Frontline Reporter Diary on South China Tiger Affair
(Desert Fish) November 26, 2007.
I sometimes find it hard to understand why people would pay continual attention to a news incident. For me, I may glance at something that does not concern me personally and I would not spend too much effort chasing after it because the truth is of no concern to me. Actually, this is the same thing this time. But the reason why I was so eager to go to Zhenping to gather news was that I felt that Chinese society has become more complicated because of a South China tiger photograph that was difficult to verify.
On the evening of November 15, I arrived in Zhenping and met some officials from the Zhenping county Forestry Department. I did not say a word about my work. But on that evening, I formally began my participation in the investigation of the South China tiger photograph. On the morning of November 16, we went to see Zhou Zhenglong. I don't recall my first impressions, but I felt that he was no different from other peasants, except that he is a bit more cunning probably because he has met too many reporters already. On the afternoon of the day, we were having lunch when the news about the wall poster of the South China tiger became known. This would then put us formally into the heart of the affair.
The entry of Huash.com into the South China tiger affair has my condemnation of Fu Dezhi as the landmark, and the frontline investigation of the South China wall poster was the climax. On the afternoon of that day, we went to interview Zhenping county Forestry Department director Tan Dapeng, Zhou Zhenglong's brother-in-law Xie Kunchuan and Zhou Zhenglong himself. I came to the conclusion that it was more likely than not that the South China tiger photograph was fake.
That evening, I was writing my report when electricity went out across Zhenping county. Many media were unable to file their reports. I was able to use my battery-powered notebook to finish my report by the candlelight in just over an hour, and I therefore had an exclusive report. Together with the powerful Huash.com forum backing things up, Huash.com became the main media center for the South China tiger affair.
It was on that evening that Zhou Zhenglong lost his cool and told our reporters many things that he shouldn't have said. For example, he said "to help him call the police to arrest him" and "I am a sinner." But because of the sudden electricity blackout, the reporters did not break through the final psychological defensive line of Zhou Zhenglong.
On the next day, Zhou Zhenglong suddenly became very calm. I really have to admire him as an illiterate peasant, because his psychological quality is tops. This might be the main reason why he was chosen as the character in this affair!
Every day thereafter, I went up the mountain at least twice a day to see him. I got some information that I sent back and this became the instant news reports at Huash.com. The speed and accuracy of the frontline reports of Huash.com drew attention. My telephone was flushed with calls until I told my editors not to give out my mobile telephone number. Things improved a little afterwards. I had too many contacts with Zhenping officials and Zhou Zhenglong and it was wearing me out. Anyone who was not there could not appreciate this feeling: When you are in a small place and everybody that you meet is lying to you and you know very well that they are lying but you have to keep a smiling face -- what kind of life is that!
Of course, this is a true epitome of Chinese society as a whole today. A veteran reporter in his 30's said: "When you get back, you must see a psychiatrist." I know that he was not joking. In fact, many reporters told me that they did not feel emotionally normal. Reporters are humans and not made of steel. When everyone is thinking about the same thing every day and this thing is complicated and messy and nobody can be trusted, this type of situation arises.
On November 23, I was trying to confirm whether Zhou Zhenglong filed a police report. I was near mental collapse. At first, Zhou Zhenglong denied that he filed a police report. Then he admitted it. I went to the public security bureau and they swore in the name of the heavens that there was no police complaint. Then I obtained internal information from within the public security bureau that Zhou Zhenglong filed a police report. I went to the public security bureau and I sought out the police officer who received Zhou Zhenglong. He denied that Zhou Zhenglong filed a police report and he sounded so sincere that I almost believed that he was telling the truth. At this time, the Shaanxi province Forestry Department official Guan Ke learned that the public security bureau had issued a denial, and so he told the reporters that "he can help them to coordinate (that is, to verify that there was a police report)." I was going crazy. Guan Ke said that there was a police report but Zhou Zhenglong denied it. When Zhou Zhenglong admitted it, the public security bureau denied it. And they are all supposed to be on the same side. The attitude of Guan Ke clearly showed that he was using us and we were being manipulated. So we decided to return to Xi'an that day.
