The Unpublished FoxConn Story
The following is a translation of a blog post by Southern Weekend reporter Fu Jianfeng (傅剑锋). This is about the FoxConn-versus-China Business News case that Fu and his colleagues were working on, but never got to publish it after a ban was issued against further coverage. So this is yet another case in which an unpublishable case found itself on the Internet instead, with all sorts of delicious details that could not have been published either. This is a perfect illustration of how the Internet has transformed China ...
(Fu Jianfeng's Blog) The investigation of the FoxConn-versus-China Business News reporters case plus thoughts on professionalism in news reporting. Originally written on September 7, but posted on the blog on September 22, 2006.
[Preamble] The reason why I did not publish these notes before was that I did not want to engage in futile debates. Instead, I am looking for calm, deep and introspective thoughts. To a certain degree, this essay is still quite acerbic. I do not mind being criticized over this, because I think it is more important to have an honest debate.
The investigation of the FoxConn-versus-China Business News reporters case and thoughts on professionalism in news reporting. By Fu Jianfeng.
Let me tell a story first. The story occurred on the day when FoxConn reduced its requested damage award amount from 30 million RMB to 1 RMB -- August 30.
On the afternoon of August 30, the Shenzhen Intermediate Court received a devilishly clever complaint. The complainant was Shenzhen citizen Du Chunlian, a shareholder in the Shenzhen Wanfeng Group. He was suing two reporters of Hong Kong Commercial Press (which belongs to the Shenzhen Special Economic News Group) for 450 million RMB at the Shenzhen Intermediate Court. His model followed the FoxConn case against China Business News in a completely identical manner: he sued the news reporter and the supervisor, and he asked for an astonishingly large amount of money.
Now listen to the conversation between him and Judge Yin who was on duty for processing new cases at the Shenzhen Intermediate Court on that afternoon.
Judge Yin read this hilarious complaint and shook her head: "Du Chunlian, you should be suing the newspaper, not the reporters. You are suing the wrong targets."
Du Chunlian: "So how come FoxConn can sue this way but I cannot?"
Judge Yin said: "FoxConn offered photocopies of the defendants' ID cards. Do you have them?"
Du Chunlian: "I do." Then he took out a letter from the Shenzhen News Group that certified the two individuals as being its employees (previously, Du had complained to the Group that the two were fake reporters and therefore the Group issued this letter to establish that they were real reporters employed by the Group).
Judge Yin: "Your compensation amount is too high. What is the basis for which you ask for this amount?"
Du Chunlian: "So how come FoxConn can do that but I cannot?"
Judge Yin: "FoxConn provided a damage report to us. Do you have one?"
Du Chunlian: "I have one too. It is an audit report." In truth, the Wanfeng Group has been distributing stock dividends to its shareholders for the past five years. According to the local audit report, the amount was 450 million RMB.
Judge Yin: "You should not sue the reporters. Even if you win, you won't get that much money. You should sue the newspaper instead."
Du Chunlian: "But I want to sue the reporters. I am not doing this for money. I am doing this for justice."
Judge Yin did not know whether to laugh or cry. So she reported the matter to the supervisor, who told her to tell Du that a response will be given two days later.
I asked Du about this case, and I found him to be a smart and interesting self-made legal expert. He learned law on his own and he had previously suffered biased treatment at the hands of the Shenzhen Intermediate Court on several occasions. This time, Du saw how biased the Shenzhen Intermediate Court was on behalf of FoxConn and so he came up with the idea of applying the same thing on them.
Two days later (and that would be last Friday), the court replied that the case has been referred to the chief judge and it is being discussed. According to the legal requirements, a decision can be delayed for seven days (that is, the final answer as to whether the case is accepted or not will be given on this Friday).
On Monday, I went to see Judge Yin in person. She is a pretty young woman, with curly hair and big eyes. At first, she said that the court will not let this matter be discussed. But I saw that she was a recent university graduate and she was inexperienced and unwary. So I began chatting with her and she eventually told me about the hilarious conversation the other day. Even she had to giggle non-stop.
So I continued to ask her: "Why are you people so careful about this case?" She replied a little cunningly: "Do you need me to explain? You must know it too." I asked again: "Is this nuisance of a citizen Du Chunlian giving your leaders a headache?" She was silly enough to reply in a delightful way: "They have such headaches! The leaders have been discussing this for several days without being able to decide." I continued to ask: "Why?" She replied: "You think about it. How can we establish a precedent for asking huge amounts of compensation from reporters? But if we don't let others sue as well, we must think of a logically consistent rationale."
