Beijing ordered pay-off in legal tussle over book

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 December, 2006, 12:00am

Authors shocked at secret instruction to settle with party boss

Beijing has forced a publisher to compensate a local official who sued the authors of the internationally acclaimed book An Investigation of Chinese Peasants and the publishing house to avoid the embarrassment of a court handing down a verdict in the case.

A court in Fuyang , Anhui province , has procrastinated on handing down a ruling in the case for almost two years since a four-day trial in August 2004.

The central government made many failed attempts to persuade the couple who wrote the book, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao , to reach an out-of-court settlement with Zhang Xide . It then turned to the book's publisher, the People's Literature Publishing House, and secretly ordered it to pay 50,000 yuan to the former Linquan county party boss this summer, according to sources in Fuyang.

Mr Zhang claimed he was falsely depicted in the book as a tyrant who exploited farmers.

'This is a compulsory settlement made outside court and any kind of media reporting on the issue is banned,' said the source, who declined to be named.

But the authors and their lawyers were kept in dark about the settlement for months and were still anxiously waiting for a ruling when asked for comment by the South China Morning Post yesterday.

'I am shocked to hear this. I was talking to our lawyer in Anhui yesterday and she has not heard anything about this,' Chen said. He later called the publisher, who confirmed the settlement was made months ago.

'I was particularly furious when they told me this was a decision from above and they could only co-operate. They were told that they were an enterprise of the party and that they must do this,' he said.

'It is outrageous. I am the defendant and they kept the news in the dark for so long. I called my three defence lawyers and none of them had been informed.'

Chen said he heard that the publisher had sent a staff member to deliver the money and a written statement to Mr Zhang last summer, but the publisher refused to reveal the amount of compensation.

But sources said Politburo Standing Committee member Luo Gan - China's top official in charge of law and order - had made an order about the case, although details were not clear, and the Supreme People's Court had intervened and ordered the settlement.

Another source said the publisher had bargained down the amount of the compensation, with Mr Zhang finally being paid 50,000 yuan. Chen said he could not accept such an arrangement.

'Zhang is an official and when he wanted to file a lawsuit against me, he filed a lawsuit. When he wanted to withdraw, he withdrew the case. It is like when he wanted to punch me, he could punch me anytime,' he said. 'And anytime he wanted to stop punching me, he could just stop without a word of apology.'

One of Chen's lawyers, Lei Yanping, said the settlement was unfair to the defendants as it implied they had lost the case.

'They could not force Mr Chen to pay because he is not a cadre and why should he listen to them? So they could only force the publisher,' she said. 'But by forcing the publisher to pay, it is implying Zhang has won.'

She believed the court did not know how to rule in the case because the defendants had presented a strong case in the courtroom.

Beijing had been trapped in a dilemma because it would have faced international criticism if the court ruled against the authors, who won an international prize in October 2004. However, it was also worried it would encourage people to criticise the government if the court ruled in favour of the authors, observers said.