As Grip of Censors Endures in China, A Satirical Poem Leads to Jail Time

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By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 8, 2007

PENGSHUI, China -- All his life, Qin Zhongfei has been an ardent reader, a lover of literature and an amateur poet. But the drama he lived in this little mountain town, Qin said, has taught him that putting his thoughts into verse can be dangerous in China.

"I used to write poetry all the time, but I haven't written any lately," he said with a wan smile, repeatedly wringing his hands and wiping his high forehead during a recent interview. "This was a huge disaster."

Qin, 31, spent a month in jail on criminal charges because of a poem he wrote satirizing local officials accused of corruption. He was released only after several out-of-town newspaper articles related his fate and the central government in Beijing stepped in to halt the prosecution.

What happened to Qin, a mild bureaucrat in the county education department, was by any measure an abuse of power by local authorities here in the remote and wooded hills of central China. But more broadly, it was a vivid reminder of the Communist Party's enduring determination to control information and opinion among China's 1.3 billion people.

Since the party took power in 1949 under Mao Zedong, it has maintained tight censorship over radio, television, newspapers, movies, fine arts and books, carefully selecting what Chinese are allowed to know and enjoy. Human expression, it has decreed, must follow the party's lead.

But as China has opened to the world -- and as the use of cellphones and the Internet has become more common -- the censors' mission has become more difficult.

Still, controls persist. To carry out official policy, censors ban coverage of certain stories -- Qin's was censored from television -- and force the party organ, People's Daily, to fax over the front page every night for approval. Roomfuls of technicians have been enlisted to monitor millions of computers and cut off Web sites the party judges to be dangerous to its monopoly on power or unhealthy for the morals of young Chinese.

President Hu Jintao's ascension to power more than three years ago generated hopes that information controls would loosen as part of the economic opening he has championed. But they have tightened instead. Several prominent editors have been fired over the past two years -- the most recent one last month -- for straining at censors' guidelines. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 30 Chinese journalists are in prison for what they wrote.

A 10-Minute Lark

Weighty matters such as freedom of expression were far from Qin's mind on a stifling hot Aug. 15 when he arose from an after-lunch nap on the faux leather gray couch in his office. The cellphone lying on his desk had just signaled the arrival of a message, he said, so he stepped over to take a look.

It was a friend making fun of the local leadership, which was embroiled in several corruption scandals. The Communist Party secretary, Ma Ping, had already come under investigation and been transferred out. The county administrator and the new party secretary were being scrutinized by a team of party inspectors sent from Chongqing, the provincial capital about 200 miles to the west.

The inspectors, it seemed, had their work cut out for them. The half-finished Rainbow Bridge arced over the Wu River but never reached the other side. A lot of money was appropriated for the new Baiyun Middle School, but somehow construction never started. The Tiger's Mouth hotel, with a view over the dramatic Wu River gorge, was an incomplete shell with no sign it would ever be completed.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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