Fake Reporters In Datong, Shanxi

(Beijing News)  The Chaotic Phenomenon of Fake Reporters in Datong, Shanxi.  February 1, 2007.

[in translation]

In January 2007, China Trade News Shanxi bureau employee Lan Chengzhang was beaten to death in Datong city by people on the orders of a mine owner.  At the same time, the local government issued a notice directed against "fake reporters."  These became the focus of attention of the public.

In a medium-sized city such as Datong, there are all sorts of news bureaus and offices, with around a thousand self-proclaimed "reporters" who show up at mining accident scenes and leaving after they receive money from mine owners.

The wave of fake reporters began at least as early as year 200.  The local phenomenon of illegal coal mines and government-coal mine collusion was fertile soil for the proliferation of fake reporters.

January 25, 2007 was the 14th day after China Trade News employee Lan Chengzhang was beaten to death.

Several sunny snowfalls had taken place in Datong, Shanxi.

For the Datong citizens who traversed the busy streets, this hubbub was like the snowflakes coming down in the sunlight.  They did not miss a beat as they walked through the streets.

At the drum tower in the city center, the cars jostled with each other.  The traffic police watched as unlicensed sedans drove by slowly in front of them.

"Over there, there are at least 200 people renting offices under the guise of various 'news bureaus."  Li Zhijun (note: a pseudonym) who has done reporter bureau work for more than a decade tapped on the steering wheel of the car while pointing at the commercial district to the west of the drum tower.

"No wages.  You only get a 20% commission.  If you accomplish enough, you will get a bonus."  Each year, they have to turn in at least 80,000 RMB to headquarters.


The first time that he went to gather information at a small mine, Xue Fei discovered that there were many more "reporters like him who do not have formal press cards, but just 'worker cards' or 'news collection card.'"

Xue Fei was a resident of Datong county, Datong city and he spent more than one hundred days working as a reporter at a news bureau.  He is presently the cashier at a coal mine.

In July 2005, he graduated from university and he became a manager for a Taiyuan city supermarket.  At the end of the year, he saw a small "help wanted" ad in the classified section of a local newspaper: "Authoritative national media hiring reporters."

After a simple personal interview, Xue Fei and a colleague received a worker's card with the seal of "XX Daily News Shanxi bureau."  They went to Datong city where they were supposed to be collecting information, writing, editing, typesetting, distributing and mailing all in one place.

"No wages.  You only get a 20% commission.  If you accomplish enough, you will get a bonus."  Xue Fei smiled bitterly.  They had to turn in at least 80,000 RMB each year.

In December 2005, he and his colleague rented a place on Xinjianbei road in Datong City.  The money rent was 500 RMB.  Thus began his life as a "reporter."

Xue Fei said that in this business, it was very important to have the senior professionals in the industry look after you.  "Those people have been around for a long time.  They know everybody and they know where the news is happening."  By the time that he figured this out, Xue Fei had already been in Datong for over two weeks.

On the 23rd day after his arrival in Datong, a fellow professional from a media news bureau invited Xue Fei to go to a small illegal coal mine in Tianzhen county where an incident had just occurred.

This was Xue Fei's first assignment.  He did not have the money to buy a suit, so he borrowed one from his colleague.  "It was light-colored, and somewhat out of season."

They walked through some twisted roads before they arrived at the coal mine . There were already a black mass of "reporters" gathered there.  Xue Fei realized that there was no need for him to have dressed up.

Some of the reporters were fashionably dressed, but most were dressed like nouveau riche people -- a undershirt inside a sweater with a jacket outside plus a pair of cheap pants.  This seemed to be the more common dress code.

"One guy held a press card in his hand.  He wore blue work clothes with paint spots on his pant legs," said Xue Fei.

"It depends on what you say.  Depending on the personality of the mine boss, if you say the right thing, you can make more money.  It goes without say that it was easy to get sponsorship of a few hundred copies of the newspaper."  Xue said that he has never demanded money because he was too embarrassed to do so.

Xue Fei began to feel that it was not impossible to accomplish the seemingly unaccomplishable business quota.  "You only need to have identification.  Then you must be accompanied by a local person.  The best thing would be to have some government connections.  Then you just make the rounds of some coal mines, and you will get ten or twenty thousand RMB."  In his second month in Datong, Xue Fei made more than 10,000 RMB.

