"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Wednesday, May 02, 2007,11:39 AM
China's Muckrakers for Hire Deliver Exposés With Impact
By Edward Cody

QINGLONG, China -- Xu Xiang, a 37-year-old reporter, showed up in this Sichuan province town in December, tasked with investigating allegations that officials had forced residents off their farmland. Over two days, he interviewed farmers and local authorities, taking time to view the gleaming white chemical factory and the long rows of unoccupied stores that have replaced many of Qinglong's rich green rice paddies.

In January, Xu posted an article on his Web site, China's Famous Reporter Online Investigations, alleging corruption. By March, according to delighted farmers and less delighted local officials, the former Communist Party secretary for the surrounding county, the local land administration chief and several other Qinglong officials had been arrested in an investigation by the party's Discipline Inspection Commission that is still underway.

"Of course, we were very happy to hear the news," said Shuai Changqing, one of the farmers who led the fight against local officials.

The farmers, it turned out, had more than a small role in making the news. One of their own had hired Xu as a reporter, for a negotiated fee of $265.

What happened here in Qinglong was typical of a new kind of journalism that is emerging in response to the Chinese Communist Party's suffocating censorship of newspapers, radio and television. With no more investment than a computer and a taste for taking risks, several dozen Web-based investigative journalists have set up sites and started advertising their willingness -- for a price -- to look into scandals that traditional reporters cannot touch.

Official censorship still protects authorities, including corrupt authorities, more than two decades after China launched itself on a path to reform. In a society that is swiftly modernizing, the security-conscious Communist Party continues to fear, and filter, the spread of information.

Although censorship is imposed at all levels of the party and government, much of it is self-inflicted by editors who are afraid of losing their jobs and are regularly coached by party officials on what to publish or broadcast.

The emerging Internet journalists for hire, however, have no jobs to protect; they are self-employed. And although the freedom is greater, the returns are meager. Xu said he has earned a little less than $4,000 since starting up 10 months ago. In addition, he has to pay two employees. To supplement his income and help support his two children, he recently found a day job at Democracy and Legal System magazine.

Xu and Li Xinde, another Web reporter for hire, said they take fees from those who can afford to pay but also investigate for free if victims cannot raise any money. Often they ask only for their expenses, such as plane fare and hotel costs, they said.

"It's not strange for the self-supported Web-site reporters to ask someone to cover transportation expenses," Li said, "and usually the reporters clearly state that on their Web sites or in e-mails."

Party censorship also extends to the Internet, which is policed by an elaborate computer system and an army of snoops who monitor what Chinese people read and say online. But that censorship comes after the fact; it can only monitor what has been posted. Web condottieri such as Xu and Li may get bounced off the Internet, but only after their articles reach the public and get passed around. If one site is blocked, they quickly start up another.

Xu, who has been sued for defamation by one group of officials, said he takes care in his articles to attack only the misdeeds of corrupt local officials and not the government in general. He has studied law, he said, to avoid getting into trouble with the police in the cat-and-mouse game he is forced to play.

I am against corrupt officials," he said in an interview, "but I am not against the Communist Party."

That is just the way Shuai Xingyou, a Qinglong native, said he felt when he got in touch with Xu on behalf of his parents and their neighbors in the little village of Lianchi, part of Qinglong township. "The government of China is very good," said Shuai, now a stock trader in the nearby provincial capital of Chengdu. "I support President Hu Jintao."

The problem, he recalled, was that local officials early last year colluded with businessmen to confiscate about 25 acres of paddies, affecting several thousand farmers and their families, then offered compensation amounting to only $15,000 per acre. "Their slogan was economic development, but the money for the land ended up in their pockets," Shuai said.

For months, the farmers protested. They petitioned local officials. They petitioned provincial officials in Chengdu. They traveled to Beijing, more than 900 miles to the northeast, and petitioned national officials. But nothing worked.

Shuai become so absorbed by what had happened to his parents and their neighbors that he began neglecting his stock trades. He bought lawbooks. He bought government regulations in pamphlet form. He searched the Internet for speeches by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao in which they promised protection for farmers whose land was under pressure from economic development.

"What happened here didn't seem right," he said.

Shuai went from house to house explaining to the farmers what he had read and urging them to resist the confiscation. He handed out Wen's annual government report and pointed at the section on protection for farmers. He read the law to them in their baked-mud, concrete-floored farmhouses and around courtyard wells.

He said he was thrown into jail in surrounding Pengshan county for 31 days because of his activism. Local leaders visited him in his cell and tried to persuade him to call off the campaign, he recalled, but when he was released, he started again with renewed vigor.

Shuai also enlisted the help of Wang Shuangquan, a respected former official in a neighboring Qinglong village. Wang, 63, who still wears a Mao suit and proudly recites Communist Party slogans, said what happened was unfair because, deprived of their land, the farmers had no other means of making a living. He took documents describing the situation to several levels of local government and made the trip to Beijing as well, only to be dismissed.

"They said they wanted the land for construction and economic development, but in fact they colluded with the businessmen," Wang said of officials. "Farmers cannot live without land, but local officials don't care. Today they are local officials; tomorrow they change to be bosses."

Over the months, Shuai and others said, several hundred of the farmers mounted repeated protests, sitting on their land and trying to prevent bulldozers from getting it ready for construction. Led by Shuai, farmers fixed posters to stakes and drove them into the contested ground; the posters showed revered Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Sun Yat-sen.

The protests were broken up, sometimes brutally, and construction continued relentlessly. Since then, the "Qinglong Economic Development Zone"
administration has occupied spanking new headquarters with glass walls, and rows of stores and warehouses have risen around it. A giant billboard has gone up on the road from Chengdu, depicting a large industrial zone and inviting businessmen to come to Qinglong and "get rich."


posted by R J Noriega
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