Move to prevent green protest shows uneven distribution of free speech
Civil Society | Governance and Social Policy | Law and Rights | Media
Chinese Internet authorities have ordered websites—including a Chinese language environmental NGO site operated by China Development Brief (www.greengo.cn)—to remove an open letter from twelve organisations calling for a fair trial for jailed environmental activist, Wu Lihong (吴立红).
Anomalously, the move came after China’s official media had already reported on the contents of the letter, which argued that “in order to support public confidence in the rule of law and build a harmonious society” Wu’s trial should be open to the public and based on lawfully obtained evidence.
Wu is accused of extorting money from factories by threatening to name and shame them as polluters.
Official media reports of the case have recognised Wu’s longstanding activist credentials. He “led a campaign to clean up the Taihu Lake [in the south of Jiangsu Province], which is now so polluted that water supplies had to be cut to two million people in Wuxi city in late May,” according to a June 6 report in the English language service of the official Xinhua News Agency.
“Wu was hailed as an eco-warrior for spending years and all his money to expose and report on contaminating factories. The provincial environmental administration of Jiangsu recommended Wu for national honors for his advocacy work in 2005,” the Xinhua report continues.
Activist or blackmailer?
However, in April of this year Wu was arrested by local authorities in his home city of Yixing and has since been charged with blackmail. Prosecutors claim he “extorted 55,000 yuan from enterprises by threatening to expose how they were polluting the environment,” according to Xinhua.
On June 11 The China Daily reported that “China has sacked or otherwise punished five officials [from Yixing] for dereliction of duty” in connection with the lake’s pollution, and also referred to Wu’s arrest on “a charge some say was trumped up by vengeful officials.”
The now-suppressed open letter from environmental NGOs did not allege that the charge was “trumped-up.” Rather, it urged that “all the evidence should be examined carefully, the verdict should be reached independently by the court . . . and the court should not accept any evidence that was not lawfully obtained.”
First circulated on June 5, World Environment Day, the letter also called for the trial to be open to the public and the press, arguing that otherwise “the public will be led to conclude that the judicial process is being used to take revenge to a higher level.”
Trial by Internet
Whilst there may be good reason to restrict published commentary on cases that are sub judice, no such restraint has been exercised in the ‘brick kiln slavery’ scandal that has rocked China over the last fortnight.
Public outrage at the abduction and forced labour of brick kiln workers, including many children, has been widely expressed on blogs, bulletin boards and in readers’ published comments on newspaper reports.
Many Netizen commentators have called for the kiln owners to be executed. Some have also called for the punishment of local officials who, they reason, must have known of the practice and allowed it to continue in return for bribes.
“This sort of corruption is at the very heart of everything wrong with the PRC, hurting others for personal gain. It’s time to start making examples of the truly corrupt, not just those who have turned their back on the [Communist] party,” said one reader’s post on the English language China Daily website.
From propaganda to PR
Similar views have been aired in Chinese language web debates, but the China Daily appears to be making a particularly determined effort to show a more open and interactive Chinese face to the outside world.
Posted feedback on the newspaper’s recent content appears to include forthright comment from English-speaking Chinese readers as well as some overt hostility and vitriol from overseas.
“How come Han's believe they have a superior culture, which has every to overwhelm and destroy all the cultures surrounding them?” asked one reader in response to an article on the Dalai Lama.
An article reporting that China had used “direct language” in discussing the situation in Darfur with the government of Sudan drew the response that: “You ignorant Chinese know not of what you speak or write . . . the Africans know you Chinese ALL TOO WELL. Remember just a month or two back, the PLA soldiers who were killed in a raid on a field? Look for these kinds of stories to repeat themselves.”
This comment, along with other posts on the Darfur story, have since been removed from the China Daily site.
But as Chinese media managers and working journalists wrestle with how—and how much—to modernise and open up the industry, the ban on the NGOs’ open letter shows that some parts of the Chinese establishment remain distinctly conservative on free speech issues. The order came from the Internet Monitoring Department of the Beijing Municipal Government Public Security Bureau.
An almost certainly critical factor in the decision is that the opinions expressed in the letter, although by no means confrontational, came from Chinese civil society organisations speaking with a unity that might prefigure concerted action.
The authorities likely feared a campaign to make Wu’s case a cause célèbre in the environmental NGO community, and perhaps intended through the ban to nip any action in the bud.
In March 2005, some environmental activists were preparing to attend a widely publicised court hearing in Zhejiang Province. Asia Pulp and Paper Co. Ltd. (APP) had launched a reputation infringement suit against the Zhejiang Hotels Association, which had urged members to boycott the company's products after a Greenpeace report that APP was logging illegally in Yunnan Province. In the event, APP withdrew its suit at the eleventh hour.
A dozen greens
The June 5 open letter was endorsed by Friends of Nature (自然之友), Global Village of Beijing (地球村), Green Earth Volunteers (绿家园志愿者), Brooks Environmental Education Centre (天下溪), Green Watershed (云南大江流域管理研究及推广中心), the Xinjiang Conservation Fund (新疆自然保育基金), Hebei Green Friends Association (河北绿色之音), Wild China (野性中国工作室), Civil Society Watch (守望家园), the Institute for Public and Environmental Affairs (公众与环境研究中心), Huai River Defenders (淮河卫士) and the Pingnan Green Association (屏南绿色之家).
Report by Nick Young, June 23 2007