A Reporter Visits Weng'an

(yWeekend)  Weng'an Officials Provide "Full Company" At Interviews.  By Ma Jun.  July 17, 2008.

[in translation]

The 'unusual death' of a girl in Weng'an county (Guizhou province) led to a mass incident in which county government buildings were attacked, vandalized and set on fire.  Had the government been open about information, would the incident have occurred?  The China News Weekly reporter Wang Weibo went to Weng'an to investigate and found the following during his ten days or so of work there:

If the reporter does not register with the local authorities, he does not get cooperation; the family members of the deceased are provided "full company" by local officials during interviews; the 'bulletins' provided to the reporter are deliberately filtered; more than a dozen local teachers have been organized to comment and guide opinion on the Internet ...

"But it was an improvement to observe that the local officials are reflecting on the issue of information openness," said Wang Weibo to yWeekend.

On the evening of July 3, I arrived in Weng'an.  On the next day, the county party secretary and mayor were removed from their posts.

At about two to three kilometers from Weng'an county, there is a toll booth on the main road to Weng'an county city.  Inside, there is a notice in red with the big letters: "Welcome Chinese and foreign media reporters to come and gather news."  The reception and mobile telephone numbers were listed underneath.

But we did not dial those contact numbers.  Based upon our previous practice in investigative journalism, we entered the city and set out to find the principals directly.

On the streets of Weng'an, there were patrols wearing red armbands.  At the major street intersections, armed policemen stood guard.  There were banners everywhere that said: "Thank you for your hard work, media reporter friends!"  These banners sounded very warm and friendly, showing a certain posture by the local authorities.

But when we wanted to interview people, we had to produce a special press pass.  This pass is issued by the 6.28 Incident Management Team.  When a reporter applies with the team, he receives a special press pass.  Without this pass, many people (especially officials) will refuse to be interviewed.

At first, we did not go through this process.  Without the pass, we ran into many obstacles during our interviewing.  We arrived at Yuhua town where the family of the deceased lived, and the local cadres questioned and blocked us repeatedly.  Our press cards issued by the General Administration of Press and Publications were not good enough.  At the home of the deceased Li Shufen, the reporter encountered the people from the county publicity department.  We reasoned with them for a long while before they reluctantly permitted the family members to be interviewed.

The next day, we went back to the county city and got our press passes.  This press pass gave us some guarantees.  But it also allowed the authorities to keep track of whom we were interviewing and what we were asking about.

Generally speaking, the government has been open about media coverage from the start of the incident to now.  As long as we had our press pass, they did not directly stop us.  But on July 3 and 4 when the reporters interviewed the parents and elder brother of the deceased, the local officials were present.  Town cadres and county publicity department workers were present the whole time.

It would seem that the family members did not want to say too much.  Some reporters would try to get a family member to go on the side and have a private chat for a few minutes and maybe get something new.  Otherwise, the family members repeated the information that has already been provided at the press conferences.

The final version of the facts is completely different from the original Internet rumors.  Of course, there are still some doubts that are still unknown, such as the motive for the girl to commit suicide and so on.  But basically, the possibility of murder, rape, and other Internet rumors have been excluded.  This is actually favorable to the government.  Such being the case, then why won't they let the reporters gather information freely?

I think that this situation is understandable.  The local officials are hoping to do their work well to get the media publish positive reports.  So they will necessarily try to manage the process.  That is to say, they would not interfere with the interviews but they still wanted to put the reporters under control if possible.

They wanted even more for the reporters to help them dispel the rumors and calm people down.  But when there are large numbers of media from the outside whose contents are beyond their control, they can only control the interviewing process.

Actually, this is still the same traditional way of thinking.

The interviews with the three principals who were at the scene was a joint interview with various media organizations.  Of course, they were accompanied by local officials.

The three principals said the same things that were already said at the press conferences.

We are a group of three reporters and we took different directions in our stories.  I was covering the angle of the responses by government officials during this affair.

The handling of the 6.28 incident was probably inappropriate based upon the outcome.  The situation went out of control.  Therefore, the local officials were being evasive and did not want to say much.

On July 5, I asked to interview the county leaders in order to understand the details of how they dealt with the situation on June 28.  I hoped to interview Xiao Song who was at the scene of the disturbance.  He was the county vice-mayor in charge of petitions and public security.

The Information and Publicity Office people told me to go and get the bulletins at the incident emergency command center.  These bulletins were issued on a daily basis and they documented the government's emergency responses.

The command center was located at another site.  When I got there, I was turned back because they said that the bulletins were also available at the Information and Publicity Office.  So I went back to the Information and Publicity Office and one of their directors was decent enough to run over to the command center in the rain and got me the bulletins.  But there were only three bulletins.

Actually, more than a dozen bulletins had been published already.  The three bulletins that they gave me was principally about how they had finished their propaganda work and other items that showcased their achievements.  But I wanted above all to read the bulletins between the critical days of June 28 to June 30.  Those were absent.

Without doubt, they had "filtered" the bulletins to be given to me.

"Why won't you provide me with all the bulletins?  You filed these bulletins for your superiors to read, and they should also be released to the media."  I raised this question right there.  They replied that the bulletins involved certain secret matters such as the movements of the armed police.  As such, it was inappropriate to release the information to the press.

