A Guangzhou-based newspaper, the New Express [zh], published a front-page editorial statement urging the Security Bureau of Hunan Province to release their investigative reporter Chen Yongzhou who was arrested for criminal defamation. The journalist had been following a story on the allegedly shady practices of Changsha-based construction machinery company, Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Development (Zoomlion).
The headline running on the front page of New Express [zh] on October 23, 2013 is “Please release our man – our paper may be small, and our bones poor in quality, but we still have a few remaining”. The meaning of “bones” in Chinese is equivalent to “guts” or “courage” in English.
According to the newspaper, Chen only made one minor mistake among his 15 investigative reports about the management of Zoomlion for exaggerating profit, tunneling interest, deforming marketing measures and suspected fraud. He mistakenly wrote “513 million Ads fee and Entertainment fee” into “513 million Ads fee” in one of the articles. Chen has been in police custody since October 18.
As the New Express’ risky statement went viral around the Chinese Internet, Chinese authorities quickly rallied its censorship forces, and the statement was quickly removed from major web portals around noon, roughly 10 hours after its release. Around the same time, Sina Weibo, China's most popular social media platform, also started deleting critical tweets.
But durings its 10-hour life on Weibo, the newspaper's courageous move won rounds and rounds of applause. The paper's statement [zh] was republished 39,486 times in a 10-hour span on Weibo, and commented on more than 14,046 comments. Shi Biao, who worked for New Express in the past, expressed his appreciation for the newspaper:
On 23 October 2013, the front page of New Express in Guangdong entered into Chinese journalism history. It is such a moving moment. I am proud of you, old pals.
Liu Xiangnan, also a reporter, echoed:
What New Express did today will become part of China's journalism history. It is the first time a newspaper defends its own journalist on the front page. Considering the consequence that it has to bear, we have to pay tribute to New Express’ courageous move. Let's pay close attention to the development.
As the incident concerns press freedom, many online news outlets shared the statement and added supporting comments in their retweet. For example, New Information Post commented:
Continue to pay attention to New Express’ reporter Chen Yongzhou. If the corporation found the report ungrounded, they can sue the newspaper. The Changsha police should remember, your power is given by people, use it under the sun and do not abuse it.
Another news outlet on Weibo, Shanghai Radio's program Night Talk on News, wrote:
The front page statement regarding the criminal detention of Chen Yongzhou in New Express is today's focus. We pay attention to it not only because we are working in the same news sector, not because we are frustrated [by the incident]. We have to analyze the incident and ask if the police's actions are legal or not. And whether it is appropriate for a newspapers to issue the statement.
Popular TV program host Meng Fei's comment was among the first bunch of posts deleted by the Web censors. Meng wrote:
I don't know much about the incident concerning New Express and should not comment on it directly. Let me just tell you a piece of historical information that many people already know. In 1923, the Chicago Tribune was taken to federal court for an unfounded report on the bankruptcy of the local government, and the court found the newspaper not guilty because it is better not to punish an individual or newspaper's occasional inaccurate report than to create a chilling effect and make citizens worry about being punished for criticizing an incompetent and corrupted government.
Despite heavy censorship measures, microbloggers continued to discuss the news. To avoid the charge of spreading rumors, Gong Wenxiang, a businessman in e-commerce, quoted the search results from Chinese search engine Baidu to reveal the background of Zoomlion:
Today the big event is the the outrage over the arrest of New Express reporter. The reason behind [the arrest] is related with the background of the company. The father of the CEO of Zoomlion is the head of the Higher Court in Hunan province, the father-in-law was once the first secretary of the [Communist] Party committee in Hunan.
Current affairs commentator AfkmouUOS pointed out that the arrest is not an isolated incident – the Hunan police also detained human rights lawyer Tang Jitian for five days. He said the two incidents show that:
The abuse of power is excessive. It is like a blood-thirsty devil looking for its prey to fill up its huge stomach. Chinese people are so unfortunate and the only way out is resist.
Not everyone approved of New Express’ statement. Wang Shengyou, a member of the youth league of the Chinese Communist Party, criticized:
Isn't that paper using public resources for its private interest? A legal expert pointed out that the reporter's arrest should be dealt with by a lawyer. A media worker also asked, if a reporter from China Central Television got into trouble, should CCTV protest during its news cast? Won't that result in chaos?