Posted by Joel Martinsen on Sunday, March 2, 2008 at 1:11 PM
The Chinese media presented another lesson this week in how ham-fisted attempts to quash local news stories that "harm the image" of an individual or institution can end up propelling the story into major newspapers, where a far larger audience gets to look on as petty local politics play out on the national stage.
In this instance, an unflattering photograph of the mayor of Beijing's Tongzhou District that got a photographer fired from a small local newspaper in January has ended up all over the Internet as a result of a follow-up investigation by Southern Media Weekly.
Wang Lili (王力利), a photographer with the Tongzhou Newsletter (通州时讯), a local newspaper under the direction of the district party committee, took a photo of Tongzhou mayor Deng Naiping (邓乃平) presenting the district's annual work report on 9 January. In the photo, which ran in the newspaper alongside Deng's speech the next day, the mayor's head is bent and his eyes seem to be closed. For committing this grave error and causing a "political incident," Wang was fired on the 11th.
The news was not widely publicized at first. Media blogger "aside" posted a report on the incident to his blog the day it happened, but because the photo was not online and corroborating information was unavailable, it remained essentially a rumor. ESWN translated aside's report on 14 February and dug up a photo of Deng at a 2006 conference; the mayor is reading a speech with his head bent and his eyes half-closed, identical to the posture in Wang Lili's photograph.
Over the Spring Festival, Southern Metropolis Weekly interviewed Wang Lili and a few of his colleagues, and this week published a lengthy report on the whole incident. The piece leads off with the infamous photo, which spans four columns of text—it's even bigger than the version in Tongzhou Newsletter that caused all the trouble in the first place. The full report has been reposted to various blogs and forums, and a condensed summary that includes the photo in question has been making the rounds of other media outlets.
It's a fairly one-sided piece—the newspaper was unable to get in touch with anyone from the district government, so the question of who really gave the order remains unresolved. Oddly, Deng Naiping is mentioned by name only four times in the entire report, two of those in quotations from other sources; the rest of the time he is merely "the district mayor" (区长).
A "Political Incident" that Started with a Photographby Shi Feike / SMW
It was only three days from when the photo was taken to his dismissal. And a scant six hours from when he heard that the photo had gotten him into trouble until he was asked to leave the news agency. A "political incident" ruined the life-long reputation of 52-year-old photojournalist Wang Lili.
If it weren't for that photograph, Wang Lili would still be slinging his camera bag over his shoulder and setting out at 7:30 every morning from his home in the former Beijing Chemical Plant dormitories, taking the 667 or 647 bus for half an hour to the West Tongzhou Avenue stop, then turning left and crossing at the corner of West Xihaizi Road underneath the Royal Photo building, and walking for ten minutes along a road lined on both sides with storefronts, until he finally arrived at the Tongzhou Cultural Center. His work unit, the Tongzhou Newsletter, was located in a large office on the second floor of the district's culture center.
Wang Lili walked this route for four years and eight months, up until 11 January, when he was dismissed from Tongzhou Newsletter.
Tongzhou Newsletter was originally the official newspaper of the Tongzhou District party committee. Five years ago, when a restructuring of the national periodical system eliminated county-level party newspapers, it was converted into a local edition of the Beijing Daily Messenger. To better manage human resources and advertising operations, Beijing Daily Messenger and the publicity department of the Tongzhou party committee set up an ad company called Xintong Lida, but in actuality the paper was still run by the publicity department.
As that was going on, Wang Lili was being sent into early retirement by the Beijing Chemical Plant, where he had worked for more than two decades. At the plant, he had worked for years in union propaganda, so he asked a friend to find him a new job at a newspaper. He worked there until he was dismissed this year, just before the Spring Festival. Wang says that he was "Tongzhou Newsletter's most experienced photojournalist."
A decision for a pre-festival firing
Wang Lili was dismissed because of a photograph he took at Tongzhou's legislative sessions, the "Two Meetings." In January, Tongzhou held the Two Meetings in Hebei's Grand Epoch City, and the paper sent Wang as its only photographer at the sessions. The sessions opened on the 9th with a government work report presented to the assembly by district mayor Deng Naiping. On the following day, the news appeared in Tongzhou Newsletter. On the third day, the 11th, the sessions ended, and at 9 am, en route from Hebei back to Hangzhou, everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief after so many days of work. As Wang was joking, his phone rang. It was a call from his supervisor at the newspaper.
