The Case of Li Changqing

This is a strange case indeed.  It all began with the following post at Boxun (Peacehall) on October 13, 2005 under the byline of Boxun reporter Sun Hai (孙海):

[in translation]

According to Boxun, a case of dengue fever from Cambodia was diagnosed in Minhou county, Fuzhou city in mid-September.  Due to the deliberate concealment by the Fuzhou city government, dengue fever is now spreading like wildfire in Fuzhou city and the number of diagnosed patients has risen to more than one hundred.  The local people are living in extreme terror.

According to what a local doctor told the reporter, dengue fever cases have been found in Taijiang district, Canshan district, Jingan district and Gulou district.  The exact number of patients is known only to a small number of leaders in Fujian province and Fuzhou city.  People in the medical care sector estimate that the number should be no less than 100.

On October 9, Fuzhou told the whole city to eliminate mosquitoes without offering any explanation.  According to the doctor, the Fuzhou city government deliberately concealed the fact that dengue fever is spreading widely in the city.  This is because Fuzhou will be holding an international chemical fiber conference, and the government does not want its image to be affected.

So what?  Who is this Li Changqing anyway?

Now we go forward to this report also at Boxun (Peacehall) dated January 17, 2006.  This begins with a reference to the famous bullet-proof vest Communist party secretary Huang  Jingao (黄金高) of Linjiang County (Fujian) (see the previous post Why I Wore A Bullet-Proof Vest For The Last Six Years).  It was alleged that the article published on the People's Daily website was ghost-written by Fuzhou Daily news deputy director Li Changqing (李长青), who was subsequently arrested but never charged in the Huang Jingao case.  On December 30, 2005, Li Changqing was charged instead with a different crime -- creating and then deliberately spreading false terrorist information (namely, the article that appeared in Boxun on October 13, 2005).  Specifically, as the author of this article, Li was charged with making up facts and writing that article to deliberately create an atmosphere of terror and disrupt social order.

The Boxun report reported on a self-examination.

[in translation]

In view of the charges, Boxun examined the related documents.  There was no way for us to tell the identity of the sender of the article.  We cannot confirm that this article was sent by Li Changqing.

[ESWN blogger's comment: Now this suggests that the Chinese government had some other means of tracing the passage of the document (informers, cooperation by Internet service providers, etc).  But there is no need to engage in speculation without facts here.]

Also, we did not find the wording that contained emotional components as charged.  The original article claimed that the number of patients was more than 20.  But after Boxun received the article, we went to read the Fuzhou City Internet forums as well as other forums and we learned more.  Basically, we determined that the number of patients was more than that and the Fuzhou City was concealing the situation of the disease.  Therefore, the Boxun editor amended the article in order to gain the attention of the concerned parties.

Boxun takes this opportunity to ask the Fuzhou authorities to consider the following viewpoints:

(1) According to the official figures, Fuzhou City discovered the first dengue fever case on September 9, 2004.  By October 12, 26 were diagnosed.  By the end of October, there were 94 people.  After Boxun, Ming Pao and VOA reported about the outbreak, the first official report appeared on October 15.  Any reporter who accused the city government of "deliberately withholding information" was stating the facts.

(2) During any disaster, even in an open society, reporters are allowed to gather news freely and the media will often "exaggerate" to a certain extent.  For example, in the 9/11 event in the Untied States, the initial report is the several tens of thousands of people died, but the final number of deaths was around 3,000.  For Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the media initially reported that the number of deaths could be several tens of thousands but the final actual number of deaths was just more than 1,000.  Furthermore, the media were mostly showing horrifying scenes of corpses in the streets.

China still clamps down on the reporting of suddenly breaking events.  The reporters cannot go to the scene to collect information.  The officials do not disclose actual statistics.  If Boxun reports the wrong numbers, the responsibility lies with the government's restriction on the dissemination of news.  The city government should bear responsibility for concealing the facts, explain why they did not offer a timely explanation to the citizens as well as assume criminal liability for any consequence of delaying the reporting.

With respect to this, Boxun's report of "more than 100 persons" stricken with the disease is not an exaggeration when the actual number was 94.  When the people are facing a dangerous outbreak of this scale, they cannot help but be scared.  Boxun's report was socially responsible and we hope that the Fuzhou city government realize that concealing the facts and delaying the reporting is erroneous and they should cease their persecution of Li Changqing.

Boxun has made a statement of these facts as witnessed by a New York public notary and forwarded it to the local authorities through lawyer Mo Xiaopoing.

The ESWN blogger has two thoughts on this episode.  I will make it quite clear that this is a personal opinion.

