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Anatomy of a Quiet Scandal


On May 17 at 11:01 a.m., your correspondent received a text message purporting to clear up a recent political intrigue in the capital. To this point, it hasn’t. And that is pretty much the point. Increasingly, China can be shamed into purging bad leaders. But the moral is still all too often lost in the non-transparent process of the purging. Does this condition signify a system disposing of its political waste in more enlightened ways, or less?

The cell-phone tip I got was unsolicited. It came from a well-connected source in the media industry who has proven reliable in the past. Written in Chinese, it read: “As of last night, former Press and Publication director Long Xinmin was under ‘double regulations’” – a form of house detention.

The message appeared to be news. Until late April, Long, as head of the government press watchdog agency, was the equivalent of chief executioner in China’s censorship apparatus. But after just 15 months on the job, he was unexpectedly reassigned to the Communist Party center of historical research – a far less glamorous post. In a one-sentence report, official media noted Long had retained his rank but gave no explanation for the reshuffle. The question, ever since, was why?

Americans have become used to regular Washington scandals that drag on without due justice or resolution: Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is the latest example. But the lesson of wrongdoing generally comes clear either way. Not so in Beijing, where we often witness punishments of senior officials that are fast-tracked – or alternately, delayed for years – with but a smidgeon of the facts emerge about what exactly they did or how their cases were decided.

There are still clear-cut cases of old-fashioned draconian justice, mind you. Just yesterday, China sentenced the long-time head of the State Food and Drug Administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, to death for corruption and dereliction of duty. His trial came just as his bureau stank up the world with revelations toxic toothpaste in Panama and pet food in the U.S. Bad timing sealed his fate.

Without openness and due process, however, we’re often left to ask: what’s the – ahem – moral? The only lesson consistently learned is that the system is endemically unlawful, and “party politics” decides who is saved, and who sacrificed. Which makes the case of Long Xinmin an intriguing example of business as usual.
There were essentially three running theories, according to those I’d previously quizzed. The one the Western press led on was the most temptingly “democratic”. It had to do with government accountability.

In the months leading up to his transfer, the agency Long led encountered open and unprecedented defiance from veteran writers and journalists whose work it had banned, condemned or otherwise restricted. Their protest letters and behind-the-scenes accounts leaked onto the Internet – damning in a country long accustomed to policing speech mostly by stealth means.

The historian Zhang Yihe, whose books depict the Mao-era political persecution endured by her father and his contemporaries, had pressed a legal claim to repeal the ban against her. So when Long’s transfer was announced, headlines blared: Censor sidelined/sacked after book ban row. Not that Long was the bungling butcher at the eye of this particular storm – that honor fell to one of his deputies who remains in his post. Nor was Long the mastermind behind the orders – that was the party propaganda department, inspired by members of the Politburo. It would indeed seem a bit peculiar, from the party’s perspsective, to punish the censor over cases of censorship. At the same time, Long had gained notoriety as a minion of hardliners. The current party leaders have established new internal accountability regime intended to hold the ministerial yi ba shou – or “number one man” – responsible for embarrassingly big-time screw-ups, in this case letting news of actual censorship become known. Long might have been the fall-guy for this leaky mess. Ms. Zhang, a fine interview with London’s Telegraph, claimed no knowledge of the connection between her case and his. But she delighted victoriously in his removal.

Another theory, harder to diagnose and hence less-talked about, involved personal politics. Long, who built his entire career in the Beijing city media bureaucracy, is associated with Politburo members who owe their loyalties to former leader Jiang Zemin. The man who took Long’s place, an aging deputy named Liu Binjie, got his start in the Communist Youth League propaganda circuit, making him a protégé of China’s current leader, Hu Jintao. The theory is that Hu’s designs on consolidating his power might to some extent have motivated the swap, as has been supposed in the case of other senior personnel moves and corruption shakedowns. Hu’s aims may involve not only tighter political control but also personal confidence and a somewhat cleaner, by-the-book bureaucratic culture heading into a five-yearly Party Congress this year. But even if this theory held water, it would likely be a corollary factor to the other two.

The third theory was the least staggering – corruption. Hong Kong and Chinese-language media overseas quoted sources saying that Long, who served as Beijing’s municipal propaganda minister and vice-party secretary before become head press censor was also implicated in corruption probe dating back to that time. A week after Long was reassigned, his wife was reported to be under “double regulations” over her activities at a major state-owned company.

Party disciplinary agents typically use to hold state officials while investigating them. So the message that Long himself was under “double regulations,” would have lent credence to this lattermost explanation for his transfer. Your correspondent sent a message back to the source: Why the “double regulations”?

A reply came immediately: “Gehua Corruption Case”.

Beijing Gehua is an advertising, entertainment, and digital TV conglomerate linked to the Beijing city propaganda department. Its controlling shareholder is the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper group, the first state-owned media entity to list an arm on the stock market. But after an IPO in Hong Kong in late 2004, its reported net profits shrank by 99.76 percent in the first half of 2005, a tip-off that books were cooked beforehand. Within months, half a dozen of managers of Youth Daily were detained for economic crimes. According to the respected Chinese financial magazine Caijing, a contractual dispute between Youth Daily and Gehua hastened the dragnet. Details of Long’s involved are fuzzy, said the source. But his wife was a major player with Gehua. And from the IPO through the beginning of the graft case, “Long was the city propaganda bureau chief and party vice-secretary directly in charge,” said. Still, if his wife alone was found to be at fault – or if was protected by higher-ups – he could settle for being sidelined.

Funny thing is, unravelling the “reasons” for Long’s downfall might not tell us “reasons”. Under Beijing’s one-party system, enforcing justice is not a matter of transparency and due process but, bottom line, of sending the right signals to the right people. Zheng Xiaoyu’s sentence of execution – a response not just to corruption itself but the international headlines it generated – is a dramatic example. And, viewed in this light, the different theories about Long may in reality co-existently hold. Long’s could be in trouble for different reasons to different parties, all using his situation to telegraph signals to their constituencies. The lesson relayed to the public and the foreign press, is: the censor pays. To the party (hypothetically): the mismanaging, nepotistic official pays. To the factionally inclined senior leadership: the uncontrollable servant pays.

Of course this is all complicated by spin from different quarters. My attempts to confirm the tip hit a dead-end.

I asked a magazine publisher friend who’s a blood relation of a senior publishing official: “I don’t know. It’s not easy to ask.”

I pressed him. “No one’s saying! No one will say!”

I asked another publisher friend who previously told me he knew Long.

“If he was under double regulations, no one had heard about it. And I asked some people high enough to know.”

So I went back to the original source: “Are you certain?”

“Very certain.”

How do you know? “Heh…I had dinner with Liu Binjie (Long’s replacement). He told me. Liu was planning to retire soon. He never expected this.”

By this time, over a week had passed since this alleged dinner. I decided to ring the bureau of historical research, and got the number to Long’s office. When I called, a man answered. I told him what I’d heard.

“How is that possible? I am his secretary. He’s been coming to work all along. Where did you hear that?”

He said mumbled something to the effect of “all is normal” and hung up the phone.

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