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About Li Datong

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper. In 2006 he was the recipient of a Lettre Ulysses award for reportage on his experience at Bingdian:

“As a professional journalist, I am completely incapable of understanding or accepting the suspension of ‘Freezing Point’ … To those who made this decision, what do the readers count for? What does the prestige of a large mainstream newspaper count for? What do the laws of the country and the party constitution count for? What does the reform and the opening up of China count for? They see this public instrument as their own property, thinking they can dispose of it as they please.”


Articles by Li Datong

This week's editor

NSS, editor

Niki Seth-Smith is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to 50.50.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

The root of slave labour in China

Another shocking news story broke in China in June 2007. It was discovered that in Hongtong county, Shanxi province, people kidnapped from rural areas were being forced to work as slaves in a brick kiln. Horrifying television footage showed them after their chance rescue - they were filthy and emaciated, with their clothes in tatters and blank expressions on their faces. It was impossible not to think of the images of holocaust survivors rescued from concentration camps at the end of the second world war.

Similar scenes occurred over the following days. After an instruction from "senior leaders in the central government" an inspection team was sent to the area. It was only at this point that local officials seemed to wake up and stir into action, beginning with a large scale investigation and rescue operation. By 22 June, several hundred "slave workers" had been rescued. Of the 3,347 Shanxi brick kilns investigated, 2,036 were operating without the proper licenses or tax registration. A total of 53,036 people were being illegally employed. The investigation uncovered cases of people being kidnapped, of restriction of personal freedom, of forced labour, use of child labour, and abuse and even murder of workers.

Once over the initial shock, one begins to ask how such things could happen, and who should be held responsible.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and a former editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a ‘great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

"China's contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)

"Hong Kong's example"
(7 February 2007)

"Will China follow Vietnam's lead?"
(21 February 2007)

"Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning"
(7 March 2007)

"What China's new property law means"
(21 March 2007)

"The Chinese ‘nail house': a Chongqing saga" (4 April 2007)

"'Public opinion' and China's Japan policy"
(18 April 2007)

"An end to exclusivity"
(2 May 2007)

"China's veteran voices of reform"
(16 May 2007)

"Chinese and American unions shake hands"
(30 May 2007)

"China's unlearning: a potent anniversary"
(13 June 2007)
A nationwide alert

The Chinese public is shaken by these events because it is the first time they have seen this kind of report in the media. Those who work in the media, however, are not surprised. In 1999, a colleague at China Central Television (CCTV) showed me a documentary secretly filmed by a CCTV journalist. It showed police outside Guangzhou train station stopping anyone with the appearance of a rural worker. Those who did not have a Guangzhou temporary-residence permit were immediately detained. Once at the detention centre, those with friends or relatives in Guangzhou who could confirm their identity could be released after paying a fine of 1,500 renminbi (£100). However, most of the migrant workers coming into Guangzhou had no such contacts.

These unfortunate people were taken to Zhuzhou in Hunan province. Outside Zhuzhou train station, the detained people could be bought by farms for 50 renminbi (£3.30) each. They were then forced to work for nothing on the farms. The journalist went to one of these farms, where he asked a 14-year-old boy how long he had been there. The answer was six months. The journalist then asked the supervisor, who was carrying a large stick, who the workers were. The supervisor unashamedly boasted that they were "slaves". After copying down the ID card number of one of the workers from the farm's records, the journalist went back to the detention centre in Guangzhou to try to trace the worker. He was told "no such person has ever been detained here". This migrant worker had apparently left his home, arrived in Guangzhou, and then disappeared into thin air.

The documentary was too sensitive to be broadcast, as it revealed the existence of a system of slavery within China. It was marked "for internal reference" and sent to the central leadership. Afterwards, I often asked my CCTV colleague whether or not he had heard anything more about his film, and was shocked to hear he had received no feedback at all.

When I heard about the Shanxi slave-labour case, I immediately thought to myself that powerful people with no accountability must be behind the horror. Further investigations by the media revealed that the existence of these kilns was no secret. Local-government departments simply fined the kiln owners, and once the fines had been paid, the kilns were left alone. This is, in effect, no different to protection money paid to the mafia. We can be certain that this forced labour and illegal deprivation of personal freedom is not confined to Shanxi, but exists throughout the country. The central government is well aware of this, and has begun a nationwide investigation.

The chain of responsibility

But the main question here is: what would have happened without direct intervention from the central government? To begin with, the Shanxi provincial government euphemistically described this serious criminal case as "infringement of the legal rights of migrant workers". So far, only two labour-bureau officials from Yongji district of Shanxi province have been arrested, but no county-level officials punished.