First, some unknown person (who may or may not be Li Changqing) sent in information to Boxun that there were more than 20 dengue fever cases in Fuzhou city.  Thus, we have the initial problem that Boxun had no idea about the reliability of this source because they don't know who this was.  That number of dengue fever cases was probably based upon the 'official' number of 26 on October 12.  Upon reading some Internet forum posts by who knows whom, Boxun upped the number to 'more than 100' in its October 13 report.  Now Li Changqing is being prosecuted for making up numbers to disrupt social order.  Boxun says that the Fuzhou city government is responsible for everything.  No, it would seem that the proper thing for Boxun to do journalistically would be to publish the initial report verbatim and then quote some of the forum reports separately rather than commingling them.

Second, Boxun is an information source that is read by many who are interested in SARS, avian flu and other epidemic diseases.  Its history is checkered in terms of reliability.  Boxun achieved the breakthrough when it was right on the 2003 SARS episode.  Since then, it has been spectacularly wrong on other reports that should not have even passed the laugh test (see for example The First Avian Flu Case In Beijing).  Here, Boxun is making the defense that the media should be allowed to "exaggerate," even in an open society.  How are all the readers interested in epidemics and presumably scientists going to deal with this attitude?  How much confidence would they have in someone who will publish anything from anyone?  Can you trust any number from Boxun when they tell you that it may be off by an order of magnitude because it is 'important' to make people aware of the potential problem?

(Washington Post)  China Puts Journalist On Trial.  By Edward Cody.  January 20, 2006.

A veteran Fuzhou journalist stood trial Thursday in the final step in a retaliation campaign launched after a Communist Party official gained national fame by publicly denouncing his superiors for condoning and covering up corruption.

The case, in southern Fujian province on the Taiwan Strait, opened a window on an important but infrequently discussed aspect of China's national problem with corruption: So many officials have become involved in business during 25 years of economic liberalization, according to the Fujian whistle-blower and other analysts, that bribery, rather than being an individual deviation, has become characteristic of the party's rule in thousands of Chinese cities and towns.

The accusations set off a nationwide discussion not because they revealed corruption -- most Chinese take that for granted -- but because they came from within a party hierarchy whose under-the-table dealings are usually kept secret. And in the aftermath, the lengths to which Communist leaders in Fuzhou have gone to punish and discredit their accusers showed how highly the party values discipline and solidarity in the ranks.

The ostensible charge in Thursday's trial of Li Changqing, who worked as a reporter for the official Fuzhou Daily, was "fabricating and spreading false terroristic information" by reporting on an outbreak of dengue fever without official permission to do so. But the real problem, according to Li, his family, his colleagues and his attorneys, was his support of Huang Jingao, the whistle-blowing party secretary of suburban Lianjiang county.

Li told the three-judge court that during more than a year of detention, which he said included torture, his interrogators never asked him about the crime he was charged with. Their questions, he said, centered on articles Li wrote and published on various Web sites endorsing Huang and his accusations of corruption.

"From the beginning, the only thing they wanted was to punish Li for writing so many articles in favor of Huang," Li's Beijing-based attorney, Mo Shaoping, said in an interview.

In August 2004, Huang wrote a now-famous open letter saying that his efforts to root out bribery had been stymied by a fraternity of corruption in which functionaries on the take protected one another from scrutiny. The extraordinary statement, posted on the Web site of the party's official People's Daily, was an immediate sensation. Chinese discussed it on the bus and at lunch, exulting over Huang's integrity. Editorial writers in the government-controlled press hailed its airing as a sign of progress in a country known for covering up its problems.

But Huang's fame was short-lived. The letter was taken down by party censors a few days later. Further press comment was banned. Then Huang was called in by party leaders here in Fuzhou and ordered to "do a complete self-examination." They issued a statement that accused him of "individualism" that helped "hostile foreign elements" and "Taiwan separatism."

That was the opening shot in what turned out to be a crushing retaliation by party leaders in Fujian province and Fuzhou, the provincial capital about 400 miles south of Shanghai. Within three months, Huang was dismissed as Lianjiang party chief and placed under house arrest pending an investigation.

Last August, he was formally charged with 50 counts of corruption in which he allegedly collected more than $700,000. A dozen others, including Li, were charged in connection with the case. Huang was sentenced to life in prison last November.

The other part of the campaign was to blacken Huang's reputation and those of people around him, including Li. Articles began appearing in a Hong Kong newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, asserting that Huang had been corrupt all along and issued his statement as a way to divert attention from his own crimes. The bribery was necessary, the articles said, because Huang, 54, juggled a half-dozen mistresses and kept them in various love nests around Fuzhou, sometimes visiting several in one afternoon.

