Dark drama where only insiders know the script
The truth behind the arrest of New Express reporter Chen Yongzhou over articles critical of HK-listed Zoomlion will likely never be known
Who are we to believe? This is the conundrum facing many mainlanders as they witness a saga with multiple twists involving an outspoken tabloid newspaper, one of its reporters now under arrest, a leading heavy equipment manufacturer and, inevitably, the law enforcement agencies.
However the saga unfolds there is a widespread belief that the whole truth, whatever it is, will never be fully revealed - that there is a dark drama being played out for which only insiders know the script.
What is known so far: police in Changsha last Tuesday night confirmed Chen Yongzhou , a reporter with the Guangzhou-based daily New Express, was detained on October 18 for writing a series of stories "smearing the reputation" of Zoomlion, which is based in Changsha . The company had blamed Chen's multipart series for a drop in its shares listed in Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
The New Express fought back. It ran front-page editorials on consecutive days urging police to release Chen. It also asserted that after checking 15 stories with Chen's byline, they believed his reports were accurate except for one figure wrongly used.
The editorials were an eye-opener in themselves. Publishing front-page appeals directed at the police is rare on the mainland. Indeed some people said it was probably the first time a newspaper had taken such an audacious action since the founding of modern China in 1949.
The reaction to the appeals from at least one quarter was also exceptional. Not only did the editorials win huge backing from mainland journalists and media outlets, even the news industry regulator, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, raised concerns about Chen's arrest.
Changsha police and Zoomlion were well prepared for a fight. Sina News, the mainland's largest news website, ran two interviews, one with a senior manager of Zoomlion and another with the police, both insisting there was evidence to prove Chen's wrongdoing.
The Zoomlion manager also said the Communist Party's anti-graft watchdog and the propaganda authorities were keeping a close eye on the issue. Curiously the two stories were later deleted.
The public outcry quietened down as the censors weighed in. Some journalist sources in Beijing and Guangzhou confirmed the propaganda authorities had three times ordered mainland media not to follow up on this story. But nobody anticipated the enforced silence was merely a brief interlude in the drama.
A shocking development came when China Central Television, one of the government's most powerful mouthpieces, aired an interview with Chen who - handcuffed and wearing a green prison uniform - confessed he had been paid by "others" to write more than a dozen negative stories about Zoomlion. It was a bombshell, even though CCTV did not give any details about who the "others" were.
Following Chen's statement, New Express issued an apology on its front page condemning Chen for his behaviour. It also admitted its high-profile appeal had "severely damaged the credibility of the media".
Xinhua followed up by saying that since both Chen and his employer had been proved wrong, the fog over the subject had at least "temporarily" cleared.
However, for many mainlanders, the air was far from clear. From the very beginning, many people said they did not trust Chen or his newspaper, as it had long been an open secret some mainland journalists and media outlets were willing to publish critical stories on whomever they are paid to bite.
But many people still backed the newspaper in its appeal against the arrest, saying it was wrong for Changsha police to whisk the reporter from Guangzhou to the Hunan capital. If police did have evidence, supporters of the appeal argued, they should follow legal procedures to hold the newspaper accountable, not the reporter.
And while large numbers of people dislike some shady journalistic practices, few have much sympathy for Zoomlion. In online postings, people dug out old media reports that said the company has strong government connections in Hunan.
Many lawyers said that if the confession aired on CCTV could be used as evidence to charge Chen, then the mainland had no need of courts or judges. "By bringing suspects to confess on CCTV programmes, the station has become the most powerful court in the country," one commenter said.
Yesterday, the New Express' editor-in-chief and president, Li Yihang , was sacked as part of shake-up announced by its parent paper, the Yangcheng Evening News. He was replaced by two party officials from the Yangcheng Evening News. The move comes after Guangdong's press regulator demanded a reshuffle at the paper.
Earlier, mainland media reported that Chen - still in custody in Changsha - was formally arrested on Wednesday.
There will doubtless be fresh developments in this drama in the weeks to come. But however the final act plays out, it has been demonstrated once again that the rock-hard link between wealth and influence on the mainland remains unbroken and that only the rich and powerful will know the full story.
People outside that charmed circle can only ponder who, if anyone, they are to trust.