That month, because Xue Fei's "performance was good," his supervisor gave the title of "news director" and instructed him to pretend to be a reporter from the Beijing headquarters in order to go to bluff people into buying advertisements.

"I knew at the time when people like us get into trouble, the leaders will assume no responsibility," said Xue Fei.  But at the time, he agreed.  After he got 80,000 RMB in advertisements by whatever means necessary, Xue Fei was denounced.

In the end, he spent everything that he earned to buy his way out of the situation.

In March 2006, after spending a spring festival in which he did not even have the money to travel home, Xue Fei ended his career as a "reporter."

From there on, Xue Fei became an ordinary coal mine worker.  He returns to the city once a month where he meets his girlfriend who works as a clothing salesperson during the day and a hotel foot-bather in the evening.

Xue Fei said that he almost forgot that he had been a reporter until he heard about the Lan Chengzhang incident.


"I have no idea where He Wensheng gets his tips.  In his prime years, a bunch of fake reporters would show up and stand outside his rented office every morning to ask for tips."  "I make more money selling toilet paper than newspaper."  On January 26, the owner of the news kiosk at Huayan Street North looked around before finally taking down the only sports newspaper hanging on a rope.

On the rope, only three worn copies of newspapers of the type "Legal Stories" remained.  They were dated November 2006.

In a city where the ordinary worker makes 400 to 500 RMB, the many news bureaus and "fake reporters" obviously are unconnected to the reading needs of people.

"There are at least 600 so-called reporters who are active in Datong," said Datong city information center director Gu Chengming many times to the media.

"Under normal circumstances, there must be at least 1,000 people who are real or fake reporters," Li Zhijun said.  This is just the "normal population" without counting the "mobile population" that occasionally come through.

Li Zhijun had worked at five or six news bureaus after more than 10 years.  According to his memory, the wave of fake reporters in Datong began around year 2000.  The peasant He Wensheng from Tianzhen county started the movement.

He Wensheng was initially a peasant without a lot of education.  He was a village party secretary once.  In 2000, he began to engage in "media exposure" activities under the title of the chief of the Datong bureau of "Yanmanguan" magazine.

At the time, most mine owners did not realize that you had to "check the press card."  So He Wensheng easily attained his goal of getting money.

Then the family members of He Wensheng also entered the "journalism industry."

He Wensheng's reputation became bigger and bigger in Datong.  He also cultivated many "informants."  He could get information on which coal mine had incomplete paperwork, or which coal mine had an incident.

"I have no idea where He Wensheng got this tips from.  In the two prime years, a whole bunch of fake reporters would line up outside his rented office every morning to beg for tips," said Li Zhijun.

For more than six years, He Wensheng kept changing his status.  He had worker cards or news collection cards from five or six different news bureaus, but he was always doing the same thing -- to go to the coal mines and get money.

In early 2007, the various cities in Shanxi began a rectification campaign.  The city administration of press and publications announced that 36 fake reporters were suspected of faking press cards.

In Shuozhou which was less than 100 kilometers away from Datong, He Wensheng was exposed when he attempted to extort from a mine owner.  He was one of the 36 fake reporters who were exposed.

According to the rumors within the Datong circle, He Wensheng made at least 5 million RMB over these years.

"He has not been apprehended yet.  But he does not dare go to Shuozhou.  He is usually active at the coal mines around the Datong area," said Li Zhijin.

Each person who receives the notice will hurry to the scene quickly.  There may be dozens of batches of these "reporters" over the days.  The person who broadcast the information will be hiding somewhere not far away and waiting to receive payment for the "tip."

According to the local reporters, there must have been several waves of fake reporters after He Wensheng.  Over the years, the method by which fake reporters made money did not seem to have changed.

"Usually, one person hears that there is a problem at a certain coal mine.  You find a couple more people and rent a car to go out there.  You show your identification and the mine owner will take care of you," said Li Zhijun.  Most mine owners know that their paperwork is incomplete, so it is easier to make a direct payoff.

Then the fake reporters will immediately notify their partners and colleagues, so that everybody can fulfill their role in "watchdog journalism."

Of course, the information is not freely distributed.  Each person who receives the information will arrive at the scene quickly.  Dozens of batches of "reporters" may show up over the course of several days.  The person who distributed the information is hiding somewhere nearby, waiting to collect payment for the "tip."

"The mine owner does not know what is going on.  They are really worried that exposure would cause huge losses.  So they will usually pay people off."  Li Zhijun said that most people will receive 2,000 to 3,000 RMB, or as much as 20,000 to 30,000 RMB, depending on the mine owner.

