if this case requires a few extra days to work its way through the bureaucracy, I’d be willing to bet it won’t; come Monday, I’d bet Li will still be on vacation. (Though I hope I’m wrong; something tells me this “vacation” isn’t all that pleasant).

(It didn’t take the authorities long to respond to this local problem by sacking the creepy official in question. Somehow, though, I doubt that will happen to the men behind Li’s detention).

I’ve written about the this-is-a-local-issue argument before, because it’s something you hear quite frequently when discussing injustices in China. And while it is, to an extent, true, I think it’s also important to elucidate the higher-level indifference and the systemic structures that makes these kind of local injustices possible year in and year out.

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9 thoughts on “In Brief: Who’s Really Disappearing Reporters”

  1. Exactly right- local officials might be the primary antagonists in a lot of these cases, but they’re acting on a mandate Beijing has given them for keeping their districts quiet. It encourages local officials to aggressively attack the symptoms of social problems, and to completely ignore the underlying causes.

    Zhongnanhai has made it clear that they don’t want to hear about protests, active dissidence, real journalism, or independent social movements, and it’s been made clear that local officials are to use whatever means necessary to make that happen. After Beijing ignored the Chen Guangcheng affair for months, does anyone think that it’s really a question of out-of-control local officials? They’re doing what Beijing asks of them.

    It’s the same thing when people make the pointed distinction that internet companies do a lot of the internet censorship, not the government. On one level that’s true, but on the other hand, companies are trying to censor what they think the government wants censored- and if they fail to adequately censor public opinon, the government will punish them.

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  2. No different from CGC. Sure, on a literal level, it’s simply local malfiescence. But at the very least, the central higher ups are guilty by acts of omission (ie turning a blind eye) if not overt acts of commission (ie giving the order to keep a lid on such stories). You can’t require local honchos to enforce “harmony” then claim innocence when these local thugs do so illegally. And ignorance is no defense for an act of omission either. Not to mention that ignorance of one such event might be plausible, but there is no excuse for ignorance of events that happen almost with the regularity of clockwork.

    For anyone who wants to give the central government a free pass on situations like these, I’ve got a bridge they might be interested in buying.

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  3. I’ve always felt that, in the main, the “this is a local thing” argument used in reference to incidents that occur country-wide was a hot steaming plate of Garbaggio. National policies are enforced by local officials with the backing of national-level government, China is not a federal state, so therefore, when you see something happening country-wide out in the sticks, the best assumption is that national government either supports it or turns a blind eye to it.

    In this case, the journalist concerned has already spent a term in jail for similar reporting. Other journalists have been similarly punished for reporting legit stories. It is simply impossible that national-level officials are unaware of what is going on.

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  4. Not that I’m an expert in this at all, but I’ve increasingly settled on the opinion that these things really aren’t of concern to the central authorities either way. That is, I think the system isn’t really a system at all, and a lot of these things are just byproducts. I actually tend to doubt how much that effect has been intentionally engineered by the central government or if it’s all just a kind of organic solution to many people’s (local vs central) different problems.

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