This story made the Shenzhen Intermediate Court slap itself heavily in its face. In the entire affair, the Shenzhen Intermediate Court actually played a materially important role, and the media had basically glossed over this during their discussion in the later stages. Fortunately, it took a courageous organization such as Caijing that issued a special announcement to condemn the various laughable acts by this court. This case hinted that even if FoxConn was able to achieve its wishes, we would not have seen large amount of awards demanded from reporters in other cases.
Therefore, in framing my article, I thought that I could take a sarcastic jab at the Shenzhen Intermediate Court on one hand and then I could use this to affirm one positive implication of the red-hot media response on the other hand -- to protect the pitifully small amount of freedom that the media has and to relieve reporters from the fear of retaliation.
Also, I wanted to use this case to illustrate the deep impact on the entire litigation process when the capitalists collude with the authorities. Actually, the absurd doings at the Shenzhen Intermediate Court must have been made at the behest of certain Shenzhen officials. During the FoxConn affair, not a single local Shenzhen media outlet reported on this affair. After FoxConn was exposed on June 15, the various Shenzhen media spent large numbers of pages to praise FoxConn and their behavior was disgusting and revolting.
Apart from the long-term public dissatisfaction with the inequality of wealth, the Taiwan problem, the labor problem and other social sentiments, political power is a core factor in the FoxConn affair and the media must confront this factor. It is precisely this factor that made FoxConn avoid all the opinion dangers after this matter was hyped up. Through several ban orders, all the media shut up and FoxConn got away.
But that is just an introduction or subtext. The emphasis of our report will be about our reflections on the entire affair.
First, I want to say this: China Business News' report by Wang You was a report that totally ignored all the basic rules in journalism. After I analyzed the detailed information as well as read up the relevant laws, I conclude that Wang You would lose this case if it was ever heard in court. That is the basic reason why FoxConn dared to come out in such high-profiled manner and why China Business News was so eager to settle.
At Sina.com, many media outlet chiefs, scholars and experts supported China Business News. But I wonder if they have read Wang You's original report and especially Wang You's description of the "news gathering process" that was attached in the legal document asking for the unfreezing of her personal assets.
Wang Yu wrote: "At the time, I read several dozens of essays at the Xici Hutong forum about the complaints by FoxConn employees against the corporate system. Later, I was browsing a small technology page and I saw the QQ numbers of several FoxConn employees. So I engaged in more than 30 pages of QQ conversation with a recent university graduate. I had read some comments at Xici Hutong and I confirmed it with him. He gave me many recommendations. After the report was completed, I sent it to him for verification. He also gave me some recommendations. Before the essay was published, I sent it directly to FoxConn to verify the core facts. I called a Ms. He in the public relations department of the company. Based upon her response (a tape recording exists), I wrote down many key statements and I edited the essay as a result."
But if you refer to Wang You's actual report, all the points of complaint from the QQ correspondent were rejected by Ms. He and the final copy affirmed that FoxConn is a sweat factory. The so-called: "Based upon her response (a recording exists), I wrote down many key statements and I edited the essay as a result" is just a worthless piece of excuse.
Worse yet, Wang You never even personally met the complainant. This interview was done on the Internet, and she cannot verify whether the QQ complainant was really a FoxConn employee. It is entirely possible that this was someone from a competitor of FoxConn. For something that fails the journalistic rules to be published implied that the editor Weng Bao was also guilty. I also found another report by a China Business News reporter on FoxConn but that piece of exposÚ was more regular and therefore that reporter was not listed as a defendant. Also, Xu Zhiqiang and Qiu Huihui of 21st Century Economic News reported on FoxConn and they were not sued. My personal speculation is that this was due to their solid reportage.
When I interviewed Wang You on August 29 about her news gathering process, she began to scream hysterically at me over the telephone.
I asked: "Wang You. I read your description of the news gathering process. Did you complete the whole interview over the Internet. Why did you not meet with the subject himself?"
Wang You (angrily): "Fu Jianfeng, what do you people at Southern Weekend have in your minds?"
