As Grip of Censors Endures in China, A Satirical Poem Leads to Jail Time
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 8, 2007; Page A01
PENGSHUI, China -- All his life, Qin Zhongfei has been an ardent reader, a lover of literature and an amateur poet. But the drama he lived in this little mountain town, Qin said, has taught him that putting his thoughts into verse can be dangerous in China.
"I used to write poetry all the time, but I haven't written any lately," he said with a wan smile, repeatedly wringing his hands and wiping his high forehead during a recent interview. "This was a huge disaster."
Qin, 31, spent a month in jail on criminal charges because of a poem he wrote satirizing local officials accused of corruption. He was released only after several out-of-town newspaper articles related his fate and the central government in Beijing stepped in to halt the prosecution.
What happened to Qin, a mild bureaucrat in the county education department, was by any measure an abuse of power by local authorities here in the remote and wooded hills of central China. But more broadly, it was a vivid reminder of the Communist Party's enduring determination to control information and opinion among China's 1.3 billion people.
Since the party took power in 1949 under Mao Zedong, it has maintained tight censorship over radio, television, newspapers, movies, fine arts and books, carefully selecting what Chinese are allowed to know and enjoy. Human expression, it has decreed, must follow the party's lead.
But as China has opened to the world -- and as the use of cellphones and the Internet has become more common -- the censors' mission has become more difficult.
Still, controls persist. To carry out official policy, censors ban coverage of certain stories -- Qin's was censored from television -- and force the party organ, People's Daily, to fax over the front page every night for approval. Roomfuls of technicians have been enlisted to monitor millions of computers and cut off Web sites the party judges to be dangerous to its monopoly on power or unhealthy for the morals of young Chinese.
President Hu Jintao's ascension to power more than three years ago generated hopes that information controls would loosen as part of the economic opening he has championed. But they have tightened instead. Several prominent editors have been fired over the past two years -- the most recent one last month -- for straining at censors' guidelines. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 30 Chinese journalists are in prison for what they wrote.
A 10-Minute Lark
Weighty matters such as freedom of expression were far from Qin's mind on a stifling hot Aug. 15 when he arose from an after-lunch nap on the faux leather gray couch in his office. The cellphone lying on his desk had just signaled the arrival of a message, he said, so he stepped over to take a look.
It was a friend making fun of the local leadership, which was embroiled in several corruption scandals. The Communist Party secretary, Ma Ping, had already come under investigation and been transferred out. The county administrator and the new party secretary were being scrutinized by a team of party inspectors sent from Chongqing, the provincial capital about 200 miles to the west.
The inspectors, it seemed, had their work cut out for them. The half-finished Rainbow Bridge arced over the Wu River but never reached the other side. A lot of money was appropriated for the new Baiyun Middle School, but somehow construction never started. The Tiger's Mouth hotel, with a view over the dramatic Wu River gorge, was an incomplete shell with no sign it would ever be completed.
So to while away the afternoon, Qin took his friend's comments and turned them into a satirical poem, full of puns and comical allusions. "The horse has run far away," it began, making a pun on Ma's departure as secretary and the fact that his family name can mean "horse." Zhou Wei, the county administrator, was singled out for his name's similarity to the Chinese word for Viagra. Lan Qinghua, the new secretary, also got roasted with a pun that turned his name into "incompetent and gutless."
"Look at Pengshui County today," the poem went on. "It's full of foul air and conflicts between officials and the public cannot be halted."
Qin's friends acknowledged that the verse was not great literature. The young bureaucrat had always displayed literary ambitions that may have been greater than his talent, they joked.
Qin himself described the composition as more of a lark than serious poetry. "It only took 10 minutes," he said. "I didn't think it would be such a big deal."
But then Qin did something that would turn it into a big deal. He transmitted the poem to the cellphones of a half-dozen friends. They in turn transmitted it to their friends, in a widening circle. Eventually it ended up in the cellphone of Zhang Fu'An, chairman of Pengshui County's local People's Congress. Outraged, he took it to the county administrator, who was equally upset and asked the Public Security Bureau to identify the author.