These events prove that grassroots local government in China has, to a certain extent, become "mafia-ised". Public authority has become a weapon which officials can use to extract personal advantage. At the same time as the Shanxi slave-labour case, the Tangshan mafia case came to light. The case centred on Yang Shukuan, a businessman and member of the Tangshan municipal people's political consultative conference. It was discovered that he owned several military vehicles including armoured cars, thirty-eight guns of various kinds, over 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and police tear-gas canisters. For years, he had used this arsenal to cheat other people out of 800 million yuan (£52.5 million) worth of property. Without the support of local officials, how could he have got away with all this? Many local authorities are utterly without conscience or a sense of honour.

The central government is conscious of the situation, and does not want to see such events, which seriously threaten its moral authority, taking place. This is why it has demanded that local governments "improve and strengthen their ability to govern". But it is evident that without any "improvement and strengthening" of democratic accountability, and especially of the supervision provided by a free press, governments will go astray. Chinese government at all levels is increasingly relying on police violence to suppress demonstrations by discontented people. Apart from violence and intimidation, nothing else seems to be being "strengthened".

If political reform is delayed even further, more serious political crises will emerge. The core aspect of reform is passing some of the power to society. Unaccountable power has led to corruption as high up as the politburo, and modern-day slavery at the bottom of society. No part of the political system is clean. No surgeon would be arrogant enough to perform surgery on himself, and the party should be the same. The diseases of the system can only be cured by reform of the system. Delaying the treatment can lead only to death.

China’s learning: a potent anniversary

Reflecting on historical events is becoming an increasingly sensitive activity in China. 2006 was the fortieth anniversary of the start of the cultural revolution. Well in advance, the authorities placed a ban on publication of any news to do with the anniversary, but one Beijing magazine pushed the envelope by publishing a piece on the arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976. The magazine was severely reprimanded and the editor-in-chief was demoted.

2007, the fiftieth anniversary of the start of Mao Zedong's anti-rightist movement, is also a sensitive year. Again, the media has been banned from discussing the event, but an internet storm has been stirred up by the release of a public letter from over 1,000 people then branded as "rightists", who are now demanding an apology and compensation. On 4 June 2007 - the anniversary of the crackdown on the 1989 protests - the authorities received a dubious reward for their efforts in wiping all traces of Tiananmen from the public memory.

China's veteran voices of reform

The approach of the Chinese Communist Party's seventeenth national congress is being accompanied by a war of words in print over the right to talk about reform.

In February 2007, the Beijing-based Yanhuang Chungju (Chinese Chronicles) magazine - a journal largely dedicated to researching and revealing historical truths - published a long essay entitled "The Democratic Socialist Model and China's Future". The core argument of the essay was in this passage:

"Political reform cannot be delayed any longer. Seeking to retain the Maoist political system whilst pursuing only economic reform will lead to a bureaucratic capitalism of the kind presided over by Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists (Guomindang, or Kuomintang), as they headed towards defeat. Only democratic constitutionalism can provide fundamental solutions to the Party's corruption problem. Only democratic socialism can save China."

An end to exclusivity

A move towards greater public access to state information is another step to constitutional government in China, writes Li Datong.

'Public opinion' and China's Japan policy

Only when speech is free and information is truthful will Chinese public opinion on foreign-policy matters be genuine, argues Li Datong.

The Chinese 'nail house': a Chongqing saga

"Nail house" is a term unique to mainland China. At a time when many urban homes are being demolished and residents relocated, the term has sprung up to describe houses in which the owners refuse to budge. Like a nail sticking up through a plank of wood, they are difficult to remove. In the past, the Chinese news media have always used the term in a derogatory fashion to condemn those who refused to act "in the public interest".

Now, however, the owners of one nail house in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing have become heroes to the public and news media. Defending their property rights, Yang Wu and his family held out against developers' bulldozers for three years - until they got what they wanted. After a deal reportedly done on the afternoon of 2 April 2007, the "nail" - the building that had been Yang family property for most of the past six decades - was removed the same night.

The Yangs' fight was thrust into the broader public eye in February 2007, and was seen as a test of China's newly approved property law. Government officials and the public alike will have learned lessons from the case, in which both sides gambled with their interests. The message to each will be that compromise leads to progress, and a precedent has been set on the path to democracy and political enlightenment.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a 'great nation'?"
(10 January 2007)

"China's contradictory signals"
(24 January 2007)

"Hong Kong's example"
(7 February 2007)

"Will China follow Vietnam's lead?"
(21 February 2007)

"Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning"
(7 March 2007)

"What China's new property law means"
(21 March 2007)

A Chongching saga

On 26 February 2007, a Chinese blogger posted a photograph of the Yangs' building, terming it "the coolest nail house ever". The picture spread quickly around the internet. Anyone seeing it for the first time couldn't help but be surprised by it: in the middle of a deep hole dug for the foundations of a large building stands a solitary, old, shabby two-storey structure, surrounded by steep precipices. What was it doing there?