This explanation may seem alright, but it couldn't be the case that all of the other bulletins were about the movements of the armed police?

I argued back and forth, but I never got the bulletins that I wanted.

This chunk was a key missing part of my report.  Afterwards, I could only go through many interviews, including government officials who wanted to stay anonymous and certain citizens (who had taken videos at the scene) before I could reconstruct how the government officials reacted and coped during the 7 hours of the afternoon of June 28.

Previously, there are many taboos and customs in covering similar mass incidents.  But this time, there were many breakthroughs.

In less than one hour after the incident, netizens were posting videos and photos on the Internet.  On the evening of June 28, 'roadside rumors' began to circulate on the blogs and forums.  Not only were the local police accused of injustice, but the rumors also said that the police had beaten an uncle of the deceased to death.

These stories drew innumerable angry comments.  At the Tianya and Strong Nation forums, the relevant posts soared to the top.  These stories contain the ingredients that rile the Chinese people the most: official corruption, rape-murder, police inaction, etc.

The Internet action created a different kind of worry for the local officials.  They organized to counterattack.  Although they were reacting passively, they nevertheless achieved decent results.

Certain posts that counterattacked the rumors began to appear on the Internet.  These posts came mostly from the "Group for policy discussion and law publicity" in Weng'an county.  More than a dozen teachers who were familiar with the Internet were selected and transferred from the county schools and they acted systematically and purposefully to dispel rumors and calm people down with comments on the Internet.

The leader of this publicity team is the Guizhou provincial party committee publicity department deputy director Zhou Xiaoyun.  According to the presentation of a local official, the principal mission of this publicity team is to organize personnel to make Internet comments, "and use the Guizhou media to affect national opinion."  Since the government website office was destroyed by arson, the workers worked on the second floor of the Telecom Building.  The dozen or so workers from the relevant county departments and schools worked daily to collect information and followed up with comments on inaccurate information.

An official with the emergency handling command center also explained, "Apart from Weng'an county, all other counties and cities in the Southern Guizhou Prefecture assigned 5 Internet commentators each.  Each day, they consulted the Xinhua news reports and other recently published information, and then they use a variety of flexible methods to guide Internet discussion."

Obviously, the local government has begun to study news tactics.  These methods are much more effective than what they used to do.

Of course, they were doing different things on and off the Internet too.

Off the Internet, they were mainly guiding and restricting the traditional media.  This close monitoring of the traditional media gives the sense of a pro-active technique.

On July 29, the 6.28 incident emergency response command center was established.  The aforementioned "Group for discussion and law publicity" was one of eight work groups within the center.  They also have an incident investigation team, a persuasion/guidance team and so on.

On the morning of July 29, Xinhua published the report titled <An incident of assault, vandalism and arson occurred in Weng'an county, Guizhou province>.  By comparison to the historical record, this type of incident is usually reported several days afterwards.  Afterwards, the Guizhou provincial and Southern Guizhou Prefecture media began their reporting on the incident.

The government began its work to dispel the rumors on the fourth day after the incident occurred.  On July 1, the Guizhou provincial government information office, the Guizhou provincial public security bureau and other departments held a press conference in Guiyang concerning "the major incident of assault, vandalism and arson on June 28 in Weng'an."  They made the following clarifications: (1) the evidence showed that the girl had died by drowning and was not raped/murdered; (2) the county party secretary Wang Qin is from the local area and he has no relatives in the Weng'an area; etc.

An analysis showed that from June 30 and July 3, the reporting on the case (including the interviewing by the militia police, family members and the three principals on the scene) was controlled by the Guizhou media.  Outside media could not make any breakthrough mainly because they could not find anyone to interview.

Afterwards, the local government arranged several interviews of the principals by outside media for publicity reasons.

During the interviewing process, we observed certain improvements.  But this is still far away from genuine openness of government information.  With respect to channel availability and timing for information openness, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Openness of government information means genuine openness, but the local officials still have an antiquated idea about propaganda and they want to control the media.  I interviewed one government officials and he kept using words such as "monitoring," "controlling" and "blocking."  These terms clearly exhibited an old style of thinking.

If they had started out with open information, what happened later need not have occurred.

Between June 22 and June 28 (from the death of Li Shufen to the presence of thousands in the streets), the government was basically silent.  I spoke with local government officials, and they admitted that the government stayed silent because it had no awareness about the need of openness of government information.  They also did not have the kind of communication means.  It may be said that the system of information openness has not been effectively built at the time.

In today's interview (July 14), I spoke with a director at the Weng'an county emergency response office.  They had also reflected and summarized this experience.

They were confounded by one problem: For the government, information openness often implied an openness that is authoritative and accurate; for the public, information openness should be as transparent and clear as possible.

For an emergency incident, there always needs to be an investigative process.  This implies an conflict between information openness and timeliness.  How to resolve the conflict?

For this director, he thinks that they should let the people hear the government's voice in the first instant, even if this voice does not contain an authoritative explanation yet.

But the voice in the first instant can at least show the attitude of the government and give a promise to the people.  When the masses hear this voice, they know that the government is going to ignore this matter.  This is the way to calm people down.