Black Holes

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I just finished reading veteran investigative reporter Wang Keqin’s piece on Lan Chengzhang, the Chinese journalist who was killed two weeks ago while trying to investigate an illegal coal mine. It will make you sick, but you should read it too. (Roland Soong has translated it into English with his usual speed and skill.)

What sets Wang’s report apart from others I’ve seen is the way he describes the context in which Lan’s death took place. The coal pits Lan was investigating emerge as places ruled by bribery and beating, where people’s humanity has disappeared into the depths of the mine shafts and everyone is dirty. Hou Si, the mine’s boss and Lan’s murderer makes $9000 a day off his backyard operation. When officials threaten to get in the way of his profits he pays them off. When peasants pick up scraps of coal that fall off his trucks, he kicks holes in their heads.

Even in this context there’s something especially bone-chilling about the casual, matter-of-fact way that Hou plans and executes Lan’s death. Hou calmly makes the calculation that if Lan is a “real journalist” he’ll just pay him off and if he’s a “fake” journalist, he’ll “punish him.” (Those are the only options?) He makes his plans over lunch and drives over to meet Lan in his BMW with his luncheon companions and a few other hired thugs in tow. He even does his homework. He calls another journalist to ask how to distinguish between real and “fake” reporters and checks the authenticity of Lan’s press card. When he decides it’s fake, he doesn’t get angry, he doesn’t plot, he just reaches for some junk he has lying around and tells his guys how to use it. Lan dies from head wounds inflicted with a couple of old axe handles, an iron and a thermos. A THERMOS. When Hu’s men are done, the axe handle has broken in three.

What place is this? Who does this? Where are the human beings? The whole story seems to be unfolding in some sort of parallel universe. Then Wang describes
Lan’s 13 year old daughter standing by her father’s mangled corpse. She asks him, “Dad, are you still going to attend the parents meeting at school with me?” She asks over and over again.

From there Wang’s story jumps to a discussion of journalists. What is “fake” journalist anyway and what is real journalist? How many of each are there? And what does this mean? These are exactly the right questions to ask. Over the next few weeks Lan’s killers will be tried and probably executed. We’ll hear more from China’s leaders about the evils of illegal coal mining, about the lives lost in collapsing shafts and the air and water the mines befoul, maybe even about moral vacuum into which Hou and maybe Lan were sucked. This are issues that every energy-consuming person on the planet ought to be thinking about–not just people in China.

But it seems to me that the larger question raised by Lan’s death has to do with the identity of the Chinese media. The very existence of a man like Hou, completely depraved and yet human enough to fear exposure, is an argument for the utility of “media supervison” (the Chinese term for reporting on bad stuff). And yet, over the past two years China’s leaders have made it harder and harder for journalists to investigate and write frankly about upsetting subjects, about criminal activities, about corruption. This is all going on even as the leadership trying (or claim to be trying) to stamp out corruption.

So much about the system just doesn’t make sense. Just last month, Huang Liangtian an editor with decades of experience who ran a terrific, daring investigative magazine that did great reporting on local corruption was removed from his job and transferred to an agricultural trade publication. So he’s now editing stories about fertilizer prices while a rookie reporter like Lan, who’s been on the job for 15 days, is off investigating one of the country’s most corrupt places. I know the two situations aren’t directly related, but they’re part of the same messy picture.

The way the media is regulated, who qualifies as a real journalist doesn’t make this any easier. Wang points out that the term “fake journalist” can apply both to a person reporting without an official press card and to someone pretending to be a journalist in order to extort hush money from a criminal–a practice which, as he points out, “real” journalists sometimes engage in too.

Would freeing up the media and making it safer for journalists to report on people like Hou help untangle this mess? I think it would. I think it would HELP at least. China’s leaders obviously either think it wouldn’t help or, more likely, worry it would cost them too much in terms of political control. (See Simon on this below). But what this story so eloquently illustrates, is that keeping the media in this wishy-washy legal purgatory is pretty costly too.

Hou and his thugs may be the ones responsible for Lan’s death, but they’re not the only ones with blood on their hands.

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