The Case of the Missing Fingers

Earlier from VOA (via AFP, AP and Reuters) on May 22, 2005.

Unknown attackers chopped off two fingers from the right hand of a journalist who writes for one of China's most outspoken and progressive newspapers, as apparent retaliation for his articles detailing organized crime activities in the southern part of the country.

Thirty-year-old Wen Chong, a reporter for the Guangdong-based Nanfang Dushi Bao (Southern Metropolitan News), was attacked inside his home late Thursday. Officials say his index and middle fingers were cut off to prevent him from holding a pen properly, perhaps as an intentional warning from his assailants.

Journalism advocacy groups say attacks and government pressure on journalists who report about crime and corruption in China have become increasingly more common.


Chinese newspapers and Internet Internet commentators have expressed digust after attackers chopped off and fled with two fingers of a daily newspaper reporter in southern Guangdong province.

Wen Chong, manager of the Zhongshan city bureau of the Southern Metropolitan News, was attacked Wednesday at his home, local media reported.  He had written about the Sun Yee On triad organized crime group, many of whose members are active in southern China . Wen had also published a report on physical attacks against other journalists from his paper.

"By chopping off the fingers which Wen Chong used to hold his pen, the criminals showed they were motivated by revenge and wanted to issue a warning," commented the Beijing Youth Daily.  Xin Kuai Bao, a daily in the provincial capital Guangzhou, noted that eight journalists working from the city had been beaten during the second half of 2004.  Some writers on the chat room denounced the inaction of corrupt police.

(Radio Free Asia via D*J*Y)

[in translation]  Former Beijing University Journalism Associate Professor Jiao Guobiao, now doing research in the United States, expressed his viewpoints about the assault on Wen Chong:

The first thing that I want to say is to express my respect to Mr. Wen Chong.  I feel that he may have lost two fingers, but he has received the standing that he deserves in the history of the development of journalism in China.  Since the triads dealt with him so viciously, I believe that he was exceptional in fulfilling the duties of a journalist and that was why he was hated.

I have never heard American reporters being assaulted in this way in America, getting their fingers chopped off.  Why are the Chinese triads so brutal?  Why are they so crazy?  That is because the journalists have not been protected for a long time.  The journalists should have their legal positions, and be respected by the government as well as the citizens.  For someone who reports on the ugly side of society, nobody is standing up for him.  That is why the triads can look down on him and ignore his rights.  Beginning with the government, Chinese society should give the reporters and the news media their respect and protect their legal rights and freedom.  May this incident be a lesson to all of us!

This was not an item that I wished to blog on when the news broke, because of the paucity of the information.  I had no idea what was really going on here (and neither does anyone else, really).  I don't need another excuse to go into a tirade on lack of press freedom in China, because there are plenty of known examples already.  Besides, I was mindful of the blowback if things should turn out to be other than the conventional western wisdom.

We now have what appears to be a credible resolution of the case (note: You shouldn't count on this being the absolute truth either, but it has many more substantive details).  From Wen Wei Po on June 1, 2005 (see also Wen Chong's own Nangang Daily News):

[translation]  Guangdong province Zhongshan City public security bureau announced yesterday that seven suspects have been arrested for the deliberate assault on Southern Metropolitan News reporter Wen Chong.

On 10am, May 18, 2005, Wen was resting in his residence and several men assaulted him, severing two of his fingers and robbed him of a mobile telephone valued at 3,000 yuan plus more than 200 yuan in cash.

A special squad of police found clues about these perpetrators.  On May 25 and 26, they arrested four persons of Guangxi origin in Guangzhou City.  Based upon the information provided by these arrestees, the special squad proceeded to Hunan province and arrested the individual known as Ah Bing.  Later on, they arrested two more individuals in Guangzhou by the names of Wang Laoer and Peng.

During the interrogation, these indviduals revealed that they had been hired to perpetrate this crime.  The mastermind was a female named Bai, who was Wen Chong's live-in girlfriend and currently a fugitive (most likely in Hong Kong).  In a meeting at Shenzhen, the female Bai told Peng that she had lived with Wen for several years and even had multiple abortions.  Wen wants to dump her now and she wants to exact her revenge.  After negotiations, Bai agreed to pay 50,000 yuan for the job.  Peng then went and found his friends Ah Bing and Wang Laoer to carry out the deed.

When the gang was ready, Bai gave the apartment key to Peng so that he could make multiple copies.  Bai also gave Peng a photograph of Wen as well as 10,000 yuan in advance.  On the afternoon of May 17, Ah Bing, Wang Laoer and two others arrived in Zhongshan.  They brought with them electric stunners, masking tapes and a butcher knife.  Around 9am on May 18, the four entered Wen's apartment, and used the masking tape to gag him and electric wires to tie him up.  Ah Bing used the butcher knife to cut two fingers (the middle finger and the thumb) off his right hand, and then he put the two fingers into his backpack.  Then the four left after taking the cash and the mobile telephone.  Afterwards, Ah Bing went back to Peng's apartment and handed the two fingers over to Peng as proof.  On the evening of May 18, Bai came to Peng's apartment, handed over the remaining 40,000 yuan and collected the fingers.

Concerning the talk generated on the Internet by netizens who don't know the facts, the Zhongshan public security bureau said that this was an ordinary criminal case that was completely unrelated to the fact that the victim was a reporter nor to anything that he might have written about.

Here is my challenge: The original report on the assault was plastered all over the place in the western media.  But will the resolution of the case be reported in the west?  My bet is firmly on NO.  You should watch especially what journalism professor Jiao Guobiao has to say (or not say) about this.

Oh, and the details of how the crime was carried out should make it clear that this was not an ordinary robbery or assault case -- the four men had the key to Wen's apartment; they gagged him and tied him up before cutting two of his fingers off, and then put the fingers into a backpack to take away; and so on.  Does this look like an ordinary robbery?  Does this looks like the typical triad assault?  Not at all.  Then the police only had to ask the obvious questions, "Who has access to the apartment key?  Who has the motive to hurt Wen?" and the answer must be staring at them in the face.  But none of this information was available to the Internet commentators who were too busy denouncing Hu Jintao for not speaking out to condemn the corrupt government officials and their triad friends for intimidating journalists.

Here is the first English-language report on solving the case.  You should compare this to the detailed report in the Chinese-language newspapers.  Aren't you getting short-changed?

(SCMP)  Attack on reporter 'not tied to stories'.  Staff Rrporter.  June 2, 2005.

A journalist who had two fingers chopped off last month was not attacked for anything he had written, police in Zhongshan said yesterday.  Wen Chong, a reporter on the Southern Metropolis News, had written several critical stories on the local underworld.  Unidentified men broke into his home on May 18, beat him up and chopped off the middle and index fingers on his right hand.  

But a Xinhua report last night said Wen was the victim of a private dispute. It said internet discussions on the attack being linked to his reports were a misunderstanding.  "This is an ordinary criminal case and has nothing to do with the victim's role as a journalist or his reporting work," Zhongshan police said.