After the incident, one of Wang's colleagues recalled that Wang's expression changed as soon as he answered the call. He told everyone, "Bad news. There's a problem with the photo in the article on the Two Meetings that ran in yesterday's paper." Wang remembers that over the phone that day, his superior requested that he immediately write a sincere, deep self-criticism on the photo issue to be placed on his desk that same day. he was also fined 500 yuan, and warned: "If you don't treat this affair correctly, we cannot continue your employment."
It was already noon when Wang reached the office. He started writing a self-criticism immediately, without even taking lunch, reviewing his own lack of responsibility and the effect that the affair would have on the image of Tongzhou. At around 1:30, Wang handed in the self-criticism. At 4, the agency held a meeting of all staff, where Wang once again carried out an extensive self-criticism. Just as everyone was beginning to think that the matter would blow over, the leaders suddenly announced their decision to dismiss Wang. One reporter with the paper, Deng Jie, recalled that everyone was dumbstruck. No one imagined that it would turn out to be so severe. Deng Jie was one of the few original reporters who had joined the paper with Wang Lili after the reorganization, and in the instant that the leaders read their decision, she remembers glancing at Wang, who was sitting there, his face ghastly pale. After the meeting adjourned, many colleagues surrounded him to offer their consolations, and someone was sobbing.
As Wang Lili remembers it, he actually received notice from the leaders shortly before the meeting started. They said, "This affair has become a serious political incident. We cannot protect you—we have even been asked by the district mayor to write self-criticisms." "So I asked him, what counts as a political incident? He said, never you mind. We think it's a political incident and that's that. I thought, why beat around the bush, I'm out of work all the same. I'm a fairly straightforward person, so I handed in my key and left."
The matter was handled as fast as lightning. It was only three days from when the photo was taken to his dismissal. And a scant six hours from when he heard that the photo had gotten him into trouble until he was asked to leave the news agency.
Half a month later, on the eve of the Spring Festival, Wang Lili got his notice of dismissal. A few days ago, in a cafe near Bawangwen, this reporter saw the letter, which was sent from the Beijing Xintong Lida Advertising Company. This was the dismissal reason given:
The letter of dismissal, dated 11 January, was not stamped by either the newspaper agency or Xintong Lida. But another of Wang Lili's superiors, Xintong Lida vice-president An Jilian, confirmed to this newspaper that the letter was genuine.
A photo of a bowed head, with eyes that seem closed
On page 2 of the 10 January edition of Tongzhou Newsletter, this reporter saw the photo captioned "District mayor Deng Naiping presents the government work report to the assembly on behalf of the district government." This photo, spanning two columns, was the only photo on the page, and accompanied the full text of the district mayor's work report.
The letter of dismissal that Wang Lili received did not mention what was misleading about the troublesome photo, or what sort of political incident it had caused. Wang said that the anger of the district leadership was directed at the "bowed head, closed eyes, and poor image" of the district mayor as he appeared in the photo.
A high-ranking individual with Tongzhou Newsletter explained to this reporter over the phone about the political implications of the photo: "As a news photo, it was wrong in what it conveyed about the spirit of the meetings. It was not stimulating—did the photo want to tell the reader that work was done poorly in Tongzhou last year, that the district leader was bowing his head in acknowledgement of his guilt?"
One of the agency leaders said that Wang was insufficiently attentive to his work in the shooting of this photo; he was unable to capture the instant that the district mayor raised his head and faced the front during his work report. This individual, who was responsible for the final approval of the paper mock-up, admitted that when he was choosing photos on the computer, the mayor's eyes were indeed open in the photo: "You could at least tell his black pupils from the whites of his eyes." He didn't expect the print quality to be so shoddy, but Wang Lili had only taken six pictures during the district mayor's presentation, so he ought to assume the responsibility!
Wang Lili said that he actually waited out the entire half-hour and took eleven photos altogether. They were all of the district mayor reading his text with his head bent. He selected six of them to give to his editor. But he is often plagued by painful, confused memories of whether or not the district mayor ever raised his head.
He said, "When the district mayor made his report, he basically read his text with his head bent. Over an hour and a half he may have raised his head once or twice, but while shooting I couldn't just sit there and wait for it—I couldn't capture it." But he also said, "The district mayor just doesn't raise his head. No matter what, he doesn't look up. We can't say to the leaders, Mr. Leader, look up so I can take a picture. That's no good. So it's hard to say." He even said that he wanted to look through the live tapes at the local TV station to demonstrate his innocence, because, "they're at least a little better than me: the machine's always recording. Will we be able to find a frame or two where the district mayor looks up?"
