A Xinhua Reporter's Personal Notes

Periodically, I tell people that the Internet has given Chinese media workers previously unimaginable space to tell what they cannot tell in their articles.  Furthermore, they sometimes go far beyond.  This is an example of one such report, posted at Yannan forum but my link is at Xici Hutong's Reporter Home (follow-up: the link is now defunct with no explanation).  The reporter had no problem identifying himself as Zhou Guohong, a reporter with the Zhejiang office of Xinhua.  However, I will simply note that this essay somehow reads more like a short story than reportage.  There is a Xinhua reporter by that name, but he may or may not have written this.  You will have to decide whether this is ficitonal.

This is a very long post, so I won't be able to translate all of it.  This post is interesting not because it revealed any state secrets or information.  It is interesting because the reporter told in detail how he dealt with a certain official, including his perceptions about her.  Clearly, such an essay cannot be written if you ever want to deal with that person again.  Read on.

At 2pm on June 29, 2005, an evictee from the Nanjing City Zhongshanling scenic area called me: "Let me tell you a piece of good news.  Nanjing City's secretary W (note: she is referred to only by her initial but this is believed to be Wei Zujin (魏竹琴) because all the details fit) has been placed under double regulations."

There was unsuppressed joy on the other side of the phone line.  As for me, I could not restrain myself and I yelled into the telephone: "That is too wonderful!"

Why was the reporter ecstatic?  Here he recounts his first encounter with W.

In the Eastern Observer Weekly on December 23, 2004, there was a report titled "Revisiting the Truth about Lumbering at Zijishan" written by me and my colleague Yao Yujie.  In mid-January 2005, by prior arrangement, members of the Nanjing City Forestry Department and other officials met with me and Yao to discuss the situation.

In the big conference room across a long table, Nanjing City Deputy Secretary W was undoubtedly the quickest thinker among the dozen or so present.

During the first half of the conversation, she was absolutely in charge.  Unnoticeably, she steered the conversation far away from the subject.  It was like the waters from a river that never stops.  I therefore deduced that she had made the decision to deliberately waste the conference time.  But she could speak very fast, she had an endearing expression, she had smooth hand gestures and she regarded us with a sincere look.  You would feel embarrassed to interrupt her.  So she controlled the atmosphere and tempo in this big conference room.

Soon, it was past 10am.  And then we were heading towards 1130am.  We have not gotten anywhere close to the subject.  What is to be done?

I deliberately turned my head to look at the clock in the conference room.  She got trapped and she slowed down her pace and relaxed, "Oh, it is getting late.  Hey, how come I am the only one speaking?  How about it, Guohong?  We are communicating well.  Let us then go eat and speak while we eat.  A simple work lunch."

I smiled and said, "It is obviously good to talk while we eat.  But, there are a few detailed questions that are better to go over here.  It is easier to spread our notebooks here.  Secretary W, is that alright?"

Those words were the turning point in the conference.

The atmosphere was still.  She must have sensed that even after listening to her patiently for such a long time, I had not lose my direction or my determination to ask questions as she had hoped.  She must have been disappointed, but she unflinchingly agreed with my suggestion -- she was decisive, relaxed and accommodating.

Afterwards, the tone of the conversation changed abruptly.  We were almost sticking barbs into each other.  But as she got into more tense conversations, she kept using an endearing and honest tone to say: "Guohong.  Oh, Guohong, how can you think that?"  "Guohong, you listen to what Big Sister says ..."  That tone was as if I had been a younger man with decades of friendship with her.  In my memory, nobody has ever called me "Guohong" in such an intimate tone and with such frequency.

Based upon my standard method, my questions tend to get more and more tough and deadly as we progress.  It was now almost 1pm.  On the last question, I was confident that the question had no answer.  She could only lower her head and admit that the "Government Reception Center" at the eastern slope of Zijinshan was an illegal project.

So I asked: "According to the Forestry Laws, the forests of our nation are divided into five classes.  Zijinshan belongs to the class of scenic forests reserved for special purposes.  For these scenic forests, the Forestry Laws say that they can only be maintained.  If they are cut down, it will only for the purpose of replenishment.  I ask -- is building a Reception Center to be considered maintenance or replenishment?"  I was sure that I would win, because she cannot possibly say that the Zijinshan forest is not a forest.

She replied: "Zhongshanling is a scenic area at the national level.  Ever since the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum was built, the applicable laws are the "Scenic Area Temporary Management Rules" and the "Nanjing City Zhongshanling Scenic Area Management Rules".  At the present, even though Zijinshan has been approved as a national forest park, the Forestry Laws cannot be enforced here until the detailed forest park project has been completed."

In a few words, she stated the policy and she clarified the course of change.  I was taken aback, even though I knew that her explanation would not be accepted by the law and that the National Forestry Department would not agree with this explanation.

I slowed down and I half jokingly said: "Is it the case that according to Secretary W, even though the trees that were cut down for the Reception Center are not for maintenance or replenishment, the entire Zhongshanling project would result in the planting of many more trees and therefore we can regard this as maintenance and replenishment in an aggregate sense?"  This is the normal logic of local officials who use the overall nature of something to cover up or misrepresent the nature of an individual item within.

"Guohong!  You are so right!"

