In search of Tang Lanlan

Tang Lanlan

Almost ten years ago, in a remote part of northeast China bordering Russia in Heilongjiang province, something like an earthquake shook a small village of only 280 residents. On Oct 28, 2008, police raided the village and arrested 16 villagers. The charges were stunning and deeply disturbing. The arrested, most of them related to each other, were accused of sexually abusing, raping and gang raping a little girl called Tang Lanlan (pseudonym) for 8 years beginning when she was only 6. These people included her own father, grandfather, uncles and mother (for openly pimping her to other males in the village). Someone who read the court’s verdict on the case later told a reporter that the whole thing “read like porno fiction”.

By January 2018, a few of the convicts had served their jail sentences. The girl’s grandfather had died after being placed in custody. Now some of them, including her mother, are seeking redress for a crime they say they did not commit.

On Jan 30, the Shanghai-based online news outlet, the Paper, published a story titled “Finding Tang Lanlan“. The report followed Tang’s mother, Wan Xiuling, as she embarked on a journey to try to locate her daughter and “seek justice” for herself and her fellow family members. It highlighted the incongruities in the case, including two conflicting abortion records from the same hospital issued on the same day and the mutually contradictory testimonies of Tang and her “step-mother”, the owner of a private student dormitory and the girl’s de-facto custodian while she was at a junior high school far from home. The latter had helped her report the case to the local police but offered various versions of when she actually learned of Tang’s story. The Paper‘s report at the end focused on the supposed “mystery” of Tang’s disappearance. Official records showed that she had moved out of her parents’ household, to a different city.

But should Ms. Wan be able to find her daughter Tang Lanlan?

Many people reading the Paper‘s report were at once appalled and confused. By leaning heavily on Wan’s side of the story, the journalist did not address readers’ understandable puzzlement about why so many villagers were locked up by the police if, as Wan claimed, the whole thing was either a fabrication or a horrible misunderstanding. On what basis would the local police, the prosecution and the court trust the words of a poor 14-year-old girl if without any evidence? The report posed the question, but failed to point to alternative explanations for the shocking allegations.

Most observers of the Chinese media would admit that the report was flawed. It readily adopted the point of view of a convicted criminal without balancing it with other perspectives from the victim or the prosecution. Some critics pointed out that editors at the Paper might have been too excited about the sensationalism of the story to uphold basic journalistic standards. They bought too much into Wan’s narrative without considering the general “humanitarian environment of social media” today: netizens tend to sympathize with victims, especially in cases of sexual assaults.

More sympathetic voices probably would argue that in the current media environment of China, insisting on having the other side of the story, especially if the other side was the authorities, would be asking too much of a news organization. The investigation could easily get stonewalled, or worse, censored before it hit newsstands (or phone screens) if “the other side” felt questioned and threatened by potential media exposure. As if to prove the validity of this argument, a Southern Weekly report on the same case played out in this way (report was deleted). Unlike his peers at the Paper, the Southern Weekly reporter did a thorough job of interviewing Tang’s step-parents and sources inside local law enforcement. The article depicted a more rounded picture of the case, including new details such as torturing allegations against the police and what looked like Tang’s attempt to extort money from her aunt. But the piece was killed before the newspaper went to print, probably for shining an unfavorable spotlight on the local prosecution. The journalist had to post it on his own WeChat channel (which was censored again). Ironically, the flawed Paper piece, probably because of its “personal story” structure, got a green light.

Experienced observers were able to spot the mismatch between the form of the Paper‘s reporting and its substance. “The gravity and magnitude of the case warrants an in-depth investigative piece. Yet the paper opted for a format more befitting a hotline scoop about a regular family dispute.” And The poor reporting could be blamed on the drain of investigative talents that many Chinese media outlets experienced in recent years, due to a mixture of tough censorship and market forces, or it could be a conscious sacrifice of quality to be on the safe side.