The security sleuths interrogated Qin's friends and backtracked cellphone messages for two weeks, eventually tracing the offensive poem to Qin. At about 5 p.m. Aug. 31, two policemen stepped into Qin's office on the sixth floor of the county Education Committee building and confronted the poet.
Qin, his black hair carefully combed down and his wire-rim glasses in place as always, at first denied he was the author, according to Li Xingchen, a Chongqing journalist who investigated the case. The two police officers left to check with their superiors, Li said, but returned within 10 minutes.
"We know it's you," they said, and Qin confessed.
'Modern-Day Word Crime'
The policemen hauled Qin to the station to be interrogated. By the next day, he was detained on suspicion of criminal libel, which carries a penalty of up to three years in prison. His wife, Chen Qiong, was advised to get him an attorney. The office of the procurator filed formal charges Sept. 11, and Qin's office, cellphone and computer were searched for incriminating evidence.
The case, meanwhile, had struck a journalistic nerve with Li. He wrote an article for a blog denouncing Qin's treatment as "a modern-day word crime," harking back to a much-ridiculed Qing dynasty practice of jailing writers who tripped over the intricate Mandarin language of the time.
The historical reference caught people's fancy across the country. Internet comment flourished.
A Hong Kong newspaper, not subject to the mainland's censorship rules, published the first article. Then mainland newspapers took up the dare; several carried their own accounts.
Eventually, even a Web site run by the official People's Daily allowed someone to post an article.
"The thing got bigger and bigger," recalled Li, a writer for a Chongqing real estate magazine who has resolved for 2007 to write a book on his ideas for improving China.
In Chongqing, the provincial capital that administers Pengshui, authorities were becoming increasingly embarrassed. The Chongqing Propaganda Department ordered an investigation and, true to its mission, banned broadcast stations and newspapers in the Chongqing area from reporting on the fuss.
But the leaders of Pengshui were not to be deterred. The Propaganda Department refused to explain its determination to prosecute Qin, although Meng Dehua, a deputy party secretary, had earlier told reporters the poem could demoralize county workers if its author went unpunished.
So the Public Security Bureau went to the People's Court here in the county seat Sept. 27 and asked for a quick conviction. The judge responded that there was no case. So the Public Security Bureau appealed to the No. 4 Intermediate Court in Chongqing. It got the same response: No case.
Twice frustrated, police offered to release Qin on bail but without dropping the charges. On his attorney's advice, Qin at first refused, demanding to be tried or exonerated. But eventually, he agreed to be released under the guarantee of a local middle school principal and distant relative.
On Sept. 30, he walked out of jail and into the spotlight's glare.
By then, several Chinese newspapers and magazines with a national readership had weighed in with lengthy reports after visiting Pengshui. Even a magazine sponsored by the official New China News Agency had a story.
"You have become a famous international criminal," a co-worker joked to Qin.
Distressed by the furor, local police notified Qin that he should again get an attorney, implying that the case was still alive and that he could be arrested again if the reporters kept coming.
For his part, Qin, shaken by his time in jail, was trying without much success to resume his life as a quiet bureaucrat and father of a 5-year-old boy.
By the middle of October, according to a source in Chongqing, the central government sent an order to the Chongqing Communist Party secretariat saying the Pengshui problem should be fixed, and right away. Backing up the order, the party's Central Discipline Inspection Commission sent a team to Pengshui to look into the matter.
Feeling the heat, authorities informed Qin on Oct. 23 that the charges had been dropped and told him he could apply for compensation for the time he spent behind bars. The compensation, about $280, was handed over even before Qin had time to apply for it.
"It's impossible for someone who has experienced such a big thing, something that affected my life and work so much -- after that, it's impossible not to have feelings about this," Qin said, wearing a brown striped suit along with a blue plaid shirt and matching tie to receive a foreign journalist.
"But I just don't want to go into it," he added. "The thing is, I think, really, I wish you would go to the Propaganda Department and ask them. I hope you understand my problem."