Media regulation

Satiric SMS or libel? Writing political poetry in Chongqing

JDM061019pengshui.jpg
The incomplete Rainbow Bridge in Pengshui

Chongqing recently announced plans to target libel, satire, and other uncivilized behavior online. In a case unrelated to this new rule, a Chongqing man is facing three years in prison for writing a satirical poem and sending it to friends via SMS and QQ.

In mid-August, reports Southern Weekly, Qin Zhongfei wrote a few lines of poetry satirizing local leaders and a few public works boondoggles. Thinking it fairly amusing, Qin sent it off to "10-15 friends" via SMS and another "4-6 friends" via QQ instant message service. He was arrested for his troubles, since officials felt that the poem could cause social unrest and might harm business for Pengshui if too many people got wind of it.

The Southern Weekly article includes a copy of the poem (I've not translated it here), ensuring that a much wider audience is exposed to Qin's potshots at the county's leadership.

Calamity descends from a poem

by He Haining / SW

...

At around 5pm on 31 August, an uninvited guest came to his office. Two police officers suddenly appeared, surprising Qin Zhongfei. When they saw him, they asked him who sent him the SMS. After thinking it over for ten minutes or so, Qin admitted that he wrote it; but he still held the fantasy that "this is no biggie."

He was taken away by the police.

After a day of interrogation, the county PSB arrested Qin Zhongfei on suspicion of libel and detained him in the guardhouse. On 11 September, the county procuratorate authorized the arrest of Qin Zhongfei, and his two QQ numbers, his mobile phone, and his computer were seized.

The PSB decided it was a criminal case. If the charges are upheld, Qin Zhongfei may face a sentence of up to 3 years.

...

Before the PSB caught Qin, forty or fifty people had been summoned to the PSB or the county secretary's office to "assist in the case." Xiao Guo [name has been changed] and Qin Zhongfei were fast friends, and often sent each other funny SMS messages. When he received this one, he was playing a computer game, and didn't read it too carefully before deleting it. He arrived at the PSB in confusion, and quickly admitted that he had received the message. When the agent in charge of the case inquired whether he knew how serious the consequences were, he said lightly, "It can't be anything harmful — it's just a joke between friends."

Civil servant Lao Wang [name has been changed] wasn't as relaxed. He cannot forget that day, 2 September, at 2 in the afternoon, when he was summoned to the PSB for the first time in his life. "What bad luck, to get wrapped up in this just by receiving an SMS."

At first, exposure was limited, but eventually the entire county of Pengshui was caught up, and debate raged throughout the streets. A person from Pengshui working in Chongqing put up a blog post titled "A modern literary inquisition stuns Pengshui, Chongqing" — "it was like dropping a bomb online, and rumors swept over Pengshui."

Discussion meetings were held several times in the county seeking to smooth over the matter. One county official held three meetings in the education system, calling for "the case to be the case, and the county party and government to do what they ought to do."

Before long, officials from the county PSB and education committee came to Chen Qiong's home saying that Qin Zhongfei could be released on bail to await his trial. Chen Qiong did not assent.

Li Gang, a lawyer, told her that this was no simple affair: "Perhaps he will be released not guilty, or perhaps they'll clear things up and release him." And he advised her not to apply for bail. Chen Qiong followed the lawyer's advice.

But Qin Zhongfei was unwilling to remain in detention. Although the other suspects there with him were sympathetic and often comforted him, every time he thought of his five-year-old son and his handicapped mother, he couldn't help but cry.

He even feared that his wife might leave him over this.

So he ultimately applied to be released on bail. After one month, Qin Zhongfei recovered a limited freedom.

...

When he received the call for help from Chen Qiong, lawyer Li Gang was far off in the northeastern part of Pengshui, in Wanzhou. His first reaction was "unbelievable." Li Gang's thinking was that if the office did not object, he would offer legal assistance. Before this, several lawyers had refused Chen Qiong's entreaties.

Li Gang believes that the evidence for Qin Zhongfei crime is untenable. "Subjectively, Qin Zhongfei was just having fun. On a deeper level, he was pointing out social ills. To use laws for public security to punish him is a bit excessive."

Meng Dehua thinks otherwise. The vice-secretary of the county committee, in charge of politics and law, ideology, and sci-tech, education, and health, he formerly was the director of the PSB. The target of the poem, county party secretary Lan Qinghua, refused a request for an interview, and asked Meng Dehua to clarify the facts.

"This is not making a mountain out of a molehill; he was not just writing for fun." Meng Dehua warned this reporter to pay attention one detail: "One action that is hard to understand is that after he accidentally deleted the SMS, he asked a friend to send it back to him, and continued forwarding it around."

"This poem almost entirely denies the achievements of Pengshui. If civil servants lower down saw it, it would have a highly detrimental effect on Pengshui's outside work," Meng Dehua boomed.

Li Gang believes that the circulation of this poem was not nearly so wide as local officials believed, and in Pengshui County, with a population of 630,000, the effects of its circulation were not nearly as negative as the officials imagined. And he voiced strong reservations about the legal procedure in this case. "Libel can be a private prosecution or a public prosecution, but public prosecution requires the harm to be especially serious, if the injured party commits suicide and cannot bring suit himself, or if it instigates a conflict between two nations. There's a concept in the law that public individuals and administrative leaders have limited protection, and they should accept more supervision from the public."

The county PSB is paying close attention to this case, and believes it will "definitely affect social and political stability."

"After getting out I haven't seen a single friend." This is the first thing Qin Zhongfei said to Li Gang, and afterward repeatedly said that he was sorry that he had no money to give the lawyer.

...

