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When corruption investigations were all the rage

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Yuncheng's fake irrigation project that got Gao Qinrong in trouble

Gao Qinrong, a reporter who spent eight years in jail on charges of fraud, pimping, and swindling, was set free earlier this month, and his story has been featured in papers all this week. You can read a summary of his story and online reactions in Jonathan Ansfield's piece on China Digital Times and in translations of two Southern Media Group interviews on ESWN.

The buzz around Gao's case concerns retaliation by local governments toward journalists who expose corruption - Gao, and indeed most of the Chinese media, believe that he was framed for revealing that a local irrigation project was actually a fraud costing hundreds of millions of yuan. Translated below is a piece by Wang Renlong, who uses Gao's case to reminisce about the state of the Chinese media in the early 1950s, when exposure of fraud was actively encouraged.

How could the media report on corruption in the early days of New China?

by Wang Renlong / China Week

Gao Qinrong, a party member and former Shanxi Youth Daily journalist, was the first to espose the fraud committed by Yuncheng District on a fake irrigation project in May, 1998. In October, 1999, he was sentenced to 12 years on charges of "accepting bribes, pimping, and swindling." On 7 December, 2006, Gao Qinrong was finally set free at the end of his sentence (he had been given a 4 year reprieve because of good behavior in prison). (Southern Metropolis Daily, 14 December)

That Gao Qinrong was jailed for years because he uncovered corruption on a local engineering project led me to consider the difficulty the media has today in reporting on graft and corruption, and I was reminded of the fever of corruption reporting in the media during the period just after the founding of New China.

After the revolution, the news media faced a new test. With the war over, how was the media to express its individuality; how could it continue to show off its strengths as a mouthpiece? At the end of March and the beginning of April, 1950, the General Press Administration of the Central People's Government convened the first national press workers' conference to address for the first time the issue of "improving newspaper work and strengthening ties with the public." The director of the General Press Administration, Hu Qiaomu, brought up three areas in which newspapers could be improved: connection to reality, connection to the public, and criticism and self-criticism. On 1 May of that year, these were written into a document for execution.

Subsequently, the major periodicals across the country put this into practice wholeheartedly, and it provided excellent preparation for later reporting on corruption. In May, 1950, People's Daily organized 2101 reading groups across the country, and started special columns in the newspaper. In 1951, People's Daily increased its correspondents from just over 200 to more than 10,000. Think for a moment what the scene would be like if all of those 10,000 individuals were exposing corruption at the same time. Wouldn't those corrupt elements be like rats on the street, everyone shouting to beat them? Most critically, People's Daily edited and printed an internal publication, People's Daily Dispatches; as a training ground for correspondents, the paper treated letters from readers very seriously. Every month, that paper would disclose the "handling of readers' letters and interviews," and categorize the letters it received.

At that time, all of China's newspapers were gradually expanding the space given over to letters from readers; a typical newspaper had a special section or column for readers' letters, similar to the commentary pages in today's papers. Many newspapers printed the more important letters on the front page or in the news section, and a number of newspapers made letters from readers the main content of their supplement editions. As this tide continued to swell, papers began to receive critical letters. In 1955, among the letters that People's Daily received every day, one-third could be classified as criticisms, recommendations, complaints, or disclosures; this demonstrates the trust the readers had in party newspapers. The power of public opinion should not be underestimated - this played an active role in driving the later attacks on corruption. At the same time, the Central Committee strengthened criticism and self-criticism. In particular, it directed: "In all open areas, in the general public, and especially in newspapers and magazines, launch criticisms and self-criticisms of all errors and deficiencies in out work." These important directives were important in attacking and exposing corruption. Figures show that in 1949, People's Daily published 347 critical articles, while in 1953 it published 1027. During the three years from 1951 to 1953, an average of more than 4 critical articles were published every day.

During the "Three Anti" and "Five Anti" campaigns between the end of 1952 and the end of 1953, many newspapers launched columns like "Everyone exposes graft and waste" and "Everyone reports corruption and bribery." The powerful social will formed in this way attacked corruption to the point that corruption dared not raise its head. Every newspaper connected the criticism it published with the promotion of activities concerning the Rectification Campaign and the move to consolidate party organization, and reported on many typical cases, creating a strong reaction in society. All levels of party newspapers made bold reports and statements about efforts to suppress public criticism. Corruption during that period was continually exposed, and the media was able to report on corruption with no reservations.

When Huang Yifeng, director of the Transportation Department of the East China Military and Political Committee as well as president of the East China Transportation Training School, suppressed criticism and retaliated against a student, People's Daily not only exposed this affair but also followed up with an editorial, "Those that suppress criticism are the party's mortal enemies," forcing the Huang Yifeng case to be treated seriously.

Objectively speaking, there were some problems with excessively vehement language in the criticism and self-criticism during the first years after the founding of the country. Later on, our newspapers followed the Soviet model too closely and became progressively dull and dry. But from the general shape of that period of history, it was basically a successful start. Taking advantage of the oversight of public opinion to bring corruption largely under control - that point deserves study from today's newspapers. Most recently, the Central Committee has increased the strength of its fight against corruption; the Shanghai pension case is proof of this. Some major local officials have taken falls. Taking heavy strikes at corruption has become part of the current state of affairs.

