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My experience as a journalist (Part 1)

My experience as a journalist (Part 1)

Published on Monday 10 August 2009. Updated on Monday 31 August 2009.
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Life of a Chinese journalist, by Jiang Weiping

Reporters Without Borders is presenting a series of four articles by Chinese journalist Jiang Weiping recounting his career as an investigative reporter from the time he started out as a journalist in the 1980s to his arrest in 2000 and his departure for exile in Canada this year.

“Jiang is a courageous and exemplary journalist who did not think twice about the dangers he was running when he denounced corruption at the highest levels in the Communist Party of China,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It is thanks to committed journalism like his that the Chinese public can learn about the all-powerful party’s abuses and press freedom will be able to evolve in China.”

Jiang achieved recognition in the course of his long career, which he began by working for the state news agency Xinhua. In the early 1990s, he became northeast China bureau chief for the Hong Kong-based newspaper Wen Wei Po (香港文匯報). He wrote a series of articles on corruption in the party for the Hong Kong-based magazine Frontline (前哨). Around this time he also started working for Hong Kong magazine.

He was arrested in the northeastern province of Dalian in December 2000 and was sentenced in May 2001 to eight years in prison on charges of endangering state security and divulging state secrets. He was finally released in 2006 after serving six years of his sentence.

In February 2009, he obtained political asylum in Canada, where he now lives with his wife in Toronto and continues working as a freelance journalist and calligraphist.

Part 1: My experience as a journalist

From earliest youth, I dreamed of becoming a famous journalist. But in 1966, when I was only ten years old, I experienced the terror of the Cultural Revolution. The newspapers that I admired the most were Renmin Ribao (The People’s Daily) and the Dalian Daily. Later, in 1982, after I graduated in history from the University of Liaoning, I had the good fortune to work as an editor and reporter on the cultural supplement of the Dalian Daily. Then, in 1987, I was moved to the Dalian bureau of the Xinhua news agency. At the beginning of the 1990s, I changed again, working for the north-eastern China bureaux of the Hong Kong newspaper, Wen Hui. So after years of hard work, I had managed to realise my childhood dream.

I am most probably the only journalist in China to have worked for these three different media. The first was a small popular newspaper in Dalian, the second was a national news agency and the third was a foreign newspaper. However despite their differences none of them was able to evade the tight control of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and being a journalist was not the be-all and end-all. The controlling and authoritarian shadow of the CPC had played no part in my childhood dreams. In this respect, one could say that before my arrival in Toronto on 2 February 2009, I had not yet fully realised my dream.

However, I have no regrets, even though I brought to an end an 18-year career in the Party’s media, and that I endured five years and one month behind bars, I did after all fight for freedom of expression. It was in my own voice that I genuinely described the lives of the poor and condemned corruption by some of the well-placed officials in the north-east of my country. I bellowed and battled to realise my dream. And now I feel relieved.

It was somewhat cheeky of me when in 1991, I sent off an application on spec. to the editor of the Hong Kong newspaper Wenhui, Liu Zaiming, and thus began my innocent dream. At the time, while travelling in Shenzhen, I noticed a copy of Wen Hui stuck up on the wall of a restaurant, whose owner came from Dalian, and I noticed that its main offices were in Hong Kong, but that a score of correspondents were scattered around mainland China. I supposed that this newspaper enjoyed real freedom of expression and projected my childhood dreams onto it.

But it wasn’t long after I was taken on by the Wen Hui bureau in the north-east in 1993, that I realised that it was nothing more than a Hong Kong-based outpost for CPC propaganda.

However, against the background of the 1990s, a time when people’s awareness was limited and news was tightly controlled, for a Hong Kong newspaper to open a bureau in a little town like Dalian, was an admirable step. I remember very well that when I registered the bureau with the Department of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation, a woman there thought it was a reactionary newspaper and, in terror, immediately sought instructions from her superiors. From then on, no fewer than 10 state security agents interviewed me. It demonstrates the extent to which the CPC’s dictatorial system makes life difficult for journalists, even those who are not from mainland China. The state is very wary of journalists from Hong Kong and abroad!

The setting up of a bureau for Wen Hui in the north-east showed the contradictory nature of CPC officials. Because on one hand they want to attract foreign investment but on the other hand they fear that foreign journalists will uncover scandals. This paradox arises from the fact that the far-reaching liberalisation of the economy has not been matched by political openness. My point of view comes from having personal experience of this paradox.

The Dalian Public Security Bureau was the first body to give me “multiple entry passes” between Hong Kong/Macao and mainland China. With these passes, I travelled between capitalist Hong Kong and socialist mainland China. It allowed me to understand the meaning of the concept “one country, two systems” and to realise the contradictions that it involved. Nothing is more important to a journalist than freedom of expression. In the streets of Hong Kong, I read newspapers such as Shaqian Sha that were realistic and outspoken. It was unsettling to hear another side to things, no less truthful than the uniformity on the mainland. Why should 1.2 billion people, 56 ethnic groups not have different opinions? Why is life so complicated? Why can’t journalists speak out against injustices suffered by the poor? How could I replace lies with a description of reality? I puzzled over these dilemmas for a long time. I decided to meet for myself the manager of the newspaper, Liu Dawen, but I suffered from huge indecision when it came to writing, because I took a long time to publish.