When this reporter came to Pengshui, the case had been handed over to the procuratorate for investigation. "We are carefully working on this case," Cui Zeding, head of the Pengshui County Procuratorate, said.

A few retired cadres and common people said that the key to whether Qin Zhongfei would be sentenced rested on whether the two disputes between officials and citizens, and three public works projects (Baiyun Middle School, Hukou Hotel, and Rainbow Bridge) touched on in the poem accurately reflected the facts.

At the "foundation site" for Baiyun Middle School, this reporter found no trace of construction work save for a black stone inscribed with the character "cornerstone." (奠). "They requisitioned 51 mu," said Mr. He, who lived next-door. He never saw any other actions by the government, so he planted green onions on the requisitioned land. The Hukou Hotel, built to a three-star standard, is a defining structure in Pengshui; to date, a 12-story concrete framework has been erected, and a group of workers were busy painting the outside wall. Of the Rainbow Bridge, the suggestion of a rainbow bridge form can be seen, but work has stopped.

"It's rather painful to recall." Meng Dehua explained:

The construction site for Baiyun Middle School isn't at the location of the "foundation site;" following two months surveying work last year, the government decided that the site had serious, catastrophic ground problems. It currently has selected a different site, and is engaged in planning. The "foundation site" was temporarily selected in 2004 after receiving 5 million yuan in donations in order to satisfy the donors. "What castles in the sky? The poet doesn't know what he's talking about!"

The Hukou Hotel has been under construction in fits and starts. This is because the government planned to invite investment, but some city-level officials suggested at a meeting that certain major local officials were shareholders, and the city party committee performed two investigations. "In the end, the committee was even more appreciative of Pengshui," Meng said.

The Rainbow Bridge halted work because the construction unit discovered that it had diverged from the plans by 18 centimeters. However, the design, contracting, construction, and supervision of the bridge did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Pengshui government; it belonged to the Chongqing High-grade Road Investment Company. The county government only served to mediate among the different parties.

"City construction management beats people": Meng Dehua believes the subject to be in error; rather than "city construction management," it should be "city government office." On 22 September last year, a woman set up a stall on the sidewalk. When she was discovered by people from the city government office, blows were exchanged. Meng Dehua claims that the woman was not injured and that the city government had already taken care of the individuals involved.

"PSB defiles corpses" refers to the reforms at the Pengshui Cemetery. The county government issued a document prohibiting the county's urban residents from setting up memorial halls on roadways without permission since they obstructed the social environment. Instead, they should all go to new funeral parlors that had been set up to conduct funeral ceremonies. However, one resident refused to go, feeling that the fees were too high. On the day of the funeral, he got into a scuffle with law enforcement officers. The reforms have currently been put on hold.

In regards to the sketch of three officials that appears at the beginning of the poem, Meng Dehua did not offer much criticism: "People get angry sometimes."

Residents who were interviewed all mentioned the problem of free expression. "I understand that citizens' free speech is made up of two parts: one is expressing an opinion under the constitution and the law, and the other is that when expressing an opinion about a government department, there should be a clear understanding of the matter," said Meng Dehua.

There seems to be a wall between Pengshui's government and its people, and channels are blocked. In many circumstances, the people are unwilling to accept the government's explanation, and there is no way to reach an understanding between the two. There is even a lawsuit contingent among the people; individuals who have dropped their jobs and sue full-time are not uncommon.

Especially around the term changes, conflicts will grip Pengshui and large numbers of big-character posters and lawsuit notices will appear. "Ever time the session changes, people will sue. When upstairs learns about it, they'll insert a comma — stop a bit — and when they stop, the economy stops, too." Meng Dehua smiled bitterly.

This SMS affair coincided with a term change for the Pengshui party committee and government. But Qin Zhongfei denies that his poem has anything to do with this: "It's just a coincidence."

Among the people of Pengshui, this reporter found that more people were anxious about the speed of economic development in Pengshui, and complained that their own income could not keep up with Pengshui's rising standard of living. During a period of economic transition with the intent to "base the county on industry," and along with the accumulated social problems of companies going bankrupt and state-owned industry reorganizations, the Qin Zhongfei SMS affair became a fuse to ignite public opinion.

In the 1950s, Pengshui was one of the three economic powers of the old Fuling District (ten counties in southeast Chongqing); together, their strength far exceeded that of neighboring Wulong County, abut today things have changed. "In comparison, we are off by too much," said Meng Dehua. A retired cadre even believed that Pengshui's economy trails Wulong by 10-15 years.

"Pengshui is in a critical stage of economic development." One time when a city official asked him what his thoughts were after working in Pengshui for several years, Lan Qinghua replied in the Chongqing dialect, "Never give up, fight on till the death, work together!"

"Every step we take is 5-10 times harder than other counties," said Meng Dehua, who finds it hard to understand. "A small number of people always take things out of context and place the blame onto secretary Lan or county head Zhou."

One day before, Qin Zhongfei looked at his wife and said softly, "I could still be taken away. Don't worry too much, remain calm." His former beer-gut has retracted, he no longer talks much, he walks around carefully, lets his wife answer unfamiliar phone numbers, and when he received SMS messages, he is afraid to open them.

"Give me ten-thousand times the courage, and I still wouldn't send that message now. This isn't a joke — this is politics."


Note: Two things are untranslated: (1) The poem. Anyone is welcome to assist in this, but it's not really crucial to a good understanding of the situation. (2) Various sentimental "slice-of-life" bits that SW likes to put into its stories. I may add them later.

UPDATE: The case is resolved here.

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I hope you would follow up on this story and tell us if the Chongqing man was found guilty or not guilty by the court of law.

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