Society

Keeping quiet

Whistleblowing is still a dangerous choice in China

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For 16 years the body of Deng Shiping lay buried beneath the running track of a Hunan school. Repeated attempts by his family to get the authorities to dig up the site failed.

Without a body they could not prove that Deng, who worked at the school, had been murdered for attempting to expose the shoddy construction of the new sports facilities. So they waited in the hope that something would change, and they would get justice.

That change came this year when the national government launched a crackdown on “criminal gangs” (see WiC 455). The family wrote a letter to the central inspection team accusing the local authorities of a cover-up. Two months later police exhumed Deng’s body at the exact spot his family had always pointed to.

The police then arrested Du Shaoping, the builder accused by Deng of sub-standard work (who had come to their attention too for his triad activities), and Huang Bingsong, Du’s uncle and the principal at the school.

Huang is said to have awarded his nephew an inflated payout for upgrading the running track and then used his wife’s connections in the local government to prevent an investigation of Deng’s murder.

As readers of WiC will know, the latest focus of President Xi Jinping’s long-running anti-corruption campaign is so-called “protective umbrellas”— people who use their positions in government to run or abet criminal activities (see WiC 455). Yet the Deng’s case highlights another issue – how to keep whistleblowers safe.

It is a problem that goes to the heart of the Chinese system. In the past it was a dangerous gamble to report misconduct, especially in the jurisdiction where the wrongdoing was happening. Whistleblowing was a risky business – retaliation against the informant, not investigation into the wrongdoer, was often the more likely outcome.

The problem was even more pronounced if the allegations involved local government officials. But in recent years, however, the central government has tried to make it easier for people to come forward by setting up hotlines, websites and social media accounts to report illegal behaviour.

There is one for food safety, one for transgressions involving pollution rules, another for tip-offs on corrupt Party members, and another for gang-related crime. The environmental tip-off system – run by the ministry of ecology and environment – now gets over 600,000 reports from members of the public a year, a fifth of which come to a registered WeChat account.

The anti-gang reporting channel set up by the Public Security Bureau last year received 190,000 complaints, and the State Prosecutors office offers a reward system where informants can receive up to Rmb500,000 ($72,700) for information that leads to a prosecution.

According to Chinese law, whistleblowers should be protected after they come forward and their identities should be kept private. However, experts say the theory and the practice don’t often match up – making it risky for people lodge reports. Last year a man from Henan province was sentenced to 17 months in prison for “disturbing market order” after he pointed out that three local factories were illegally producing a chemical dye and burying the waste underground. Similarly a man from Hunan was given four years in prison for “violating the privacy” of four local judges after he reported them to the police for gambling and having mistresses. They were disciplined for their conduct but the informer got the harsher sentence.

“Our country’s laws still have blind spots. The provisions for protecting whistleblowers are too general… they do not provide for specific protection measures that whistleblowers should take, what procedures should be performed, and what effects should be achieved,” the Prosecutor’s Daily quoted a Tsinghua law professor as saying last year. n


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