Zhou Kehua case reflects Chinese media's sanitised crime coverage

Chang Ping says the case of gangster Zhou Kehua demonstrates Chinese authorities' rigid intolerance of a serious reflection of the social circumstances that can lead to crime

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 4:24am

Zhou Kehua was a hardened criminal who robbed banks, murdered the innocent and shot at the police in a series of cases that shocked the nation and made him one of China's most wanted fugitives.

His crime spree - spanning Chongqing , Jiangsu and Hunan - lasted eight years. He died on August 14 - shot dead by brave policemen, according to the police, but some people believe he committed suicide.

A few days later, rumours began circulating online that the authorities had issued a gag order: all media outlets and online sites must carry only the reports by Xinhua and notices issued by the public security authorities, and nothing else.

They were to downplay the coverage of his death, and must especially avoid any discussion of his formative years and how and why he turned to crime.

This reminded me of my own experience.

Twelve years ago, another hardened criminal was in the news. Zhang Jun had led a gang of about 20 who similarly committed robbery, murder and attacks on the police in a spree over eight years, which also turned him into one of China's most wanted. He was arrested by Chongqing police in September 2000, and was sentenced and executed in May the following year.

The two men shared one other similarity: their girlfriends and their love stories also became media fodder. Their lives could be a Hollywood movie.

Then, as now, the Chongqing police were happy to provide the media with information that glorified their part in the capture. In Zhang's case, media across the nation went to town with the coverage, but almost all followed the predictable script of a face-off between a brutal fugitive and heroic police, plus gossip about Zhang's love life.

I was working at the Southern Weekend at the time. After an editorial discussion, I assigned several reporters to piece together the story from Chongqing, Hunan and Beijing.

The main piece, written by Li Hong-ping and Jia Ming, the two reporters who visited Zhang's family home in Changde, Hunan, traced the birth and development of Zhang's crime gang. This and several other stories on the judicial aspects of the case were packaged together into our cover story for the week. The next week, we published another set of articles probing the case.

The rule of thumb in Chinese media regarding such crime coverage is: people who commit crimes are by nature evil, but good people are good because of social influence. Given these parameters, no matter how much ink is spilled on the cases of Zhang and Zhou, there can be but one conclusion: they were born evil.

Those two issues by Southern Weekend tried to do just what was forbidden by the recent gag order: to analyse how and why people turn to crime.

I wrote then in an editor's note: "In the face of this trail of lost lives, broken homes, and the abuse of rules and loopholes, it would have been too easy to blame it all on 'evil people'. No doubt Zhang Jun and his cronies had lost their humanity, but they didn't exist on their own. They were part of society, and if society is to prevent more tragedies of this sort, it must reflect deeply on how and why things went wrong."

These articles were the latest in a series that drew the fury of the local government and the propaganda authorities, and they took their revenge. The result was that editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping, managing editor Qian Gang and I left the paper.

Twelve years have passed and yet orders by the propaganda authorities remain unchanged. It's as if time has stood still.

It's worth noting that the person who led the arrest of Zhang was none other than Wen Jiang, the one-time top crime-buster who was executed in 2010 for bribery, among other charges. When Zhang was arrested, Wen posed for photos for the media with his foot on Zhang's head.

Today, Wang Lijun , Wen's successor as the Chongqing police chief, awaits trial for treason. And Chongqing police are trumpeting their success in the capture of Zhou Kehua.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese