The ants, the tiger, and responsible journalism

Marchers from Fushun

Although the immediate online storm of protest over the rumored bankruptcy of Yilishen has subsided (or has been effectively quashed), the situation continues to develop. A post from earlier today on the Guangzhou Bang blog reproduced a letter the website received from one of Yilishen's ant farmers. Here's an excerpt:

I am an ant farmer in Shenyang. Regarding the Yilishen incident: it involves many political figures. So many, in fact, that they have joined together to suppress us common folk....The central government leaders still don't know the truth. The Liaoning region has blocked ant farmers from going to petition. Just going in and out has become extremely difficult for us. Some ant farmers have been beaten. Some have received terrifying threatening phone calls. Some are being followed and are under surveillance. The internet has also been placed under surveillance. We now have no freedom of person whatsoever. Nothing is being reported on the television now, because there are too many political figures implicated in this. Liaoning officials took Yilishen's money, and those officials took that money to go bribe other officials. This is how it spread like fire. We now have our own chat rooms, our own QQ groups. We will never give up defending our rights.

The Guangzhou Bang post contains the full email and a photo gallery from the streets of Shenyang (from which the above image was taken).

There's not been much in the mainstream media about the affair, and what has been reported is difficult to find because Yilishen is no longer a searchable keyword. One bright spot is an op-ed that ran in today's Beijing Evening News (since pulled from the paper's website; see below for a screenshot). Commentator Su Wenyang indicts the press for abandoning its responsibilities to good journalism:

The debate over the veracity of the South China Tiger photos has been a hot topic in the media of late. Report after report and full-page spread after full-page spread have been devoted to the tiger. Major national public welfare issues and practical problems that are relevant to the public's daily lives seem no match in the eyeball economy for the sudden appearance of a nonexistent South China Tiger.

There was once a newspaper that professed to "responsibly report everything"; actually, the media cannot report on everything. "News, old news, no news" is one of the principles of statesmen publishing newspapers. At any given time, what to report and how to report it is a choice between news, old news, and no news. Judging the South China Tiger reports against this standard, the scale is at the very least inappropriate—excess is as bad as omission, like today's excessive exploitation of resources. This is irresponsible to readers and to the practice of journalism.

When relatively minor events like the South China Tiger photographs are hyped up into major news stories, turning stories that ought to have received attention into old news or no news, it is a problem with the press management system, and stems to a large degree from a sense of helplessness. To fill pages and capture eyeballs, mountains are made out of molehills and ants are turned into elephants. Such obvious errors in judgment, such indiscriminate reporting of everything, certainly has many causes.

The majority of the media has failed to report on tons of important news stories recently. The arrest of Golden Key CEO Liu Yiliang by Beijing police—this individual was named an outstanding Beijing property entrepreneur in 2004, a national property agent of the year, and one of the ten most influential property agents in the country in 2005. He is on the board of the Beijing Real Estate Association and the China Real Estate Association. He has more than 3000 employees, represents more than ten property developments, and controls more than 200 chain outlets covering Beijing and extending into Hebei, Jiangsu, Anhui, Shanxi, and Jilin. Connect this to how the president of Zhongtian Real Estate in Shenzhen absconded with company funds, and imagine the sort of things that could be reported.

The chief of Liaoning's Yilishen Group was taken into police custody. Zhao Benshan has had a business relationship with them. For years, Yilishen has expanded its breeders network model: its members paid a 10,000 yuan membership fee and purchased larvae and food, while the Group made payments on the 14th and 21st of every month, with a guarantee of 13,250 yuan in annual returns. From the beginning of this month, payments stopped, and large numbers of members came after them. How great of an influence this affair will have is hard to determine, for the truth has yet to come out.

A similar business model was used Gong Yinwen, head of the Shandong Jizheng Healthcare Products Company, illegally amassed billions of yuan over the course of eleven years, and recently fled the country with those billions. He left behind large numbers of common people in Shandong, Beijing, and Shanghai who are now completely ruined. This individual was once the head of the Zaozhuang City sports committee, a party secretary, and had spent more than a decade in official circles. His company had won a slew of "halos": it had a China Quality Service AAA reputation, it was a top-ten selling national health products brand, Gong was one of ten outstanding national brand-building entrepreneurs, it was awarded the Long March to China model work unit certification, and it was a member of the Long March to China anti-fraud alliance. When Oriental Outlook reported on this case, it declared that it was "collective aphasia on the part of the media."

Is not one of these news stories, which involve the personal interests of countless common people, a bigger deal than the South China Tiger? Each of those bosses is worse than a tiger: they are tigers among men. Leave aside the tiger without reporting on it. Don't report on the tiger's henchmen. Isn't it an enormously poor choice to wrestling back and forth over a photograph? Where is the social responsibility of a journalist today?

Whether the South China Tiger photo is genuine, and whether it will be discovered, is a question of protection. But if you do not search for the tigers among us, people will get eaten; untold numbers of households will be ruined and countless people will die. How to evaluate, how to determine the value of news, and how to use news resources are issues that deserve careful consideration.

UPDATE: The piece has been reposted on other websites (here's a version on People Online) minus the Yilishen content.

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There are currently 7 Comments for The ants, the tiger, and responsible journalism.

Comments on The ants, the tiger, and responsible journalism

I have a steadily escalating sense of foreboding, a presentiment that something really awful and disastrous is going to happen which constitutes a decisive move from a neo-communist ideology within which Hu's totalitarianism is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of Chinese hegemony in which power relations (inter alia) are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation. This will further mark a radical shift from a form of post-Maoist theory that takes mass movements as theoretical objects to one in which Wen's insights into the contingent possibilities of socialist democracy inaugurate a renewed conception of Chinese hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of American power. Like omg I personally believe that US Americans should stop purchasing Actra-Rx (yilishen). Leave Britney Alone!

brain leiter's goofing aside, I really DO have a sense of foreboding about the Chinese economy. Look at what's happened in the US surrounding corrupt mortgage lending. I have to wonder how many Harvard-educated officials in the upper echelons are wringing their hands in frustration, or waking up in cold sweats screaming "Accountability! Transparency!"

For all that the central government is praised for its conservative approach to finance, being politically unwilling to impose real transparency on business means that the markets, as well as production, will turn out to be unsustainable. Restricting the flow of information will forestall the collapse, but when it comes, it'll be of 1929 proportions, and that can't be good for the powers that be.

The comment by 'Brain' above is either an amusing example of computer-generated gibberish, or striking evidence of a substantial personal aptitude to produce the same.

Here's something from the previous millennium, for those who are really out of date.

Hi, Du Yisa, long time no see.

I'm just wondering if Zhongnanhai has contigency plans for economic slowdown and other disasters. They should have prepared for these sort of things, but they're running the politics as though nothing bad could happen.

Hi Chinab...I mean Inst.

Since my authority on the subject of your question very closely approximates absolute zero, I'm going to assume that you directed it at me out of curiosity, to see what kind of response it would elicit, rather than in expectation of something more definitive.

Here's how I see the PRC government "running the politics" regarding economic policy:

Economic policies in the PRC reflect the competition between provincial vs central interests. The central government itself is the battlefield.

When the Politburo hands out loans or other financial favors, or conversely disregards certain issues "as though nothing bad could happen", it does so in the interests of provincial powerbrokers. Without their support, different faces will appear in the Politburo. When things start to get out of control economically, the central government sets policies to contain the damage and simultaneously reassert central authority over the national economy. Ruling cliques in the central government need provincial support to stay in power, and the provinces need central authority to maintain economic stability and keep their chosen cliques in power, thereby retaining political influence and ensuring favorable policies.

This means that top authorities in China set economic policy first and foremost to retain power, and only secondly for the benefit of the economy itself. That said, since they and their backers need a stable economy to retain and consolidate their positions, they probably have numerous contingency plans to ensure this outcome.

If you press me for details, I might manage to cough up something, but that seems like enough for this comment.

Your thoughts?


Something bad doesn't even have to happen. Many sectors of the Chinese economy today are running on the assumption that 10+% growth will continue. If that slows down to a "measly" 5% growth that will cause serious dislocations, downturns and unemployment.

None, whatsoever. I'm just a dumb Westerner with misplaced ethnic nationalism, and your writing is, as always, bountifully insightful.

Your theory seems to make more sense than what I have at the time and I'll try to remember it.

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