If the debate had been restricted to the realm of journalistic professionalism, the case wouldn’t have sucked up so much oxygen on the Chinese Internet for an extended period of time before the Chinese New Year. As soon as the paper’s report was out, an accusation much more serious than “editorial quality control” was laid upon the publication and the journalist who wrote the report. In the story, Wang Le, the reporter, included a piece of hukou information (China’s residential registration) about Tang, with a few items partially crossed out to hide her exact identity. But certain critics were alarmed by the possibility that the girl might be tracked down with that partial information and be exposed to the risk of revenge by those newly released from jail. A storm quickly formed online that would devour Wang Le, the Paper, and the entire media circle.

The “privacy violation” argument had so much traction on line that many social media heavyweights quickly joined the chorus to condemn the Paper. Soon the accusation was blown to weird proportions. There were calls to manhunt the journalist (exposing HER personal information in the process), to punish the publication by making complaints to the authorities, or outright to lock up Wang Le.

The ferocity of the attack was distilled in the much-used slur “prosti-journalist“(as in “prostitute-journalist”, jizhe), playing with the similar pronunciations of the two professions in Chinese. All of a sudden, a large part of China’s online community was asking for the banning of the very media outlets whose existence was supposed to protect their interests.

As a genre, legal reporting is often considered one of the areas where the Chinese idea of “public opinion supervision”(yulun jiandu) is best manifested. It is also an area where the most experienced and capable journalistic talents are employed to document, scrutinize and question judicial proceedings and their consequences, creating a rare channel of interaction between the state and general society on matters of justice. Some of the historic reforms of China’s legal system in recent years, such as the abolishment of “shelter and repatriation”(a form of extrajudicial detainment), were also celebrated as landmarks in journalism. That dynamic was still playing out less than 3 years ago, when the retrial of the Nie Shubin case was received with dramatically different public sentiments. In that gruesome 1994 rape and murder case, the young Nie Shubin was quickly arrested, convicted and executed. 20 years later, the young man’s death sentence was questioned and revisited by the Supreme Court, after relentless pleading by Nie’s family and a journalistic marathon (lasting for more than a decade) by the country’s media. The forensic and procedural flaws of the original police investigation were the subject of great social media outrage. And yet in the Tang Lanlan case, netizens were surprisingly livid about journalists “daring” to ask questions about a “concluded case”.

Some saw this stiffening of attitude against critical media reports of sexual abuse cases as a kind of “over-compensation” for the chronic absence of justice for victims of similar aggressions. Netizens just wanted to believe that the convicted had been duly punished for their crime and felt offended when that belief was challenged. The intense emotional attachment can be attributed to a string of recent incidents that shaped public perception of the experience of rural victims of sexual abuse. Roughly a year ago, the jaw-dropping revelation about the Ma Panyan sisters in Chongqing rattled Chinese social media. When very young, the three girls were sold by their step father to villagers as “child-wives”, and were raped, abused and gave birth before reaching adulthood. The local authorities not only certified the “marriages”, but also dodged calls to hold the step-father and “husbands” accountable for human trafficking and rape after one of the sisters made their tragedy public on Weibo. Earlier, the Hebei government’s unwise move to publicly honor a rural school teacher for her “dedication” drew fierce net-wide criticism and ridicule. The school teacher had been abducted, raped and forced to marry a local villager. She chose to accept her fate and stayed. But the fact that her nightmarish life story was made into a beautifying movie (A Women Married to the Mountain) and later endorsed by the local government was a source of great disgust and became a permanent point of reference on the Internet.

Other cultural factors may have also played into the online perception about the case. China’s Northeast, the country’s rust belt, has seen its reputation plummet in recent years as its state-owned economy suffered. With the region’s economic decline, the public sphere is increasingly filled with tales of a morality collapse, of the people there losing their grip on the ethical codes that hold communities together. In early 2016, a Caijing journalist’s sensational account of the disturbing moral conditions of his hometown in the countryside of Northeast (e.g. married women seeking casual sex online) got him stripped of his journalistic credentials for fabricating facts and denigrating the region. This time, many netizens found the bizarre case entirely plausible in the Northeastern context and even used foreign movies such as Nicole Kidman’s Dogville to spark their imagination.

