Legal battle dogs banned book's authors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 July, 2004, 12:00am

A sensational book on the plight of Anhui farmers written by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao sold 150,000 copies and topped the best-seller list on the mainland before being banned in March. It created such an uproar that at least 7 million more pirated copies have been sold.

So it was with mixed feelings that the husband-and-wife team visited Changsha recently and found copies of An Investigative Report of Chinese Farmers being widely sold for 22 yuan.

Published in January, it exposes corrupt officials' extortion, persecution and murder of farmers. It shocked the nation, sparking sympathy for rural residents.

It evidently created too much of a stir and the government tried to dampen its impact. First media and internet sites were banned from reporting on it or reprinting any of it. Even criticising it was prohibited.

The book was banned in March but that did nothing to stop people reading it and it became a best-seller among pirated books.

The couple were never given official notification of the ban and were not even told when their publisher stopped printing the book at the peak of its legal sales.

They said they had no hard feelings about the ban, despite the inconvenience and lost royalties.

'It is already an honour to be able to publish the book. We have prepared for the worst,' said Wu.

Chen said: 'Our goal was to disclose people's situation - [it] has been reached. We never expected the book to have such influence.'

The impact is being felt in other ways. The couple are still locked in a bitter dispute with some of the officials depicted in the book.

Zhang Xide , deputy chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in Fuyang city , is suing them for describing him as an unpopular official who purged farmer petitioners when he was party boss of Linquan county in the 1990s.

The couple applied to have the trial held outside Fuyang because of Mr Zhang's position there and because his son is a judge in the Fuyang People's Intermediate Court.

However, the high court in Anhui province ruled last month that the trial should be held in Fuyang.

The couple's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang , said courts should not accept lawsuits against writers publicising criticisms of officials. 'Otherwise, [Chief Executive] Tung Chee-hwa should have filed libel lawsuits a long time ago,' he said.

Mr Zhang said the city leaders 'gave me a lot of support and said they knew I was not the kind of person [described in the book]'. He added that he had no power to influence the outcome of the court hearing. 'It may be possible for me to talk to city leaders. But for the court, they have their own procedures and how can I influence them?'

However, the authors and their lawyer doubt the impartiality of the court. They were shocked when they saw government department leaders testifying about their own performance in a hearing to exchange evidence.

'They had police testifying that the police did not beat up petitioners [as described in the book] and a detention centre chief testifying [that his staff] did not torture detainees. They have all these government officials testifying they did not violate the orders from the central government. Can a thief testify he did not steal?' Mr Pu said.

The defence witnesses are farmers, many of them victims mentioned in the book.

'A witness [named] Wang Hongchao ... talked about how he still had scars around his wrists after [his hands] were handcuffed to his back for two months,' Chen said. 'Tears rolled down his cheek when he talked about this, and then the lawyer from the other side said Wang could not testify about what happened to him. They treated him like a criminal.'

Mr Chen said he felt the trial had turned into a battle between the writers and farmers against those holding power in the city. He may be right.

Mr Zhang said: 'If I win, the city public security bureau will immediately file a lawsuit [against the writers] and many others involved in the book will do the same thing. I will certainly win. It is impossible for me to lose.'

A trial date has not been set.