When Jia Yu-kun becomes a magistrate in the town of Ying Tian-fu he is asked by the local usher if he has a copy of the ‘Mandarin’s Life Preserver’. Jia – a character in the classic Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber – asks what this is.
The usher replies: “Nowadays every provincial official carries a private handlist with the names of all the richest, most influential people in his area. There is one for every province. They list those families which are so powerful that if you were ever to run up against one of them unknowingly, not only your job, but perhaps even your life might be in danger. That’s why they are called ‘life preservers’.”
If vested interests all too frequently disrupted local justice in the 18th century, not much has changed in contemporary China. The only difference is that local officials are now more likely to be in cahoots with powerful companies. Just ask Qiu Ziming, a 28 year-old reporter in Zhejiang province.
Qiu published a series of investigative articles about Zhejiang Kan Group, a company that makes specialty paper and (like so many other Chinese firms) dabbles in property development. He alleged that fraud had occurred at company headquarters. But he soon discovered that Zhejiang Kan had powerful friends: at the end of last month the county’s Public Security Bureau issued a warrant for his arrest.
Luckily for Qiu he was tipped off, and went into hiding. But the news quickly got onto the internet and the story became a sensation, with Qiu’s name becoming one of the most searched terms online. His employer, the Economic Observer, released a statement: “We are deeply shocked at the warrant for Qiu’s arrest due to his reports on the Zhejiang Kan Group. We condemn those who attempt to use the power of the government to suppress public opinion and threaten the safety of news workers.”
The much-publicised case has prompted media discussion about the unhealthy nexus that often exists between local officials and large companies (see WiC65, The New Gang of Four). Many suspect that close ties between companies and officials inevitably lead to abuses of power.
That was certainly the case here. Xu Xun, a legal adviser and media activist told Caixin that the “government’s authority was misused in favour of a private company’s interest.”
In response to the outcry, Lishui Public Security Bureau was ordered to investigate and found that the criminal detention order did not meet legal requirements. Within 24 hours it was revoked and the heads of the offending county’s propaganda and public security bureaus were flown to Beijing to apologise to the Economic Observer and to Qiu.
On this occasion, at least, justice looks to have prevailed…
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