Women’s right advocates online, whose efforts helped make the Ma Panyan case more visible, were split over how to respond. Some readily joined with others to condemn and curse the media. Others were more nuanced in their criticism, maintaining that a “due process and a professional, just judicial system are preconditions of women’s rights protection”, cautioning that the critique should not undermine the Chinese media’s (dwindling) ability to run critical reports that hold the judiciary accountable. But both positions were challenged by the view that these feminists were merely reinforcing the social stigma attached to rape victims. Instead of contesting the idea that suffering sexual assault was a kind of shame on the part of the victim, they inherited the cultural bias and insisted that the victim be permanently buried as fugitives from society.

In a world where media organizations are under attack from all corners, “Fake News” allegations from the US President being a prominent example, it is not entirely surprising that Chinese publications like the Paper enjoy their share of disparagement. What’s remarkable is that in China, supposedly benevolent forces in society have now joined the censors in squeezing the already curtailed space for media operations. In the name of privacy for a rape victim, netizens unload their fury on the media, leaving long time observers to marvel at the new reality that Chinese journalism has to inhabit.

The new reality means that in addition to being censored and destroyed, reports can also be deconstructed faster than a legitimate line of journalistic pursuit can be established. The Paper‘s piece was not so much blocked and deleted as it was thoroughly disabled and deactivated by seemingly sophisticated critiques. The feminist argument undermined not just the Paper‘s legitimacy in going along the “wrongful judgment” route, but the entire line of questioning by the media as a whole. So when other newspapers, such as Beijing News, followed up and tried to bring more facts to the table (it managed to get multiple law enforcement officers to comment on the case on record), they were also immediately hamstrung by a very hostile online environment that saw such inquiries as a form of violence against the victim. Critiques from journalistic perspectives did not make things any better. Beyond criticisms of quality control, commentators knowledgeable about media practices drilled into how the report came about in the first place and the “hidden motives” in the media’s agenda-setting attempt, claiming it was a collusion between the convicts’ defense lawyer and the newspapers to upend well-deserved verdicts.

Defenders of the media were left scrambling to adapt and find their footing. Some of them, including very prominent ones such as Rose Luqiu, felt the need to concede to the journalist’s wrongdoing before they could offer a defense of the media’s broader role of challenging problematic legal cases. The environment was tough enough for the Chinese media. They should be allowed the space to err on the side of the greater good. But the readiness to throw fellow journalists under the bus raised eyebrows. Defenders were seen to kowtow to the tyranny of online trolling and to offer cliched, one-thing-fits-all support of the press without addressing the specific dilemmas it faced in this particular case.

The Paper withdrew the report from its website amid mounting criticism. Beijing News defiantly continued to publish new materials on the case, but its Weibo account was muted by the platform for a few days. And representatives of the Supreme Procuratorate reportedly met with two of the newly released and their lawyer. The High Court of Heilongjiang province, on the other hand, denied reports that it had initiated processes for a retrial. No one, at least for now, managed to get hold of Tang Lanlan. If the girl has been watching all this from somewhere, she might feel vindicated that so many total strangers have spoken up on her behalf. Or, she might be appalled by the magnitude of the online storm that left behind a massive field of weird debris upon which the rest of her life needs to be built.

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Ground Zero

Tianjininterview

Everything feels like a déjà vu of the 2011 high-speed train wreck.

On Aug 16, four days after the devastating blast in the coastal city of Tianjin, local officials once again turned their daily press conference into a national spectacle, not for its brilliance, but for its jaw-dropping level of confusion. In front of live broadcasting cameras from all over the world, the city’s chief propaganda official could not answer the basic question of “who’s in charge of the emergence response?” In previous occasions, they had also dodged questions in utterly clumsy ways, such as abruptly walking out while journalists watched in disbelief.

The scene is reminiscent of the press conferences after two high-speed trains collided in Wenzhou four years ago. In the aftermath of the accident that killed 40 passengers, the nation was incensed by the arrogant and smart-ass comments from the spokesperson of the Railway Ministry. His notorious comment that “no matter whether you believe it, I believe”, instantaneously became a joke on the internet.

But the two events resemble each other on a deeper level. The chaotic governmental response in the initial few days of the disaster, which dealt another heavy blow to the government’s (remaining) credibility, betrays the fundamental lack of unity in the Chinese officialdom which often tries to project the image of a tightly clenched fist. And in both cases China’s societal forces make use of that precious vacuum to pierce into the territory with determination. The impact of such small breakthroughs, after years of retreat, is yet to be seen.

