China Puts Journalist On Trial

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 20, 2006

FUZHOU, China, Jan. 19 -- A veteran Fuzhou journalist stood trial Thursday in the final step in a retaliation campaign launched after a Communist Party official gained national fame by publicly denouncing his superiors for condoning and covering up corruption.

The case, in southern Fujian province on the Taiwan Strait, opened a window on an important but infrequently discussed aspect of China's national problem with corruption: So many officials have become involved in business during 25 years of economic liberalization, according to the Fujian whistle-blower and other analysts, that bribery, rather than being an individual deviation, has become characteristic of the party's rule in thousands of Chinese cities and towns.

The accusations set off a nationwide discussion not because they revealed corruption -- most Chinese take that for granted -- but because they came from within a party hierarchy whose under-the-table dealings are usually kept secret. And in the aftermath, the lengths to which Communist leaders in Fuzhou have gone to punish and discredit their accusers showed how highly the party values discipline and solidarity in the ranks.

The ostensible charge in Thursday's trial of Li Changqing, who worked as a reporter for the official Fuzhou Daily, was "fabricating and spreading false terroristic information" by reporting on an outbreak of dengue fever without official permission to do so. But the real problem, according to Li, his family, his colleagues and his attorneys, was his support of Huang Jingao, the whistle-blowing party secretary of suburban Lianjiang county.

Li told the three-judge court that during more than a year of detention, which he said included torture, his interrogators never asked him about the crime he was charged with. Their questions, he said, centered on articles Li wrote and published on various Web sites endorsing Huang and his accusations of corruption.

"From the beginning, the only thing they wanted was to punish Li for writing so many articles in favor of Huang," Li's Beijing-based attorney, Mo Shaoping, said in an interview.

In August 2004, Huang wrote a now-famous open letter saying that his efforts to root out bribery had been stymied by a fraternity of corruption in which functionaries on the take protected one another from scrutiny. The extraordinary statement, posted on the Web site of the party's official People's Daily, was an immediate sensation. Chinese discussed it on the bus and at lunch, exulting over Huang's integrity. Editorial writers in the government-controlled press hailed its airing as a sign of progress in a country known for covering up its problems.

But Huang's fame was short-lived. The letter was taken down by party censors a few days later. Further press comment was banned. Then Huang was called in by party leaders here in Fuzhou and ordered to "do a complete self-examination." They issued a statement that accused him of "individualism" that helped "hostile foreign elements" and "Taiwan separatism."

That was the opening shot in what turned out to be a crushing retaliation by party leaders in Fujian province and Fuzhou, the provincial capital about 400 miles south of Shanghai. Within three months, Huang was dismissed as Lianjiang party chief and placed under house arrest pending an investigation.

Last August, he was formally charged with 50 counts of corruption in which he allegedly collected more than $700,000. A dozen others, including Li, were charged in connection with the case. Huang was sentenced to life in prison last November.

The other part of the campaign was to blacken Huang's reputation and those of people around him, including Li. Articles began appearing in a Hong Kong newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, asserting that Huang had been corrupt all along and issued his statement as a way to divert attention from his own crimes. The bribery was necessary, the articles said, because Huang, 54, juggled a half-dozen mistresses and kept them in various love nests around Fuzhou, sometimes visiting several in one afternoon.

One of the mistresses, Ta Kung Pao said, was Li's wife, Bao Dingling.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company