Before its demise, the building was a privately owned piece of Chinese real estate. Yang Wu's father bought the land in 1944 and had constructed a small wooden building on it. The ground floor became the senior Wu's shop, and he lived on the first floor with his family. His eight children were born there. At the start of the 1980s, the state took over the building's ownership, but thanks to a later policy decision, it was returned to the Yang family. Yang Wu inherited his father's property rights.

In 1992, the structure was rebuilt with bricks and concrete, and Yang and his wife, Wu Ping, ran a popular restaurant there. But in 1993, the wave of "urban transformation" in Chongqing broke over the commercial area, with the Yang family restaurant at its centre. Demolition work and relocation of residents began in 2004, and by September 2006, only the Yangs' building remained. They disagreed with the rate of compensation offered by the developers, and refused to move or to sign any agreement. The developers' response was to begin excavations for the foundations of a large building project, leaving the "nail house" as an island with no water, no electricity and no access.

At that point, the Yangs were no longer able to live in their home, let alone run a business there. It goes without saying that their interests had been seriously infringed. In the first weeks of 2007, the developers and government housing administration took the Yangs to court. The family, the court ruled, had to agree to the demolition and relocation plan "at their own discretion" before 22 March. If they did not do so by the deadline, they would be "forcibly relocated".

Throughout the history of urban transformation in China, no individual had ever won in a dispute with developers and the government. If the outcome in this case was unprecedented, the reason lies in its timing: it arose just after the National People's Congress had on 19 March passed the new property law. The fate of the Yang family home immediately became a test of whether the new law actually would protect the property rights of Chinese citizens. Almost all of the influential news media in China were stirred into action. Commentators wrote columns, legal experts debated, and websites hosted running updates of events, attracting millions of viewer hits. Public opinion almost unanimously supported the Yangs in their attempts to uphold their legal rights.

On 21 March, Yang Wu - an ex-kung fu champion - climbed up to his home and put a Chinese flag on the roof, along with a banner reading: "Citizens' private-property rights must not be violated!!!" Wu Ping, his fashionably dressed wife, talked almost non-stop to domestic and foreign news media.

The demolition of rights

For several years, the violence that often accompanies demolition and relocation has been one of the main causes of public anger at the government. Terrible events have occurred, including the death of two elderly people in Shanghai on 9 January 2005 when demolition workers set fire to their building, and the killing of two officials in Suzhou on 22 March 2007 by residents who were being moved forcibly. Perhaps because the property law had only just been passed, and the politburo was studying the background to the law, the authorities did not forbid reporting on the Chongqing nail house. The standoff aroused intense interest and became a public event.

Throughout all this, the Chongqing municipal government deserves praise. In the face of a public-relations crisis, they have shown great restraint, and government officials have demonstrated a willingness to present their viewpoint to the media. The court order for "forcible relocation" was not carried out.

A similar outcry happened when in March 2003 a university graduate, Sun Zhigang, was illegally detained in Guangzhou and beaten to death in a detention centre. The government immediately scrapped the detention-and-removal regulations, and resolved the crisis.

One could be sure that China's central government - which is attempting to build a "harmonious society" - would not sit by and allow events in Chongqing to damage its image. It would have sent out guidance on how the issue should be handled.

Before the Chongqing matter was mutually resolved, the local court set back the date by which the Yangs could agree to the demolition three times, with the last date set for 10 April; the decision on forced demolition was postponed to a later date. This flexibility implied that the government had worked out its policy and there was still time for the issue to be resolved through discussions.

The handling of the matter was both a potential opportunity and a potential banana skin for both sides. The two parties each could emerge as winners, or as losers. If the Chongqing municipal government decided to maintain "government authority" and forcibly demolish the Yangs' home under the banner of "upholding the dignity of the law," there would have been a public outcry. The property law would have become a laughing-stock and the Communist Party's image would have been tarnished (see "What China's new property law means", 21 March 2007).

If, however, both sides remained calm, and reached a rational compromise, with each giving way a little, then everyone would be happy. As it has turned out, the property law has, in dramatic fashion, received huge amounts of publicity thanks to the Chongqing nail house. The event will live long in the public memory, will be referred to often in the media, and will enter the Chinese history books.