Then, around 1998, I was deeply shocked by two events. On one occasion, I had to go to see Wen Shizhen, Secretary of the CPC Provincial Committee and Zhang Guoguang, Governor of Liaoning province. I wanted to report on reform of state enterprises in Liaoning. From Dalian, it was a 300-km drive. To reach the provincial capital, Shenyang, I had to cross over a railway line in an urban area. My car was stopped by sacked workers who were blocking the line, protesting against the corruption of the factory manager and the privatisation of the factory. They said that this confrontation was the only way to get the railway department to inform officials in Beijing, particularly the president, Jiang Zemin. “Once he knows about it, he will come to talk to us”, they said. This made me think about the “History of the Party” course I studied at university and the picture Mao Zedong goes to Anyuan.

What made Mao go there? In fact, the miners who extracted coal there at the time and those who today were blocking the railway were driven to this resort by the same circumstances. Is it not incredible that the CPC resembles a capitalist regime in abandoning the poor? I later met officials in the region who carefully avoided my questions on this issue and talked to me about the successes of the reform policy. I also received subtle warnings from officials at the Propaganda Department. Naturally, the articles I wrote in future for Wen Hui could only be full of praise.

The second episode was even more serious and still distresses me today. While I was interviewing an official in Daqing municipality in the north-east of China, more than 100 unemployed workers from Daqing’s towel factory surrounded the offices we were in, waving placards bearing the very simple message: “We are hungry, we want to work” and the slogan they repeatedly shouted was: “Chuck out the factory’s corrupt director!” The reasons for their protest? The company’s conversion to a joint venture, with a foreign boss, who wanted to cut back on staff while the workers had no idea where they could find other work. Since the police were blocking the entrance to the official’s office, the only way out was a door at the back. But the workers saw me and that I had a camera in my hand and they shouted out in delight, “A journalist, a journalist!” as if I was the Messiah! But after listening to their protests and writing an article I was unable to publish it in Wen Hui. The articles in this paper could only praise the Daqing officials. I was deeply saddened by this forced silence. Only an independent newspaper in Hong Kong would carry such a critical article.

Even though there is an article of the Constitution that clearly promotes freedom of expression (Mao even said that you should never condemn the orator), in practice it is useless. The criminal code even contains articles that allow the government to repress on the basis of "overthrow of the regime", but the country was built on countless inquisitional campaigns against intellectuals. This demonstrates the government’s brutality and hypocrisy. Since this cast a huge and threatening shadow over Wen Hui, the newspaper had no choice but to operate self-censorship. The head of the agency, Liu Yongbi, frequently warned me against sending articles to other magazines, because he would suffer the consequences himself. However, at this time, I blindly believed in the CPC officials and their understanding of social class. I also believed that they represented the proletarian cause and I therefore idealised the motivation for my criticisms. I even thought that our Leader would understand how sincere my criticisms were and the objectivity of my articles. So to promote the cause, I began to write under a pseudonym.

I started writing a large number of reports for Sha Qiansha, Kaifang, and other Hong Kong newspapers from the 1990s onwards. These included, “Ma Xiang Dong loses 30,000,000 yuan (three million dollars) in the Macao casino” and “Dalian residents unhappy under Bo Xilai”.

I wrote candidly about corruption cases involving this official in the north-east, setting out to make myself the spokesperson for people with problems and writing about growing inequality. I thought that at the worst, I would be sacked from my newspaper and that I could lose some privileges like my house, my company car or my bonuses. I even imagined that I could be sent to prison. But I did not back down, driven by the desire to improve society, even if I had to sacrifice myself to do it. Some people have to pay a high price in a country with 5,000 years of feudal history. Even though some of the articles lacked punch, I thought that I could to some extent help push China towards a democratic state. I took my inspiration from people like Chen Tianhua, Zou Rong, and Zhang Dayan. I believed that, since my investigations were legal, officials would have no choice but to act against corruption. I constantly wrote these articles and began to think of myself as an “uncrowned king”, and that a recognised journalist was untouchable.

Unfortunately for me, we were not aware of the technological capacities of the extremely efficient state security apparatus. In fact, I had been under close surveillance since 1982 from the time I began working as a journalist on a Party newspaper. On 4 December 2000, on a snowy mid-winter morning, eight plain-clothes agents brutally snatched me from a parking lot. The man who ordered my abduction was none other than Che Kemin, secretary to the mayor of Dalian, Bao Xilai, whom I had criticised in my articles. My captors were ranking officers in the Dalian Security Bureau. Unknown to anyone, I was imprisoned on an island at the extreme southern tip of the Liaoning peninsula, in the Lushun naval base. Che Kemin had been a soldier there at the end of the 1970s. I have never been in the military.

I was prevented from communicating with the outside world and forced into silence. They had no worries about the fact that their actions were completely illegal. That was when my career as a Party journalist came to an end. I remembered the words of an old journalist on Wen Hui who had supported the cause of the students during the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and had ignored the orders of Li Peng. He produced a front page bearing only four words: “Heavy heart, sickened mind”. It wasn’t until 1997 that I met for the first time with Li Zi, who had been sacked as editor of Wen Hui. Despite the smile that lit up his face when he spoke, he was a broken man. I knew that his smile hid a deep sorrow. I am just the successor to these brave journalists on Wen Hui like him, Liu Ruishao and Cheng Xiang. Their tragedy continues to be played out in China…

I was held in an unheated, dark and cold cell, with close to me an Alsatian dog that barked night and day and three soldiers carrying guns, in a prison of which the courtyard was practically buried in snow. A bone-piercing wind chilled my very soul.

I was no longer the “uncrowned king”, the recognised and untouchable journalist. I was the first Chinese journalist of the 21st Century to be imprisoned for having spoken.

Toronto, June 19th 2009

see Part 2

To see the English-subtitled video:




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