By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
BEIJING, Jan. 8 -- Government officials from a county in northeastern China's Liaoning province were not pleased by a magazine story criticizing their local Communist Party leader. So they traveled nearly 500 miles to Beijing seeking to arrest the author.
On Tuesday, as word of the case filtered out, it prompted national attention, with the news media crying foul and many other Chinese using the Internet to voice their displeasure.
Editorials in the Beijing press said the officials, from Xifeng county, had abused their power. Even the party's official propaganda organ, People's Daily, ran a signed editorial suggesting that the way to deal with libel accusations is to go to court rather than use heavy-handed "administrative power."
The attempt to arrest the reporter was an uncomfortable reminder of the degree to which local Communist Party officials and their police, in the absence of an independent judicial system, routinely exercise power without legal restraints. But the outcry from editorialists and online commentators also showed that the Chinese public's willingness to accept such untrammeled power may be diminishing.
Public expectations in this regard have been heightened recently by repeated pledges from President Hu Jintao to make the party more honest and responsive to people's needs.
"I have always wondered what makes these cadres, even though they are educated and trained by the party for so many years, fail to perform normally, ignoring their superiors and arrogantly challenging the central media," wrote an Internet user who said he was a professor at the China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing. "Where does their confidence and strength come from? It shows a lack of democracy and rule of law at the grass-roots level."
The controversy began when a Xifeng gasoline station owner, Zhao Junping, accused the county government of failing to pay her adequate compensation when it expropriated and tore down one of her stations in 2006 to make way for a new trading center. Reinforcing her complaint, she sent her friends a number of cellphone messages satirizing the local party secretary, Zhang Zhiguo, for refusing to give in to her demands for more money.
Zhao also traveled to Beijing last year to petition the national government for redress. But Xifeng county police followed her to the capital and took her back, eventually jailing her and putting her on trial in a local court for tax-dodging and libel. She has been behind bars for about nine months, her case still unresolved.
The dispute caught the attention of Zhu Wenna, editorial director of the monthly magazine Faren in Beijing, and she wrote a story about it in the Jan. 1 issue. Three days later, colleagues reported, the Xifeng propaganda director and law committee director showed up in her Beijing office with a document accusing her of inaccuracies about Zhang, the party secretary.
Zhu refused to entertain their complaint. But they returned in the afternoon, her colleagues said, this time accompanied by three Xifeng police officers and armed with an arrest warrant from the Xifeng Public Security Bureau accusing her of libel, which in China can be a criminal as well as a civil offense.
Zhu, meanwhile, had disappeared, and her editor, Wang Fengbin, refused to reveal her whereabouts.
Party leader Zhang, contacted by the Beijing newspaper Xinjing Bao, said he had not issued orders to the Xifeng police to arrest Zhu and had no idea how they came to travel to Beijing. The official New China News Agency later reported that the investigation against Zhu had been called off. But the pullback did nothing to assuage online critics.
"This incident shows fully the defects of our society, in which power is not effectively checked and local so-called judiciaries are actually the tools of local officials," said one of Tuesday's 30,000-plus Internet commentators. "What's the difference with the feudal emperors?"