I said: "Wang You, please do not condemn me. Weng Bao was very friendly when I interviewed him. You are a journalist colleague and I obviously want to help you. But it must still be based upon understanding the truth."
Wang You: "Let me tell you. I did not write anything about my news gathering process."
I asked: "The three major portals all have information on your news gathering process. If that is false, why didn't you ask the three major portals to take it down."
Wang You: "Fu Jianfeng, I cannot tell about these things. You can go and ask our lawyer."
I said: "Please do not get upset. I know that you are under a lot of pressure. You have taken more than a hundred telephone interviews, but I still need to understand the situation."
Wang You: "Fu Jianfeng, if you misquote us, we will seek legal redress. If you keep hassling me, I will never give another interview to Southern Weekend.!"
I kept my cool and calmed her down. But I already realized that this was the weak spot of Wang You, and it was the weak spot for China Business News, just as it was the strong spot for FoxConn. The reason why I am relating this episode is not because I hold any opinions about Wang You. I want to say that many media in China are squeezing so much out of their reporters, making them write reports like serving fast food and this is the direct reason for the problems that Wang You was facing. Under these circumstances, I can understand her pressure and uneasiness. This is another reason why I am posting this essay today.
When Master Guo was writing his commentary, he asked me about the news gathering issue. We talked about what happened with Wang You and we felt that we must be wary that China Business News may be using the sympathy of the media across China to conceal the truth. Later on, Master Guo's commentary was unique, neutral and admirable. Later on, a colleague at Southern Daily asked me why Southern Weekend did not fall for China Business News' trick. I asked him, "Did the writer of that embarrassing Southern Daily commentary know about how Wang You gathered the story?" He said, "No. Otherwise he would not have been so stupid."
On August 29, editor Chenguang also learned about Wang You's problem. We had only two days left before our deadline. We did not have the evidence to publish a report that would be opposite to what the entire industry was saying. I worked a full night and then a full day, and I was troubled by how the report will be criticized heavily once it came out. On the afternoon of August 30, Chenguang made the decision to delay the report until the next issue and we were ready to go out to collect more evidence.
In retrospect, this decision was correct. On September 1, I had a long telephone conversation with a famous magazine writer and his editor. We shared the same views on this affair. That person believed that there was a serious problem with hyping up this news in China. Many of the commentaries were based upon limited amounts of disclosed information, and the core facts were built upon a highly dubious foundation. It was impossible to confirm the core fact about the accuracy of the report. His editor also told me: "Before we find out whether China Business News' report was accurate or not, we cannot report on this. So when can we report on it? It will have to wait until the two sides exchange the evidence in court."
We also agreed on another point: The other suspicious point is about the mysterious meeting between two FoxConn representatives and Wang You/Weng Bao. The details have not been disclosed as yet. But after this meeting, FoxConn suddenly sued the two on July 10. I asked Wang You and Qin Shuo several times about the contents of the conversation, but they evaded answering.
What important thing happened during that meeting? I use normal reasoning to deduce that the two FoxConn negotiation representatives came to figure out what China Business News has. We can put ourselves in the situation. If a powerful organization comes to our newspaper to complain, the reporter and the newspaper leader would usually show all our evidence in order to demonstrate that there was no problem with our report. During that meeting, Wang You and Weng Bao showed all their evidence. This allowed FoxConn to see that China Business News had no room to stand on legally. FoxConn was certain that it would win and therefore it went after the China Business News reporters in yhis high-profile manner.
Why did FoxConn depart from normal practice and come out in such a high-profile manner? Some media workers speculated that this was a public relations strategy. On one hand, they wanted to intimidate all Chinese reporters who want to do negative reports on FoxConn. On the other hand, they want to attract the attention of all the media on this case and when they win the case, the whole world will know that FoxConn had suffered an injustice and the FoxConn clients will know that FoxConn was innocent. At the same time, in order to stop the risk of incurring public opinion monitoring, FoxConn could mobilize resources such as the Central Publicity Department to control the direction of media reporting. The facts proved that FoxConn has that ability.
Of course, from a professional point of view, it must be important to be factual and the above is a logical assumption which needs to be verified by facts.