When I got back, it was just like the frontlines: everybody asked me the same question "Is the tiger real?" Based upon the production of the wall poster, the tiger is fake unless Zhou Zhenglong can come up with more powerful evidence. Based upon the interviews with Zhenping residents and veteran hunters, the chances of no tiger are higher than 90% (nobody has really seen a tiger in the past 20 years, and this is seriously inconsistent with the reports mentioned by the Zhenping county Forestry Department). This then leads to another problem -- if the tiger photo is fake, then who is faking it?
If such a possibility exists, we can arrive a consensus opinion: the characters who have made public appearances are not the key to the affair and there is a highly intelligent faker who is the black hand still hiding behind the curtain. When the wall poster appeared, that camp fell into disarray. Zhou Zhenglong did not receive any instructions and he almost fell apart. But on the next day, he obviously got his instructions and he was calm once more. On November 20, although the wall poster was still causing a storm, Zhou Zhenglong went up the mountain to search for the tiger as well as stay away from the storm. At a time when public opinion was gathering and even the national media were condemning him, he failed to show up for the engagement of his nephew. When he met with the media, he repeated the same thing: "My photographs are 100% real." Why did he want to say that and why didn't he leave Zhenping? The reason is simple: Zhenping is still the safest place for him at the time! On November 21, the Shaanxi provincial government began to enter the case, but the provincial Forestry Department still defied public opinion and issued a notice to insist that the tiger photographs were real. They also said that "they intend to conduct a criminal investigation about the faking of the wall posters."
How can the wall posters which went on sale five or six years ago be faked? At 2am on November 22, I interviewed the wall poster producing factory owner -- Zhejiang province Wuyi town factory boss Luo Guanglin -- and he was clearly shocked ...
As a netizen wrote: "Certain government officials used the public trust in the government to make fools of the people of Shaanxi. Yet, there was nothing that anyone could do about them. This was how the gang of fakers' could run a full-scale counter-attack against public opinion." I found out about all this on the day which was my birthday. At the time, I was very confused. I was thoroughly disappointed with the deeds of the government as well as this society as a whole.
The counter-attack began with the police report by Zhou Zhenglong. This was a masterful move. If the Zhejiang province Wuyi city wall poster factory had filed a police complaint, the Zhejiang police would have to join in the investigation and the protective umbrella of Shaanxi would be useless. But now Zhou Zhenglong has made an accusation. No matter what, the Zhenping county or even the Shaanxi province police have the absolute right to investigate the case. The fact that Zhou Zhenglong filed a police report also shook up the confidence of certain anti-tiger critics, because they could not believe that the faker could file a police complaint himself. Yet such are the facts.
On November 24, the Shaanxi provincial Forestry Department sent deputy director Zhu Julong to visit Zhou Zhenglong and confirmed again that the judgment of the Shaanxi province Forestry Department had been flawless. Thus, the Chinese media encountered a dilemma: At a time when the people were full of doubts, the government refused to budge. Who can do anything about them?
Sometimes I feel that Zhou Zhenglong deserves to be pitied. He is just a small character who took on such a huge burden for a little bit of money. In the end, he may be the only victim in the entire affair. We stood in front of Zhou Zhenglong's house and the cold wind chilled our bones.
Will history remember this moment? Without doubt, this was a typical incident in early 21st century in China. Behind this incident lies the loss of trust and the anxiety of people in this era.
Do people deserve to be trusted?
When I returned from Zhenping to Ankong, we met with an anti-tiger government official. We chatted for a long time. He re-iterated his position to us: "I cannot tell you anything, but I can give you the bottom-line. The photographs are definitely fakes." As for himself, he is living in seclusion in Ankong under pressure.
What we can do now is to insist. At a time when the overseas media are already expressing their doubts, People's Daily, CCTV's <Social Investigation> and <Today's Story> and many media are expecting upper levels of the government to intercede and bring the truth into the open! If this does not occur, it will bring shame to China forever. Will there be a day when the truth will be made known? I don't know. I only know that history shall one day provide a perfect full stop to this affair.