China’s First “Citizen Reporter” Martyr?

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Anyone who follows the news from China will be familiar with the huge number of eruptions of public disorder which even the government acknowledges amount to tens of thousands a year (though how exactly those incidents are defined remains the subject of much debate.) Human rights activists, academics and professors often have remarked to me that it is especially worrying how easy it is for such incidents to explode into violence: sometimes even the most trivial dispute –like protests over higher bus prices–can spiral into riots. That’s because of the suppressed anger felt by millions of ordinary Chinese at their powerlessness to affect issues to their daily lives and those of their families.

The other related issue that’s well publicized is the explosion of the Chinese internet –145 million online at last count and still growing fast–and how, although it is very carefully controlled, some of the incidents mentioned above make it onto Chinese websites and receive widespread attention that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. There have even been a few brave souls who set out to be “citizen reporters,” documenting incidents such as the “nail house” phenomenon in which residents refuse to move, blocking entire housing projects. Most of these guys keep a low profile though, not surprisingly, considering the often harsh reaction of the authorities to prying eyes. Now comes news of the death on January 7 of Wei Wenhua, a would be citizen reporter in Hubei Province. I won’t go into details here as there are several excellent accounts (at Global Voices Online and the China Media Project) of the incident, in which a passerby starting filming a dispute between enforcement officials and villagers opposed to waste-dumping on a site near their homes, the kind of thing that happens many times every day in China. Some thirty officials beat Wei to death and put several other bystanders in hospital.

Online reaction has been a mixture of outrage, criticism of the government (and, ominously of the Communist party) and calls for action. Take these from People’s Net (people.com.cn) for example:

“Law enforcement departments of the Communist Party have made the people lose all hope!
Is there still justice in this society? I have seen the city surveillance
team beating up people in Tianmen only recently, but I did not expect it
would become this bad. Is this what “serve the people” means? “

(“Serve the People” is the slogan written in Mao Zedong’s calligraphy that is emblazoned across the entrance to the Party’s headquarters in Beijing)

“I hope the incident can inspire our leaders at the central government to
think about the interest of the people. Life of the ordinary people has
little protection. Don’t you think it’s time to do something?”

There have also been several follow up incidents that underline the depth of popular anger and could augur more problems ahead. On Thursday, for example, thousands (some reports say as many as 10,000) of people gathered at the memorial service Wei’s family and colleagues organized for him, and over 200 local taxi drivers went on a strike, gathering in front of the Tianmen city party committee. One driver told the reporter that the large gathering at Wei’s service had made the traffic impossible. Even so, the taxi drivers pooled their money and bought six wreaths for Wei.

Wei’s wife, Zeng Junfang, meanwhile told Radio Free Asia that the government is trying to negotiate with the family for a settlement but she did not accept the terms. She wants
the murderers to be punished, and Wei be given the title of martyr. So far the only government response has been to dismiss the head of the urban enforcement squad which was responsible for Wei’s death and promise free education for his daughter.

There have already been reports that the authorities are suppressing discussion of the issue on the net, always a sigh they are concerned. It’s not even clear that Wei had any intention of posting his film on the internet, but it is a fair assumption that it would have eventually made its way into the blogosphere. Whatever his intentions, Wei is already being hailed as the first Chinese citizen reporter to die for the cause of transparency and accountability.

The Chinese web is a strange place, at once hugely constrained and chaotically free. But if there’s one area where the web’s ubiquity and utility meshes with China’s most pressing social issues, it is that of citizen reporting and the headache it gives local officials who had previously been free to rule the fiefdoms without the danger of interference from Beijing. One way or another, I believe Wei’s death will almost certainly prove an important milestone in the labored birth of civil society in China.

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