When she said that, she did not stutter and she did not blush.  I gave up.  So we packed up and went to lunch.

By this time, it was 1pm already.  We sat down at the table.  She held a glass of wine, came over and said: "I will have to go to another meeting immediately.  I cannot keep little brother Guohong company.  Let us drink a glass first.  We shall meet again!"  She drank the red wine in the glass, she ate nothing and she left in a hurry.

That evening, I paced around my neighborhood again and again.  I recalled every detail of my meeting in the morning.  I realized that I had encountered a formidable opponent.  She had quality, she knew policy and she can take charge.  But I have nowhere to back off.  If I yield and let this strong person pass, then all the trees next to the reservoir on Zijinshan would be chopped down.  If a person is chopped, one can petition; if the trees are chopped down, how do they petition?

At the same time, I felt a bone-chilling despair.  Why, oh why, is such an excellent person like W on the other side?  In other words, she knew project planning and she is definitely much better than me in terms of professional and policy knowledge.  But why would she agree with and also dedicate herself to chopping down a plain but perfectly beautiful forest in order to build a five-star class government reception center?  As for the rubbish talk that she hoisted on me, could she really believe in it?

Over the next few months, Yao Yujie and I interviewed people at the Provincial Construction Bureau, the Agricultural Forestry Department, the Forestry Department, the National Land Bureau, Dongnan University and so on to establish ironclad proof and uncover the truth of the matter.

[ ... ]

In April, we met again with W and her people to discuss the matter of the Reception Center.

"Oh, Guohong, your article seemed to be very objective, but it is actually charged with emotion."  W randomly flipped to a page and read this out: "You look at this paragraph: 'To the north of the Huangma reservoir, there used to be a small recreational center constructed with private funds for the sole purpose of serving meals.  During the comprehensive renovation of the Zhongshan scenic area in 2004, it was treated as an illegal building and demolished.'  What does it mean to say that 'it was treated as an illegal building'?  It was an illegal building."

Even though I knew exactly how to explain it -- I did not investigate whether it was really an illegal building or not, and therefore characterizing it as 'being treated as an illegal building and demolished' was more accurate -- but I did not offer an explanation.

Once again, I was astonished by her sharpness.  I make my living from 'words' and she does not.  Yet, she can find that little 'needle' that was buried deep inside an objective narrative within a very short time.

After the meeting was over, we went downstairs and she said: "Guohong, Big Sister has a matter that might require your assistance.  The relocation at Qianhuzhuan had been going quite smoothly and the people supported it.  But I have now run into a gangster boss.  I have not decided yet, but I may really need your help me get support in terms of public opinion."

She used her bright eyes to give me that sincere look.  At that moment, I was struck by a thunderbolt.  Heavens!  From early 2004, I paid attention to and I worked on the eviction issue.  So far, I have covered three self-immolations already.  Only displaced households are threatened and assaulted by the government (note: the omitted section above is about how W was the person in charge of the evictions, as shown in privately taken videos), and when they called the police, even the police didn't dare to come out.  Who is going to dare threaten the government?  If you 'go too far,' the government would be too glad to find the excuse to arrest you and demolish your house!

But this female who is regarded as the "black hand" by the evicted people was standing here right in front of me and saying that she has met a gangster boss!  And her bright eyes were ever so open and honest!

I have thought again and again if only things were different.  If she, I, all the civilian volunteer environmentalists and the displaced persons who wanted to save their homes had the same, or approximately the same, values, it would have been a marvelous thing.  We can all sit down and talk honestly.  Her classiness, intelligence and commander qualities would be used to protect the public interest.  She can become the highest-flying and furthest-flying guardian angel for the public interest.

Even if she could not share our values or something close on account of her position in the system, she should at least defend the bottom line as a "citizen."  This is the 21st century.  No matter what your reasons are, you cannot just demolish another citizen's home by force; you cannot just cut down a publicly owned forest to build a five-star class government reception center.  

As a person with professional expertise, she had to know what the real deal is with the forest clearing and the home evictions.  But, she won't say.

Even if she won't say, that is okay.  Instead, she analyzed it for me and tried to tell me that all this was done to serve the public interest.

Even if she said that, that is okay.  Maybe she was constrained by her position to say that.  But she used those bright and honest eyes and looked into mine without any compunction.

I have tried to recall her look again and again.  I have tried to find some trace of internal conflict or shame.  It would be easy for her to concisely communicate any odd feeling to me through her look.  It was a simple thing.  Unfortunately, I only saw her firm determination.  I never found a hint of what I was looking for -- and I was only looking for a hint of humanity.

Although I have tussled with her, and we have combated each other in a certain sense, I know clearly that her fall was not due to me, the volunteer environmentalists, or the evictees who were petitioning everywhere.

She may have been put under the "double regulations" and we are applauding.  But in her fall, we were all ignorable outsiders.

I don't want to repeat that rubbish about how the bad will be punished (恶有恶报).  I definitely won't say that anyone who does many evil deeds will be caught (多行不义,必自毙).  If those sayings have any truth, then someone as smart as W as well as other members of the elite would not be choosing the dark side so readily.

When the news arrived, I wanted to have a moment of sheer job.  But that joy was futile and illusive.  Her "double regulations" was not my victory.  It was only her defeat.  But I am still willing to enjoy my silly moment of happiness.