What China's new property law means

In providing the same level of protection for private and state-owned assets, the country has taken a huge step towards fundamental fairness, says Li Datong. Without such a move, other rights are baseless.

Chinese political reform: official discourse, real meaning

China's top-down "correction" discourse avoids facing the key source of conflict in the country: its shortage of public assets, writes Li Datong.

Will China follow Vietnam's lead?

Beijing needs to find a new system for choosing the country's leadership. Look south, advises Li Datong.

Hong Kong's example

A competitive election in Hong Kong follows years of open politics in Taiwan. Who says the Chinese are not ready for democracy?

China's contradictory signals

For the last month, the foreign press has been hyping up an article first published in autumn 2006 in the Beijing Daily, entitled "Democracy is a Good Thing". Official websites, the People's Daily Online and Xinhua Online have also reproduced this article; as a result, it has gradually attracted widespread interest and debate.

Public discussion of the piece, which has mainly taken place on foreign-based Chinese-language websites, has involved a number of famous overseas Chinese intellectuals whose articles have transmitted very divided signals.

The fact that this piece has created such an interest is understandable, for two reasons.

First, the topic of democracy has always been a "sensitive" issue in the official media of mainland China, and public argument in favour of democracy's benefits are even rarer to find. This is to say nothing of Beijing Daily which published the article; historically seen as a "conservative" newspaper, the very fact that it published this kind of article constitutes news. In these circumstances, people can't help but wonder whether it has a blessing from "up top".

Second, the profile of the article's author, Yu Keping, appears significant. He has a western educational background, is a high-ranking official (as head of the Center for Chinese Government Innovations, and deputy head of the Central Bureau for Editing and Translating), and has been singled out by Hu Jintao as one of his "best brains".

Many overseas analysts and media detect in the background and meaning of this article's publication a signal of the beginning of political reform by the upper echelon of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in particular Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao. But this is a grave misreading of party politics.

In contrast, mainland intellectuals' response has been one of broad indifference and the almost complete absence of debate. This is partly because the background of the article is so easy for them to verify. Yu Keping flatly denied to reporters (in private) that there had been any intervention from "up top". Since then, everyone has laughed off the article as a public distraction, a subject for idle gossip.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point) , a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

"China: a 'great nation'?" (10 January 2007)

There is, moreover, wider evidence to counter this kind of optimistic speculation. On 11 January 2007, the day China's national book fair opened, an assistant bureau chief of China's official news agency called an "internal divulgence meeting". He reported on all "out-of-line" behaviour by China's publishing houses and announced a list of eight books by famous authors that it was now "forbidden to publish". The publishing houses discovered that making these works available to the public would henceforth incur tough sanctions.

One of the books on the list was Zhang Yihe's Past Stories of Beijing Opera Stars. The official commented on Zhang Yihe herself: "This person has exposed her views repeatedly, her books cannot be released, yet you still dare to publish them ... this person has laid her book to waste". What does this mean? It means that there is no problem with the content of the book, but that it or any other of her books must be prevented from being published.

It is relevant here that Zhang Yihe is the daughter of the persecuted "rightist" Zhang Bojun, who has still not been rehabilitated. The vivid descriptions of the achievements of many "rightists", including her father, in Zhang Yihe's earlier book Past Stories Do Not Disappear Like Smoke meant that it sold quickly and widely throughout the Chinese world.

Meanwhile, The True Record of the Lushan Conference, written by Mao Tse-tung's former secretary, Li Rui was also branded a "forbidden book" in the list of eight (even though it had been reprinted repeatedly during the 1980s and 1990s). Its author too had "laid his book to waste" - for no reason other than that he had called so vigorously for political reform for many years.

Now, of these two media events, which one reflects the true situation in China today? As far as this writer is concerned, it is clearly the second. The strategy of China's ruling bloc is to suppress any opinion or writer not praising the current system.

As for political reform in China, historically there are two paths. The first is that initiated and promoted by the leaders of the ruling party themselves, like that of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union; the other is that forced on the party in power by the concerted efforts of people from every level of society. One could say that the only leader China has had who was capable of carrying out the first kind of political reform was Deng Xiaoping, but he didn't do it. The late CCP secretary-general Zhao Ziyang acknowledged that, because of political infighting, he didn't have the ability to necessitate this kind of reform. If Zhao Ziyang wasn't able to, how on earth could Hu Jintao or Wen Jiabao?

The lesson is that hopes for Chinese democratic reforms in the long term must be placed along the second path: namely, for the people to widen and strengthen the safeguarding of their own constitutional rights and thus force the ruling party to move with the times.