He doesn't mince words about his recklessness at the time: when he was taking photographs, he did not keep an eye fixed on the mayor from start to finish, and after he took the photos he did not try to find ways to remedy the situation, such as voluntarily discussing it with the leadership or issuing a warning beforehand. His colleague Deng Jie lamented that everyone involved in Tongzhou propaganda knows that the district mayor is not photogenic.
Even half a month later, he still regrets every little missed chance for redemption, from a change in venue to possibilities of substitute photos. In fact, this was not the first time that Wang shot this kind of photo, nor was it the first time that he had photographed this district mayor. He admits that at the Two Meetings last year, the newspaper used a shot of his, also of a bent head. But "the frame was larger, and since it included the stage, it wasn't as noticeable as this time."
"Previously, meetings were always held in the Tongzhou assembly hall, and we always knew before hand where the district mayor would stand to present his remarks. The placement was level with the cameras and it was easy to shoot. This time, the conference was in the huge meeting hall at Grand Epoch City, and the mayor's location during his speech was elevated. We could not stand in front of him to shoot, so we had to shoot from below. I took a few shots that were a little wider, but the editor didn't choose them. They were all there together."
The same edition of Tongzhou Newsletter also included several additional photographs of his. "If this one had replaced the work report image, everything would be OK," he said, indicating a photo on page 6. That photo, taken the same day, is captioned "The mood is enthusiastic, and the district leaders encourage everyone to contribute opinions and suggestions, so that together we can draw up a blueprint for the development of Tongzhou in 2008." Second from the right in this photo, the district mayor is all smiles. "If I'd known he'd get angry, then even an ID photo would have worked."
Responsibility and Reasons
Up until publication, this reporter was unable to contact anyone else directly involved or Tongzhou mayor Deng Naiping. Wang Lili has always been at a loss as to where the trouble over the photo first broke out, in the short space of two days, and whether it was the idea of the agency leadership or the district mayor to dispose of him. If it was the mayor's idea, then what provoked his wrath?
He did his best to recall every detail of the conference: "When the paper came out, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Everyone was reading it at the conference, and I even saw ministers and the mayor's secretary talking and nodding. Nothing was wrong, until the morning of the next day." He speculated on the mental workings of the leadership: "It's just that the photos of the other leaders were all so good; maybe the district mayor was angry about something, or maybe someone said something to him that put him in a fury."
Chang Bin, former deputy editor in chief who left Tongzhou Newsletter a few months ago, was Wang Lili's direct superior for more than three years. He has a very good impression of Wang. "Nothing can be said against his performance. He works conscientiously and he's been named a model worker," he said.
As for the outcome of this affair, Chang was surprised that it was so serious. Wang Lili's former colleague Deng Jie also had a hard time understanding why Wang was dismissed, and a hard time believing the rumors about the reason. "He took more than one photo, and he wasn't the only photographer there. People from the publicity department and the archives were taking pictures, so the editors and the leaders should also bear responsibility for selecting and approving that photo."
But to date, only Wang Lili has been disposed. "During the all-staff meeting, an old ad guy said, so you're just going to dismiss someone? Wang Lili was a model worker. Is this appropriate? Isn't it too sudden? Shouldn't you deliberate it some more? The agency leader said there was nothing to deliberate. Everything had been determined."
Wang Lili also wondered about the circumstances surrounding his dismissal. "I think it may have been that the agency leadership was in a hurry to help the district leadership put out the fires. I think this is understandable: in this game, you have to protect yourself, and to know when to give up when things get dangerous. It's an instinct, an action that everyone has. Everyone has their own problems."
He is a little depressed. He never thought that a news photo, "you shoot what's there," would lead to problems. He's also a little remorseful: if he knew he was going to be fired, he wouldn't have written such a thorough self-criticism. "My thinking at the time was that if I wrote a self-criticism taking full responsibility, then maybe it would protect the agency head. If I still wanted to work there in the future, there's no point in making those people unhappy over one small thing. Now I think that I might have been filled with a kind of righteousness—in this game, loyalty is most important—if you fire me, it doesn't matter. I can find work anywhere."
An Jilian said that how this matter was handled was not the decision of any single individual; it was the result of the synthesis of several elements. Wang Lili's superiors admitted that his work was not bad and that he was a conscientious worker, but he did not pay enough attention to politics when he was taking photos of political news: there were certain matters that he did not handle correctly, and he had made similar small mistakes in the past. He was fired this time first of all because "Wang Lili was not a GAPP-accredited journalist; he was a just a reporter-for-hire. In addition, it was only after collective deliberation and a consultation with the district committee's standing committee that the decision was made, for the cause of toughening agency discipline."