Faced with this extremely unsound piece of reporting, China Business News seemed to be fully confident as far as the outside world can see. When FoxConn reduced the amount from 30 million RMB to 1 RMB, Weng Bao began to "respect" Terry Guo again. Also, China Business News knew that there was a problem with its report, so they used an extremely unfair method of litigation: they asked all victims of FoxConn to file their complaints with China Business News and they said that a former FoxConn senior official has given them a lot more inside information. This showed that the supporting evidence for Wang You's report was extremely lacking. They only wanted to use this type of media hegemony to force FoxConn to settle and thus avoid losing the lawsuit.
This implies a certain danger. If we permit a media outlet which obviously lacks evidence to arbitrarily criticize and accuse another party and then when the other party strikes back legally, it uses the media's right of speech to collect evidence against the other party, this is clearly a private use of public tools and a profound disrespect of judicial administration. Besides, once such methods are used, the media will begin to exceed its authority and endanger the legal rights of people and organizations in society.
But China Business News was only bluffing. After the two sides reached an agreement, China Business News immediately announced the news on its website. FoxConn only published the joint statement on the settlement the next day. A lot of information can be read from this slight difference in timing.
Qin Shuo had previously told the outside world that there was no problem with the report, but now he made an admission in a partial and obscure fashion. "As I said when I was interviewed by the Xinhua reporter, the last section of our reporter appears to be exaggerated and flawed" and "if we obtain 'total victory' with a flawed report, then I cannot convince myself inside that this was a real victory and it would be unfair for FoxConn."
Unfortunately, faced with this seriously flawed report, only a small number of media outlets such as Caijing and Southern Weekend issued independent voices and maintained their vigilance. Most of the media jumped in unabashedly. This caused Fudan University professor Li Liangrong to criticize the Chinese media severely: The Chinese media are a public nuisance, "especially the national media, because they are too egotistical and vain."
Many professionals waited until the entire affair made a dramatic turn to reach a settlement before they saw that this was a farce. Then they found out their sense of justice had been manipulated and mocked.
Why were the Chinese media not sober? I think that there are several factors:
First, the FoxConn method of litigation was particularly vile. If they succeeded with this, all reporters would live in fear of litigation about their reporting. This was a challenge to the entire field of journalism in China as well as the freedom of press. Therefore, the reaction of the field of journalism contains an instinct of self-preservation. FoxConn had used a similar method to prosecute Commercial Times reporter Joyce Kuang in Taiwan, but they retreated under pressure from the Journalist Association. From thereon, very few reporters in Taiwan dared to report on Hon Hai and even fewer dare to criticize Hon Hai. Therefore, the Journalist Association leader in Taiwan believed the joint assault by the Chinese media against FoxConn has a positive meaning.
Secondly, the media will hype up the news to attract eyeballs, and they are just as irrational as the capitalists. For example, many newspaper chief editors and so-called scholars quoted the supreme laws partially to say that the law does not permit corporations to sue reporters. But the interpretation of the supreme laws is that the corporation can sue the reporter or the unit as it wishes, but it cannot sue both the reporters and the unit in the same lawsuit. Thus, if FoxConn were to sever the case down into three separate cases, it can sue the two reporters and the unit. Although suing reporters is contrary to commonsense and practice, this is permitted under our laws. These media people decided to misrepresent the articles of law, and their mentality deserves to be scrutinized.
Thirdly, exaggerating a report can bring harm and the practice of journalism lack professionalism as well as minimum fairness. The information to reveal that Wang You's report lacked supporting evidence was there right in front of the eyes, but the media which were making one-sided attacks on FoxConn either did not see it or pretended that they did not see it and never mentioned a single word. What ever happened to the so-called fairness of reporting by the media?
Fourthly, FoxConn is a sub-contracting enterprise and it does not need to advertise in mainland media. Therefore, no Chinese media had any direct linkage in interests, and they can afford to hit FoxConn hard. But, let us imagine that if FoxConn were China Mobile or a certain large real estate corporation or a large automobile manufacturer, then what happens? It is possible that the majority of media will shut up due to their advertising interests. Therefore, I very much pessimistically observe that the pursuit of truth and social justice is just a fašade in the pursuit of commercial interests in the practice of journalism. As soon as commercial interests are threatened, the fašade is torn away. The Chinese media is swaying between power and money, so how shall we maintain the responsibility and conscience that the media ought to have? I am unable to provide an answer.