Several local coal miners all had the experience of using money to "send away reporters."

"When there is an incident, I pay more than 100,000 RMB, or several hundred thousand RMB, or even as much as one million RMB," said a mine owner who refused to have his name published.

If it works, then the fake reporter can make at least 10,000 RMB.  If he runs into a dim-witted mine owner, he may even make as much as 100,000 RMB.

There is a small lane in Datong's Jiaochang Street which many of these "reporters" are familiar with.  Their "news bureaus" are clustered around this area.  Most are just rented worn-down residential buildings without even a sign.  When these "reporters" receive the tip from their colleagues, they will meet here with other "colleagues" with whom they have a good working relationship and they go out in waves.  "This is close to the city center and it is easy to go anywhere."  According to Li Zhijun, many fake reporters come to Datong from all over China (including Taiyuan and Beijing).  They just get a press card from some magazine or the other.  Sometimes, the whole family works together to swindle money.

"Some come around in style in a Honda SUV with Beijing plates, cameras and notebook computers.  They claim that they are the director of something or the other and they travel with a secretary, who is usually a family relative."  After one year, they made enough to buy a house and a car.

Similar situations exist in various other places in Shanxi.  In 2006, Luliang was chosen as the provincial trial location for a campaign against fake newspapers, fake periodicals and fake reporters.  In just over one hundred days, more 80 fake reporters were detected.

Luliang city administration of press and publications deputy directory Yang Zhiming was interviewed by the media, "During the past two years, fake reporters were proliferating in Luliang city as well as Shanxi province.  Many people work to sell barbeque meat in stalls in the morning and then they go out to gather news at sites with suddenly occurring incidents in the afternoon."  They are especially interested in the following matters: interfering in village elections, helping people to fight lawsuits, assisting overloaded vehicles to get past weighing stations and to extort enterprise owners, etc.

Since there are so many different kinds of fake reporters, the real reporters encounter an "identity crisis" when they go out.  A China Youth Daily reporter said that when he tried to gather news in Shanxi, he often has to suffer the ignominy of needing to have his identity verified.  When everything is confirmed, the other party usually said to him: "We have no choice, because the fake reporters are causing this!"

"Illegal coal mines and inspection stations.  As soon as someone gets a handle on the matter, you spend the money irrespective if the reporter is real or fake."  "Coal mine owners don't care about the money.  But they get concerned when the report on the mine incident interferes with their production."  Li Zhijun said that the irregularities in the coal mining industry, especially the proliferation of the illegal coal mines and inspection stations, provided a fertile earth for fake reporters to grow.

According to Datong city government officials, Datong has worked hard against the illegal coal mines over the last two years.

But the popular opinion in Datong is that the number of illegal coal mines is not decreasing.  The various stories about government-business collusion continue to circulate among the people.

In May 2006, five department chiefs were ousted in the corruption of the Taiyuan city safety audit department.  Within one year, seven safety audit department chiefs were in jail, mostly for corruption, receiving bribes and possessing huge amounts of assets of unknown origin.

"The distribution requirements of certain newspapers are accomplished by getting the departments in charge of coal mine safety to sent the copies out directly."  On January 28, the chief of a certain party newspaper's Datong bureau said.

According to China Economic Times, Datong State Land Resources Bureau disciplinary committee director Yang Qingcai said that government-coal collusion exists at certain small local mines.

According to local officials, apart from the illegal coal mines themselves, certain coal inspection stations operate illegally.  The illegal coal mines need to pass inspection with them before the coal can be shipped out of Datong to earn enormous profits.

"In order to become a coal inspection station chief, you need to have connections with the coal company and the local government.  More importantly, you have to spend at least 1 million RMB to get that job.  In order to become a squad leader in charge of five to six people, you have to spend at least 100,000 RMB."  Li Zhijun said that once you get inside a coal inspection station, you will be able to earn more than 10 times back what you paid in "toll fares" within a year.

"Illegal coal mines and inspection stations.  As soon as someone gets a handle on the matter, you spend the money irrespective if the reporter is real or fake," said Li Zhijun.


"Fake reporters in Datong have become a calamity," said Datong city news office director Gu Chengming.

On January 11, Datong city issued <The Notice of the Datong city campaign against fake newspapers, fake periodicals and fake reporters>.  But it did not received popular support.