But Wang Lili does not wish to place too much of the blame even on the agency leader who announced the decision: "I don't find the deputy director to be a bad man. He was always quite considerate of me. I don't hate him—he doesn't have it easy, either. Every evening at 7:30 he has to hurry over from the district committee to approve the newspaper, and he has to read through each political news item carefully. I respect the man."
"I've been approached by a lawyer who said that this was not right—I should sue them. What evidence would they bring forth? What was their standard? And colleagues at other papers said that even someone took similar photos of [former Beijing mayor] Wang Qishan and [current Beijing mayor] Guo Jinlong, it wouldn't be enough to get fired—they'd just sit them down for a talk. I thought to myself, everyone department of Tongzhou knows about this now, so what? So what if I win a little justice? Will they let me go back to work? And even if they let me back, would I go? No, I certainly wouldn't. I'm not that desperate."
The day before the Spring Festival, Wang Lili, already without a job, picked up his final payment from An Jilian. It was 19,415.85 yuan in severance pay, which the agency calculated according to his work experience. At the same time, he received 900 yuan in compensation for his last two weeks of work for Tongzhou Newsletter, including 15 yuan for the troublemaking photo. Previously, his monthly income from Tongzhou Newsletter was almost 4,000 yuan, a relatively stable amount. The agency leadership said that he was an Associate Senior Reporter, and that he drew the highest income out of all the reporters-for-hire at the agency.
Even though his wife was retired, Wang Lili has not looked for work. Worries that he is too old are his major reasons: "These days college students come in waves. Can an old man like me join in the fun? Maybe if they reached rock-bottom."
He sighed: once you reach fifty, the body starts to go, but you continue to work and don't dare let up. "I was the only photographer at the agency. The photos on all eight pages were all my work, including politics, community news, and local stories. I had to contemplate every day what to shoot. My blood pressure is 110 to 160, and it never drops: the doctor said, it's because people like you are always in a state of anxiety."
His fervent desire is to find an opportunity to do some work during the Olympics, but he wonders whether any friends are still willing to help him after his more than four years doing propaganda at the Tongzhou Newsletter during which he had little contact with photojournalists in the outside world.
"I've been in Tongzhou for four and a half years. There's not news there for you to shoot—it's all repetitive stuff. One community or a village holds some activity, and they all do. You have to report on each of them, and the leaders always talk about big cultural issues. Over four years I photographed at least ten painting and calligraphy exhibitions, but they were all the same: lots of people looking on with their hands clasped behind their back. But you have to think of a way—you have to wrack your brain to find some way to make the old stuff new again."
Wang Lili refused this reporter's request to visit his home. His mother and father are still unaware that their fifty-something son lost his job shortly before retirement. "I don't want to tell them. I'm afraid that they'll worry, and I wouldn't be able to stand their nagging. They don't understand all this."
He even hid the matter from his daughter, who's now in college. Wang said that he was fairly cautious over the Spring Festival; he wanted to wait until he found a new job to tell his parents and daughter. Fortunately, over the holidays, no one asked. "Every morning when it was time to go to work, I just went out for a walk, or went over to a friend's to wait it out, and then went home."
A banner hanging in the Tongzhou Newsletter office reads, "Care for the people's livelihood, the people's feelings, and the people's will." The desk where Wang Lili worked for more than four years is hidden deep within the office of a paper that pledges to "Build China's Number One Community Newspaper." In response to this reporter's questions, his former colleagues were evasive. A middle-aged woman said, Wang Lili isn't here anymore; he wasn't transfered, he didn't resign—oh, it's a difficult question. You'd better ask him yourself.
After all the paperwork was complete, Deng Jie and a few other colleagues helped him move his things home in a few cardboard boxes. This was the first time that she had been to Wang Lili's home. She lamented, "His place was really old and shabby. I never imagined that there'd be such a poor area so close to Soho New Town. The wardrobe and kitchen cabinets were piled together, and there was no heat in the dead of winter. His wife has heart trouble and speaks in gasps. She told me to sit on the sofa, where there was an electric blanket so it was warmer."
Deng Jie said that she had the urge to find the district mayor's mobile phone number and send him an SMS telling him that an old hand at the Tongzhou Newsletter, a particularly conscientious individual, had lost his job on the eve of the Spring Festival. How was he supposed to celebrate the New Year?
Wang Lili's mind is still on that photo that brought him so much shame: "If I were given the chance to talk to the district mayor, I would say to him, 'If you had lifted your head, I wouldn't have missed photographing you. If you had lifted your head just once during the half hour, I guarantee that I would have caught it.'"
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