From the authority’s side, the difficulty with handling the Tianjin blast, as with the Wenzhou train wreck, lies with the structure under which the different administrative jurisdictions are organized. The accident happened in Tianjin, in a GEOGRAPHICAL sense. Administratively speaking, it happened within the bailiwick of the Tianjin Port Group, a state owned entity that falls under the “dual management” of both Tianjin and the Ministry of Transportation. And in that administrative enclave, the different regulatory responsibilities are divided like puzzle pieces among the Tianjin municipality, the Ministry and the Port Group. Fatefully, the permitting schemes relating to the storage of explosive chemicals and the fire department in charge of the port are run by the Port Group under an authorization from the Ministry, not by the municipality.

With the train accident, the Railway Ministry was ultimately responsible for what happened on the rail track, but since it also happened geographically in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, it made the local authority unavoidably involved. The tension between the Railway Ministry and the Wenzhou local government flared up in the initial stage of the rescue work, when the latter disagreed with the plan to remove the car from the track before confirming that nobody was still alive inside it. It put the Railway Ministry, and the entire official communication effort on embarrassing defense mode for five days, until Premier Wen Jiabao came to the rescue.

Official communication after the Tianjin blast was even more disastrous. An evaluation conducted by a think tank affiliated with the People’s Daily accused the six post-blast press conferences as “producing secondary communicational difficulties”, a sophisticated way of saying “they did more damage than good.” Instead of dispersing doubts, officials actually created more of it by acting completely clueless in front of the press. Censor did not help either: “Cutting the broadcasting is only counter-productive in this era of smart phones.”

While some were quick to ridicule the seemingly incompetent bureaucrats, others offered an alternative explanation: these officials, who invariably came from the municipal government, were meticulously following a clear bureaucratic logic. They did not want to second guess the intentions of their colleagues who were actually responsible for the incident. Neither did they want to cover somebody else’s back. Unlike their Wenzhou counterparts who made that tension explicit for everyone to see, the Tianjin authority took a much more passive approach. The theory goes that it is likely they really did not know what was stored inside that warehouse and had no authority to decide who should be in charge of the rescue work.

The apparent lack of mandate and coordination from the government side had a more far-reaching side-effect: its complete loss of the ability to set the agenda. Yes, the self-valorization is still there, but it was quickly muted by waves of to-the-point questions. The aftermath of the blast saw the return of the 24-hour news cycles that the Chinese society had not seen for a while. They were propelled by social media platforms such as Weibo, which fed new raw materials into public attention on a real time basis. Yet it was ultimately the more market oriented media outlets that had been driving the evolution of the discussion and the news agenda. After the initial shock by the magnitude of the explosion, it was the media that quickly drew the public’s attention toward the massive loss endured by the firemen who first responded to the accident. Southern Weekly’s decisive Aug 13 exclusive interview with a survived fireman, who told the newspaper on record that they were not informed of the hydro-reactive nature of the chemicals in the warehouse, set the tone for an intensive round of public questioning of the authority’s liability. The Paper rode on that tide and interviewed the fire department’s spokesperson at the central government level, who incidentally revealed the fact that those first-responding firemen did not fall under the official fire-fighting system, but were “hired hands” employed by the port itself. Caixin immediately followed on that lead by digging out the exact three teams that first showed up at the site and were instantaneously devoured by the explosions. Yet their sacrifice had not been accounted in the official death toll released to the public. The bitter irony of “unequal death” has since then become a commanding mood of the Chinese internet.

The Southern Weekly-Paper-Caixin news relay was impressive, but it was just one thread that the Chinese media were persistently following through. Simultaneously, other bold outlets, including a new Shanghai-based digital platform called Jiemian.com, were trying to uncover possible corruption behind the string of green lights that the warehouse owner (supposedly a private company) managed to obtain before setting up a deadly time bomb in the vicinity of a densely populated area. Clues led journalists to the management and shareholders of the company, including Zhi Feng, its General Manager, who happened to share a very rare surname with a former vice mayor of Tianjin. This line of investigation culminated at the end of the Aug 14 press conference where officials had to exit the venue under the bombardment of one single question: “Who is Zhi Feng?”