During this time, a minority of scholars and professionals maintained their calm and professionalism. The scholar Zhan Jiang thought that it was problematic for the media to be so fervent and to exaggerate the extent of the damage. He advocated that the Chinese media should enhance professional training in journalism and maintain their calm on these types of litigation. He believed that this case served as the first encounter between the legal system and professionalism in journalism. He believes that professionalism in journalism includes several levels, and the first basic level is to strictly observe the regulations on journalistic conduct and to maintain neutrality and objectivity in the reporting. The relationships between the media and judicial system as well as between the media and corporations are also important issues for professionalism in journalism.
Professor Li Liangrong said that he led his students to conduct a survey of 66 corporations about their views on the media. He found that the 48 corporation owners wanted to stay away from the media. The medium and small corporations have nothing but complaints about the media. "Therefore, I call for the media to treat the corporations nicely and to protect them. Overseas, the media do not interfere with the production process of the corporations. They are only interested in the quality of the products." Although Lee's view that "the media do not ordinarily interfere with the production process and they are only interested in the quality of the products" has serious problems, his research showed that the media has abused its speech rights to cause avoidable problems in our social organizations.
The China Business News report could be a good piece of counter-example for professionalism in journalism. How the media and commercial forces can co-exist, counter-balance and remain independent is truly one of the most urgent problems that the Chinese media need to solve.
Also, the field of journalism needs to consider creating the space for teaching appropriate professionalism in journalism under the current pressures from the political and commercial spaces. For example, how shall a media outlet build an instruction booklet on news gathering that is consistent with professionalism in journalism? How to ensure that reporting is separated from business operations? How to ensure that the reporters have time to verify a news items through multiple sources? If these basic guarantees are absent, then the so-called professional in journalism will be hard to implement in the news gathering process.
With respect to these issues, I personally admire Caijing magazine the most. Their editor and chief editor clearly based their judgment of this incident on their professional training in journalism, and therefore they decided with a clear head not to report on this incident. Their consistent professional style won themselves a terrific reputation among their readers. By comparison, China Business News was founded two years ago and many readers have large number of doubts about their reporting style. The Bank of China has publicly denounced their inaccurate reporting twice already.
I believe that the readers are the ones who make the final decision. For a marketized media outlet, the market will render a final judgment.
Here was the design of the report on this incident.
The main article consists of:
1. The contentious public opinion war turned into clear skies. Several days ago, China Business News and FoxConn were engaged in a do-or-die battle. Now they have restored their "mutual respect for each other" and this has astonished many people. This sarcastic opening will cause some people to express surprise and amusement. This will be done through interviews as well as Internet posts and comments.
2. This will then be followed by the crazed state of the media across China. It will have interviews with media workers as well as their statements on the Internet.
3. This will be followed by a description of the Chinese media ecology as well as how the dissemination of information affected the development of the affair. There will also be a description of the factors that affected this affair. The key descriptive points will be about what happened on June 15, June 20, July 10, August 28, August 30, September 4, and so on.
5. This will be followed by statements from certain cool-headed media workers. At ReporterHome.com, the reflective statement of media worker Zhang Rui is an important point. From this, the problems with Wang You's original analysis and reportage will be brought up.
5. This will then bring up some reflections on professionalism in journalism. Zhang Rui, Zhan Jiang and Lee Liangrong will be quoted on the over-reaction by the media.
6. But at the same time, the positive effects of this joint media action will be affirmed. This will be illustrated by the case of the Shenzhen citizen suing Hong Kong Commercial News for 45 million RMB to prove that the FoxConn case can be potentially disastrous for the media. At the same time, using that spoof case, the illegal acts of the Shenzhen Intermediate Court will be dramatically exposed.
Supplementary article 1: The re-investigation of the Joyce Kuang case in Taiwan -- this will be handled by my colleague Meng Dengke.
Supplementary article 2: A comparative analysis of the Taiwan and mainland cases -- this will be written jointly by Meng Dengke and myself.
During this week of news gathering, I have to thank my colleague Meng Dengke's exceptional work on the Taiwan situation. I have to thank intern Pan Xiaoling's excellent interviews with Zhan Jiang, Zhang Jie, Xiao Huan and others. I have to thank intern Zheng Yan for researching overseas reports. I have to especially thank editor Chenguang for his patience, tolerance and persistent encouragement. Our labor could not be reported to the public and our journalist colleagues. I am just as disappointed and sorry as you are.