One of the mistresses, Ta Kung Pao said, was Li's wife, Bao Dingling.

Ta Kung Pao has frequently functioned as a conduit for information the Chinese government wants to circulate. Its Fuzhou correspondent, Shi Bing, said he wrote the Huang stories based on his own research. But his bureau here has ties to the Fujian provincial government; it was opened on a suggestion from the provincial party chief, Lu Zhanggong, according to local journalists, and the province has provided its office space.

A number of Fuzhou residents said the newspaper's portrayal of Huang did not fit the man they knew as a hard-working and apparently sincere county official. He did not exhibit signs of wealth, they said, and according to a friend, his wife complained that they did not have enough money to purchase their rental apartment. But other residents here said that, after reading all the charges brought against him, they have concluded Huang must have been guilty of at least some crimes.

Li, 41, diminutive with steel-rimmed glasses and a calm demeanor, was taken into custody soon after Huang and was initially accused of helping Huang write the open letter and promote it in articles posted on overseas Web sites frequently used by Chinese dissidents. His wife Bao, 37, said he has been in police custody ever since. She said she and their daughter, Li Sidi, 15, have not been allowed to see him.

Bao said in an interview that she and her family had tried to enlist local officials and other influential friends to intervene in Li's behalf. But in the atmosphere created by the crackdown, nobody would stick his neck out, she said. "We tried to get at the truth," she added, with tears in her eyes. "We went to many friends and relatives, but they were afraid to help. They said there was nothing they could do."

Bao denied she was Huang's mistress, saying the accusations were "abhorrent." Instead, she described a relationship in which she and Huang's wife were friends and their children played together. Li and Huang's collaboration grew from the family connection, she explained.

"Huang appeared to be a good official," she said. "He looked out for the people around him, and he was very easygoing. He spoke some words that others did not dare to speak. So they wanted to punish him."

Mo, the lawyer, said his requests to see Li also were initially refused, with officials citing a regulation against visits to prisoners whose cases involve state secrets. But later, after the original charges were dropped in favor of the dengue fever reports, Mo said, he was allowed to confer with Li twice to prepare a defense.

Li appeared in court Thursday with his hands cuffed behind his back and the number 0798 stenciled on the back of a gray prison-issue vest. Waving two-handed because of the cuffs, he greeted his wife and surveyed the courtroom for family and friends.

In the two-hour trial, Mo contested the formal charges and avoided the political context. The dengue fever report, on the Boxun Web site, was written by people who run the site, with his information only a tip, Li said. Moreover, the report turned out to be true, he added, with the provincial government shortly afterward acknowledging the outbreak.

The black-robed judges, following Chinese practice, took arguments from Mo and the prosecutor under advisement and said they would announce a verdict later. In the Chinese system, with the party as final arbiter, an overwhelming majority of trials result in a guilty verdict.

As Li was marched out of the courtroom on his way back to Fuzhou No. 2 Detention Center, former colleagues stood in the doorway and said, "Take care, take care."

(Boxun)  January 21, 2006

According to lawyer Mo Xiaoping, Lee Changqing defended himself at court.  Mo's responsibility was to present the legal basis for Lee's self-defense: "Firstly, there is insufficient evidence that Li Changqing was the author of the essay; secondly, even if he submitted an essay, the final published essay at Boxun was different at the key points; thirdly, even if Li Changqing was the author of the essay, this is still not a crime.  Our defense position was that the Fuzhou City public security bureau, including the prosecutor's office, had not followed the law in certain places.  We offered our opinion to the court."

The prosecutor said that Li Changqing has admitted that he was the person who sent the essay about the dengue fever situation in Fuzhou city to the website Boxun.  But lawyer Mo Xiaoping pointed out that apart from Li's own testimony, there is no further proof that he wrote the essay.  According to Chinese law, the sole testimony of the defendant in the absence of other evidence is insufficient to determine if a crime had been committed.  Besides, according to lawyer Mo, Li Changqing said that some of the key descriptions in the essay such as "the government deliberately concealed the facts and thereby caused extreme fear among the public" and "the dengue fever epidemic is spreading like a wildfire on the plains" were edited/added by other persons.

Lawyer Mo Xiaoping had contacted Boxun about this.  Boxun replied later while sending along the original submitted essay, proving that the published essay on the Internet was very different from the original essay.  For example, Boxun said that more than 100 persons had been affected by dengue fever, but the original essay mentioned only more than 20 people.  Boxun pointed out that they have other sources of information that proved that the Fuzhou city government had concealed the epidemic situation and therefore the editors added the relevant data and content.

(Boxun)  January 25, 2006.

On January 24, 2006, Li Changqing was sentenced to three years in jail.

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