On 19 January 2007, Zhang Yihe made a public statement on the internet pointing out that the actions of high officials in the news agency had been unconstitutional. "I shall protect my writing (for) my whole life!". Her protest is sure to receive a warm welcome from the Chinese intellectual community.

Such is the true path to Chinese democratic reform.

China: a 'great nation'?

The television series The Rise of Great Nations, shown on China's state network CCTV across twelve episodes on 13-24 November 2006, has stirred up a lively media debate in China. Much of the heated public discussion that followed the transmission has focused on the defining terms of the series; "great nation" and "rising".

In particular, the trigger of the controversy stems from the adoption by the series of a new standpoint towards China's history: a move away from the condemnation (familiar in Chinese history textbooks) of "imperialist sin" and foreign powers which "get rich from the blood of others", and towards a more generally positive appraisal of other countries' national experiences. In this revised interpretation, the "sin" of the past has become rather a driving force and a condition for the rise of nations to global status.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and formerly editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Also by Li Datong in openDemocracy:

"The story of Freezing Point"
(12 September 2006)

What's interesting is that this total reversal of the conventional viewpoint did not receive the same negative response as Yuan Weishi's article on "modernisation and history textbooks" in the publication Freezing Point in January 2006. Whereas that article was accused of being "an arrow aimed straight at the Communist Party leaders and the socialist system", The Rise of Great Nations was repeatedly shown on the most widely received form of media. This could be interpreted as a sign that the series was implicitly in line with the current aims of the ruling party.

It could equally be argued that throughout history, China has been a great nation; starting from as early as the Tang dynasty, China was already a "superpower". From this time, China had established a modern civil official system and imperial civil service examination system. Even in world trade, until the opium war in 1840, China showed disdain for independent warlords. At that time too, even post-industrial-revolution Britain could not provide commodities that China was prepared to exchange its goods for, and Britain had only hard currency and silver rather than goods to purchase China's own commodities.

From the middle of the 19th century, the big western powers started using military force to enter China. It was only at this time that China's emperor and her ministers discovered that the Chinese empire, which had always posed as the centre of the world, could simply collapse after one blow. Although magnificent on the surface, the country has long been submerged by the decay of its interior. What does this interior refer to? It refers to its system.

Unfortunately the series The Rise of Great Nations inadvertently managed to evade a fundamental point. Each great western nation achieved its status under various different historical conditions, many of which could not be reproduced today; but all had one thing in common, namely that their rise entailed a constant improvement in the rights of their people, and a severe restriction in the power of their rulers. Without such a foundation, "the rise of great nations" can be dangerous. Hitler's rule over Germany, militarist Japan and Stalinism in the Soviet Union are all examples of mistakes that should be learned from.

How to re-establish China's great national glory of the past is a question that political leaders and intellectuals have been anxiously thinking about for some time. Mao Tse-tung's way of dealing with it was to attack the west; without hesitation, he exhausted China's national strength in order to support this "world revolution". The attempt to keep pace with the rival superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, caused China to suffer a huge famine in the 1950s. As more than 30 million people were dying, huge sums of financial resources were still being used to develop nuclear weapons. The creation of a façade of "great nationhood" to mobilise such a national project can produce fear, but not respect.

Deng Xiaoping was much more prudent than Mao Zedong. He saw that without a developed economy, the lives of the people wouldn't be able to improve, let alone the possibility of establishing a great nation.

When the CCP's ruling legitimacy was on the brink of threat, he encouraged the development of the economy. However, this still did not give the people political rights; during this period the Tiananmen Square massacre happened, shaking the world. Can China, a country that mercilessly massacres its own people become a great nation that commands people's respect? Not in this way it can't.

In any case, for most Chinese people, talk of whether or not China is a great nation and whether or not it is rising is meaningless. What these people are concerned about is the improvement of their own living conditions, their rights, the increase of freedom and the reduction of terror. The size of the country a people belong to has no bearing on its happiness. Making the people pay a heavy price in order to satisfy political leaders' desire to create a great nation is the development pitfall that China's intellectual circles need to be looking at face on right now.

The story of Freezing Point

In 2003 the German literary magazine Lettre International launched a new literary prize, the "Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage" to recognise and honour a valuable but underrated form. In its first year, the prize was won by the Russian writer Anna Politovskaya for Chechnya: Russia's dishonour. In 2004, the Chinese writers Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao carried the prize for their seminal work, A Survey of Chinese Peasants, and last year it was British journalist Alexandra Fuller's book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier.

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