What It Means to be a Polluting Company that Has Lost Its Powerful Patron

When China’s former “Security Tsar”, Zhou Yongkang, went on trial days ago, I was intently watching the development of another story, the pollution caused by a lead and zinc mine in southwestern China’s Yunnan province that intoxicated an entire village’s children.

The two stories are only remotely connected, on the surface. The mine belongs to a company once controlled by Liu Han, the billionaire whose expansive business empire stretched from real estates to electricity and mining. In 2013, Liu and his brother were charged with 15 accounts of crimes ranging from murder to leading “mafia-type organizations”. They were sentenced to death and were both executed months later. Their rise and fall coincided with the political tides of Szechuan province, the southwestern power base of Zhou Yongkang and his son, Zhou Bin. By pleasing Zhou Bin, the Liu brothers secured their much needed political protection from Zhou Yongkang and his numerous protégés who occupied commanding positions in the top echelon of the Szechuan provincial leadership. The ultimate collapse of that entire layer of protection under the unbearable weight of the anti-corruption campaign of the Xi administration in the end exposed the Lius to fatal radiations of a super nova, costing them their lives.

In a country saturated by pollution stories and depressing accounts of their hapless victims, another one that involves the usual suspect of a major mining company and a small, helpless village could easily have been ignored. But this time, the intriguing alchemy of corruption and the environment produced something slightly different with a unique potency that had not been seen before in the environmental field.

A veteran reporter of contemporary Chinese politics once noted that the extent to which damaging stories about a powerful person can spread in China’s public sphere had become a precise indicator of that person’s political fate. In other words, China’s censors, hiding inside an opaque web of information control machineries, collectively constitute a much faster and more sensitive “nerve system” that signals a person’s political fortune than the country’s judges, prosecutors or disciplinary bodies. Too often, the first crack of business empires, stellar reputations and solid political backing that once seem unshakable emerges when negative stories appear in the media uncensored. Failure to mobilize the country’s censors indicates one’s vulnerability and exposure (but of course this only applies to those who are SUPPOSED to be able to do that).

The Yunnan story vividly illustrates that vulnerability. The first wave of media reports treated it more or less as a regular pollution story, with bland titles that says “Asia’s largest lead and zinc mine causes pollution”. But more discerning outlets, such as the politically weathered Caijing Magazine, quickly jumped on the juicier elements: ownership of that mine and its historical ties with an entire group of fallen heavyweights (including Liu Han and former Yunnan provincial chief Bai Enpei). If it had been two years earlier, the story would have probably been killed right on the spot. But with censors no longer standby to guard those interests, the story travelled unabated. What followed resembles the daily “circle of life” on the African savanna. After the big carnivores such as Caijing had first spotted and feasted on the game, China’s website editors gathered en masse to finish off the carcass. Accustomed to playing the game of Catch Me If You Can with the censors, they won’t let go of any opportunities to maximize the viewership of their news posts, sometimes determined by time windows as short as several minutes. And to do that they have developed an acute sense for vulnerability. Not long after the Caijing story appeared, website editors quietly “retrofitted” the titles of the original stories to harness the sexier corruption angles, entertaining with wordings such as “ex-mafia-head” which drew more attention. The censors once again turned a blind eye to these changes.

Left entirely on its own, the company resorted to pathetic tricks that were often used by those of much more modest backgrounds: key word contamination. Just one day after the news broke in the Chinese media, a dubious piece of article started to emerge on numerous news organizations’ official websites that contained the exactly same key words as news reports from the previous day: “Asia’s largest lead and zinc mine,” “pollution”, and the company’s own name. Yet the actual content of the article was pure corporate PR, praising the company for its environmental efforts. It took advantage of sections of the news organizations’ websites that were on sale for such materials and camouflaged itself as a genuine news item. As a result, search engines such as Google and Baidu were tricked to pick it up as news, “diluting” the pool of information that contained the actual negative coverage.

In a weird way, the fall from power and privilege manifests itself in terms of “exposure containing methods”. No longer enjoying the “free” service of diligent state censors, those “orphaned” polluting companies are thrown into the “market” where they have to buy their way out of their own PR mess.

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