Although the Datong city government insisted that the "campaign" was unrelated to the beating death of Lan Chengzhang, the close proximity of the two events and the response of the Datong government aroused great skepticism.

In a Southern Weekend opinion column, it was pointed out that "Datong cannot let the real murderers get away by going after fake reporters."  Other media commentary suggests that the Datong government is trying to shift the focus away from the root problem of government-business collusion.

On January 28, the leadership group in charge of the campaign against fake reporters in Datong declined to be interviewed.  According to government sources, the campaign has been temporarily halted due to public opinion pressure.

"In the beginning, the mine owners did not understand it.  They received advice from government insiders and then they started doing it."  Li Zhijun said that fake reporters proliferate because of certain government officials who are used to dealing with reporters.

According to Li Zhijun, when the reports about mining disasters in the late 1990's, the government had already made many contacts with the media and thereby accumulated considerable "experience."

According to China Economic Times, the so-called big-shot reporters have it both ways -- among the media professionals who accept "publicity fees" and "spike fees," a small number of them began to act as consultants and "public relations crisis management chiefs" for illegal enterprises.  They formed the "protective umbrellas" for violating the law and discipline, and they helped the units to manage those "social relationships."

"When the mine owners encounter problems, they consult their friends in government.  They quickly learn that they can pay money to get rid of all the problems."  Li Zhijun said that the government officials or mine owners will often seek out the "big-time reporters" that they know.  These reporters decide on how to receive the media and the payment amounts.

"There has to be a clear definition as to what reporters as well as the more broadly defined media workers may or may not do."  After the Lan Chengzhang incident, Li Zhijun had been hiding at home.  He helped his wife to mind the store and sell women's clothing.  At noon on January 28, he called several other people in the business.  They were either selling food, watching the kids or drinking together.  "The pressure is high.  Many distribution centers and offices have shut down."  According to the Datong city news center, only eight provincial mainstream media outlets including Shanxi Daily, Shanxi Evening News, Shanxi TV and others have officially recognized Datong bureaus.  The total number of employees are not more than 50 persons.

According to China Economic Times, more than 80 media outlets have Shanxi bureaus, and not just the major national news units.

"There are so many of them in Datong, Shanxi."  Li Zhijun said that he has not even heard of the names of many of those media outlets.  The something current affairs outlook, the something current reports report and so on -- most of them are subsumed under the magazines of certain national party newspapers.  "Their workers are supposed to be involved in distribution according to the administrative requirements.  However, like Lan Chengzhang, they use the identity cards from the news bureau to engage in news gathering, reporting and editing.  They report/edit in order to promote distribution," said Li Zhijun.

Over the last two years, the Internet media has gradually shown their influence as well.  Many Internet media workers have shown up in Datong, and they gather information as reporters.

In the published police report on the investigation of the case of Lan Chengzhang, it was mentioned that China Forum's Huang Yanxin accompanied Lan to the coal mine.  The local media confirmed that Huang was a Datong worker of Today's China Forum.

"These so-called Internet website workers gather news as reporters.  On their business cards, they claim to be the Datong investigators or research directors of certain Internet forums," said Li Zhijun.

"There are so many people.  Who can tell who is real or fake?  Who can tell the difference?"  A veteran provincial party newspaper reporter who is a Datong bureau chief said that there is no law that says that news bureau workers do not have the right to gather news.

The General Administration of Press and Publications demanded several years ago that reporters ought to hold press cards issued by them.  In practice, due to reasons related to the system and timing, many real reporters who are responsible for gathering news do not yet hold these press cards.  Therefore, it is difficult to determine who is real or fake on the basis of the press cards alone.

Thus, some media critics say that the main criterion about who is real or fake is whether the person is engaged in news gathering.  China Youth Daily states that anyone who uses the reporting to extort money is a fake reporter.

"The proliferation of fake reporters is a problem that deserves attention, especially after the incident in Datong."  On the afternoon of January 31, General Administration of Press and Publications periodical department deputy director Lin Jiang said.  "There needs to be a clear definition as to what reporters and broadly defined news workers may or may not do."

"They hire distributors and correspondents without any job requirements or wages in order to do distribution.  But these people are also required to fulfill the function of 'watchdog journalism.'  They use the threat of negative reporting to obtain advertisements and distribution."  During our investigation, many party newspaper reporters in Datong said that unless the newspaper system is thoroughly reformed, the embarrassing situation of the media will force many local news bureau to tacitly accept the hidden rule of "effectiveness is the most important standard."