That the local reporter Gao Qinrong was framed and imprisoned after revealing the frightful spectacle of local corruption is a highly irregular situation. Mulling this over, it seems that our public opinion is not yet strong enough; there is no way to force those corrupt elements to recognized the influence of public opinion. Why should media today have to face this problem or that problem when reporting on the problem of corruption? We should look back at history, and perhaps there we will find some answers.


Hu Qiaomu, of course, was one of the main architects of Mao's cult of personality, as well as one of the people pegged to revise the chairman's evaluation in the early 1980s. The "Three Anti" campaign targeted corruption, waste, and bureaucratism, while the "Five Anti" campaign targeted tax-evasion, bribery, cheating in government contracts, industrial espionage, and theft of state assets." Unstated was a political element that caused the campaigns to target more than merely corrupt and incompetent bureaucrats and industrialists.

* * *

The Huang Yifeng Affair (from Beijing Daily, 21 August, 2006):

On 19 January, 1953, Jiefang Daily, the organizational newspaper for the Shanghai City party committee and the East China bureau of the Central Committee, made public the document "On the decision to dismiss from the party the anti-party element Huang Yifeng." On the 23rd, People's Daily published the editorial, "Those that suppress criticism are the party's mortal enemies," and announced the decision to revoke Huang Yifeng's party membership. This was the "Huang Yifeng Affair" that caused a sensation for a time.

Huang Yifeng was an old party member who joined up in 1925. At the time he was the head of the Transportation Department of the East China Military and Political Committee as well as the party secretary, and was also the president of the affiliated East China Transportation Training School. The details of the "Huang Yifeng Affair" are as follows:

On 3 December, 1951, People's Daily published in its "Letters from Readers" column an article titled, "Bedlam at Shanghai's East China Transportation Training School," criticizing the school's leadership for wanton extravagance and waste. When the school read the article, it felt that the criticism contained therein was "not in accordance with the facts; a deliberate attempt to ruin the school's reputation," and submitted it for the president's opinion. Upon hearing the report, Huang Yifeng, who had never been much involved in the details of school administration, directed that the author be found, and organized staff and students to write a joint letter to People's Daily requesting a correction. When the school found that the author was Xue Chengfeng, a student from Fujian, it exerted all manner of pressure on him and forced him to withdraw from the school. Facing enormous pressure from the school, Xue Chengfeng wrote a letter of complaint to People's Daily saying that the school was suppressing criticism. When People's Daily received Xue Chengfeng's letter, it recognized the seriousness of the matter, and forwarded the letter to the office of the East China bureau of the Central Committee for handling. The bureau's discipline committee and other departments formed a joint investigative team to look into the matter. When the investigative team arrived at the school, Huang Yifeng adopted a haughty attitude and ignored the team. The preliminary investigation recommended that Huang Yifeng given a party-internal warning and requested that he publish an open self-criticism in Jiefang Daily. Huang refused to make a self-criticism. Then the East China Bureau sent someone from the organization department to Beijing to make a report to the central committee. When Mao Zedong learned that Huang Yifeng was supressing criticism, he wrote on one of the documents the line, "For suppressing criticism, expulsion from the party in minor cases, and open trial by the people in major cases." So in this way, Huang Yifeng became a typical example of suppressing public criticism. In January, 1953, Huang Yifeng given the heavy punishment of being expelled from the party and removed from all administrative positions. [...] Huang was readmitted into the party in December, 1956.

The Beijing Daily article goes on to discuss an "important historical document," the April 1950 decision concerning the publishing of public criticism in the press. It summarizes:

1. Our party leads the political power of country, and errors and shortcomings in our work can easily endanger the welfare of the people. Because of the position held by those in power, and the elevated authority of the leadership, it is easy for them to become prideful, to refuse criticism from within and without of the party, and to suppress criticism. Criticism and self-criticism in newspapers and periodicals is a necessary means to solidify the connection between the party and the masses, to ensure the democratization of the party and the country, and the accelerate social progress.

2. Allowing the people to freely issue their criticisms of and recommendations for the party and the people's government in newspapers and periodicals (despite the fact that their criticisms and suggestions may not be completely mature or correct), is beneficial to improving their awarness and activism and in attracting them to enthusiastically participate in the work of building up the country.

3. From this we can conclude: attracting the people to issue in newspapers and periodicals open criticisms of the errors and shortcomings of our work, and educating party members, especially party cadres, to publish in newspapers and periodicals self-criticisms related to errors and shortcomings in their work, has become visibly more important today.

4. The Party Central Committee requests: all levels of leading organizations and cadres must assume a warmly welcoming and firmly protective attitude toward criticisms that reflect the opinion of the masses, and they must oppose a bureaucratism that brushes aside criticism from the masses or mocks and retaliates against those that engage in criticism.

The Decision stressed, "If we cannot openly and promptly, before the party and the populace, make criticisms and self-criticisms of the errors and shortcomings of the work of the party, the government, and all economic organizations and social groups, then we will be seriously contaminated with bureaucratism and will be unable to complete the task of building a new China."

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