Four years ago, the train tragedy defined Sina Weibo as the no.1 social media outlet that had the potential to replace traditional market-orientation media as China’s agenda-setter. The Tianjin blast seems to have catalyzed the re-invention of the traditional media. The perfect storm of media inquiry this time excites a veteran observer into saluting his former colleagues: “In the past few days, most of the first-hand media coverage with added value all came from the familiar bloc of Beijing News, Southern Metropolis Daily, Southern Weekly, Caixin and iNewsweek. Despite the increasingly suffocating and difficult environment, you guys are still charging ahead. Stay safe!” It indeed looks like a renaissance for which those news organizations have been saving up. Almost overnight, they unveiled to the world the formidable arsenal they have accumulated: WeChat live broadcasting, 360 degree panorama photography, and HTML5 aggregation of information. All of a sudden, drones seemed to have become a standard piece of equipment in a journalist’s backpack. And the images that they produced within hours of the incident stunned the world. Many of those news organizations probably have become substantially stronger after this battle: viewership of their materials on digital channels exploded, which almost certainly translates into a larger follower-base online.

A widely read blog by a young journalist who ventured into the core area of the explosion epitomizes this “charging ahead” spirit, showing that the “renaissance” likely goes beyond an instrumental level. Without even carrying a bottle of water, he sneaked into ground zero that was sealed off by the police and stayed in the war-zone for a full day to capture first-hand images of the event. These were heartbreaking documentations of the broken Chinese dreams. The most surreal pictures were the debris that was blown out of the apartment buildings: cash, a Teddy bear and a bouquet. “Everyone’s life is like a pottery jar with lots of stuff in it. But it’s too fragile. Shake it, and it’s broken.”

The metaphor is not new, nor is the sentiment. What’s interesting is how naturally a journalist’s eye-witness account of a blast scene turns into a sort of elegy for the vulnerability of middle class life. It is a resonance reinforced by almost every memorable mega-events in recent years, from the 2011 train wreck to the 2012 Beijing flooding to the Shanghai stampede earlier this year. The plight and insecurity of the Chinese urban middle class are part of what have fueled the pointed questioning and fearless investigation of the Chinese media. Just like what a survivor wrote after escaping from his expensive Vanke apartment building hundreds of meters away from the epicenter: “This high-end neighborhood is only two-hours of driving away from the Tiananmen Square. It’s full of foreigners and multinational corporate executives. Yet only a few banging noises rendered it an empty war zone. Who can imagine that nearby this ‘little Europe’ something equivalent to a tactic nuclear weapon has been installed?”

The familiar motif prompted an influential Weibo commentator to pull out a four-year-old post written at the wake of the train accident on what he termed “corruption terrorism”:

“At the early stage of corruption terrorism, the middle class does not have to worry too much. You are not the ones who work at coal mines or production lines. But when it further exacerbates, most of the population can’t stay out of it, as you cannot avoid taking a train, driving a car or going across a bridge. Your apartment may have a quality problem, so is the food you buy from the supermarket. In its most advanced stage, even the privileged cannot escape from it.”

It seems that after four full years, the country has arrived at the exact same spot. Just as his predecessor did after the Wenzhou train collision, Premier Li Keqiang’s belated arrival at the blast site brought certain order to the post-disaster disorientation. And one of the first things he had to say publicly was the commitment to equal treatment of firemen who lost their lives in the mission, a direct response to an item high on the media agenda.

Some were pessimistic. To them, there is little sign that the iron curtain shielding the corrupt politician-business bond, which is probably the real culprit of the explosion in the first place, is letting loose even a little bit, despite “almost half of Beijing’s best journalists concentrating their efforts on Tianjin.” But for other observers, the mushroom cloud over Tianjin might have changed something permanently: “After Tianjin, the Chinese public’s NYMBY (“not in my backyard”) protests against industrial facilities will almost certainly become unstoppable.” Be it a legacy or a spell, this sounds like the most plausible post-Tianjin scenario that the country needs to face. We may still be circling around our Ground Zero, but something is definitely growing out of it. At the moment, we can’t tell if it’s going to be beautiful or ugly.