Actually, the confusing plethora of news bureaus and offices and the impossibility of telling the real ones from the fake ones is the most important reason why fake local reporters proliferate.

"The newspaper reforms in the preceding years pushed many government unit newspapers and their subsidiary publications into the marketplace.  Without government subsidies, they were not eliminated or disappeared.  Instead, they used their influence with the government to establish news bureaus and distribution centers through which they used local government support, corporate sponsorship and even improper means by certain employees to accomplish the mission and obtain economic interests."  That was what the news bureau chief said.

He said that this situation exists commonly in China.  But Datong is a place with more conflicts and grey interests.  Therefore, more fake reporters come to Datong and the chaos around the news bureaus stands out.  "Out of economic interests, the media acquiesced to the confusion of roles of the distributors and reporters/editors.  As long as you turn in enough advertisement sales and distribution figures, you are excellent.  The various levels of the publicity departments will only administer but refuse to be concerned about the media.  This created the chaotic situation at the various news bureaus and offices."  "At a news bureau, a real reporter is supposed to receive wages.  But here, they hire distributors and correspondents without job requirements or wages.  In order to accomplish the distribution assignments, they have to serve the function of 'watchdog journalism."  They use the threat of negative reporting in order to obtain advertisements and distribution numbers."  Most of the Datong party newspaper reporters agree with that assessment.

"Last year, the bureau turned in 400,000 to 500,000 RMB.  How can the bureau chief turn in 400,000 to 500,000 RMB without using those people as his hired guns.  Where did the money come from?"  Li Zhijun said.

"Some of the local distributors and correspondents are ordinary in terms of education and reporting/editing skills.  They are also highly mobile as they switch jobs frequently.  Some of them have gone ahead to obtain fake press cards in order to become fake reporters themselves."  Li Zhijun said that this was another reason why it was hard to tell the real from the fake.  As a result, fake reporters proliferate.

Luliang city started the campaign against fake newspapers and periodicals.  They found out certain news bureaus hired distributors and ad sales people who have no knowledge of the law.  Some are even illiterate (that is, they cannot read or write).  Of the 44 fake reporters who were referred to the judicial apparatus, less than ten made up their own fake documents, while the others were formerly unemployed people who have the so-called press cards and news collection cards from newspapers or their bureaus.  There also fake newspapers which have news bureaus, as well as fake reporters hiring more fake reporters.  Some of the employees have signed contracts with the news bureaus in which the sales quota, commission and deductions were spelled out.  Some stated that under special circumstances, the news bureau may offer support to the reporters.

According to General Administration of Press and Publications periodicals department deputy director Lin Jiang, the state had issued the <Administrative Procedures for Newspaper Bureaus> in 2005.  According to the administrative procedures, the local news bureaus and similar offices should be registered at the local administration of press and publications and be placed under supervision and administration.

"When a news bureau hires someone, it should consider the job requirements for reporting/editing.  A résumé should be on file.  It is totally unacceptable to have only an elementary education."  Lin Jiang emphasized that when there are irregularities concerning the employees of a news bureau (including demanding money from companies or government departments), the administrative procedures should be applied.  When the case is serious, the newspaper bears responsibility.

He said that due to certain factors, the problem of fake reporters in Shanxi has been relatively significant.  In places like Linfen, there were even gangs of fake reporters that acted like underworld gangs.  Three years ago, the Shanxi Administration of Press and Publications went through a rectification campaign of news bureaus in those areas.

The fact is that in the coal-mining province of Shanxi, there is a certain amount of government-business collusion at the small illegal coal mines.  Especially when safety incidents occur at those coal mines, the mine bosses will try to cover up.  Under these circumstances, the mine owners will attempt to bribe the reporters, sometimes in cahoots with government officials.

At the end of last year, State Audit Department deputy minister Huang Shuyin said at a State Council press conference that serious attention will be paid to the corruption issues underlying the safety problems.  At the same time, the state will try to prevent the occurrence of corruption at the root source.

"If the issues of illegal coal mines and government-business collusion are not sorted out, the Lan Chengzhang incident will occur again."  On January 28, the Datong bureau chief of a Shanxi provincial party newspaper said with some concern.

In Luliang city, which was a trial location for a Shanxi province campaign
against fake newspapers, fake periodicals and fake reporters,
a law enforcement officer displays the confiscated fake press cards.
In over 100 days, more than 80 fake reporters were detected.