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Yueran Zhang senior contributor

Censorship Scandal Reaching Over 1,000 Miles Is Exposed On China’s Twitter

Many have foreseen that China’s burgeoning “Spot the Watch” online anti-corruption movement—in which netizens scour for photographic evidence of public servants wearing suspiciously expensive timepieces—would eventually incur governmental retribution. But few had anticipated what will surely become one of the biggest scandals in China’s news industry in recent years. On October 9, Wang Keqin (@王克勤), a journalist at the Economic Observer (@经济观察报), first circulated this shocking news on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter: 

“Transportation chief Li Dejin of Fujian Province wears a Rado diamond watch worth 50,000 RMB (about US$8,000) and a waist belt worth 15,000 RMB (about US$2,400). The Metropolis Times in Yunnan Province (@都市时报) had planned to run a piece titled ‘Fujian’s Watch Uncle is Coming’ on page A30 [on October 9]. Hundreds of thousands of copies had been printed, but were destroyed in the early morning due to pressure from Fujian Province [which is over 1,000 miles away]. Aggressive censorship of social media posts began as well.”{{1}}[[1]]福建交通厅厅长李德金手戴五万雷达镶钻手表,腰夸15000爱马仕腰带。原本今日云南 @都市时报 A30版,要推出《福建“表叔厅长”来了》。几十万份报纸已经印刷,凌晨却被跨省销毁,同时开始疯狂删帖。[[1]]

According to Hong Kong University’s Weiboscope tool, this post was retweeted over 107,000 times and received over 32,000 comments before being deleted by censors. A picture of the aborted article is below.

This article never made it to press, but went viral on Weibo instead.

As the news went viral on social media, more details emerged. Around 11 p.m. on October 8, Zhou Zhichen (@周智琛), Editor-in-Chief of the Metropolis Times, tweeted that the newspaper would feature an article on the Fujian transportation chief’s attire the next day. By that time, all articles in the next day’s paper had already been signed off and sent to the printer. According to informants who had read the piece, it only described Li’s expensive taste in accessories but did not accuse him of corruption. 

Around 3 o’clock on the morning of October 9, when all copies of the issue were off the press, the newspaper’s editors received seven calls from the Yunnan Provincial Party Committee, the Yunnan Propaganda Department and other government authorities requesting withdrawal of the piece on behalf of the Fujian Provincial Party Committee. Editors of the Metropolis Times had to replace the piece with advertisements and reprint all copies. By 6 o’clock a.m., new copies were printed and sent to distributors on time. 

While the Metropolis Times has not uttered any response on its official Weibo account, the chief editor, angry and frustrated, related what happened over night: “As a journalist from Fujian, I have never felt so angry and ashamed. I hate and despise the black hands that reached over thousands of miles. When I saw blood and tears on the hundreds of thousands of [destroyed] copies, I tried to comfort myself: Only survivors can contribute to the future. I hold to my belief that those people will answer for what they did eventually.”{{2}}[[2]]作为一个出身福建的媒体人,从未感到如此的愤怒和耻辱。我憎恨和鄙视那不远千里的黑手,当我看着那数十万份报纸沉郁不去的血泪,我安慰自己,只有幸存者,才能成为建设者,但我更加相信,那条沾满干爹气息的皮鞭和那部带着疯狂零件的时间机,只是黑暗者招受报应的开始,我坚信。[[2]]

Although censorship and government oversight is common in China’s news industry, it is rare to receive public confirmation of the destruction of already-printed material. Moreover, a provincial government’s reaching out to control the publication of another province’s newspaper a thousand miles away goes beyond the ordinary scope of censorship, even in China’s tightly-controlled environment. Deng Fei (@邓飞), a journalist at the Phoenix Weekly (@凤凰周刊), tweeted, “The nation is shocked. The news industry mourns. Chinese media has been castrated for many years, but what happened today is especially shameful. How can we face the public? Do we still have the courage to supervise the government?”

By Helodrgt via Wikimedia Commons

Wang Tianding (@王天定), a professor of journalism at Xi’an Foreign Language University, connected the incident to a similar happening in 1988. That year, “The local party committee in the township of Wuwei in Gansu Province forced the local newspaper to retrieve and destroy all printed copies of an issue because it contained criticism of the party committee. After the incident was reported by China Youth Daily, the Party committee chief was dismissed since the public was outraged. Two years later, however, he came back as the vice chief of the Propaganda Department in Gansu, in charge of news censorship. This anecdote tells us: It has become a tradition for some officials to challenge public opinion.”{{3}}[[3]]1988年甘肃发生过著名的“武威收报事件”,经《中国青年报》报道,一时轰动全国,迫于舆论压力,武威地委书记被免职,但两年之后,该书记出任甘肃省委宣传部常务副部长,主管全省新闻宣传。——说这件陈年旧事的意思是,有些人向民意示威挑衅,早已形成传统。[[3]]

Yet, 24 years later, little has seemingly changed. In the era of social media, when the Internet makes total concealment of negative news impossible and empowers netizens to share information about officialdom, the cost of this continued practice to governmental trust and prestige is potentially considerable. Netizens have revved up the “human flesh search” engine again to look for evidence of Li’s corruption, asking how he has power sufficient to mute a publication more than one thousand miles away. As @金剑玉箫 articulated: “Wearing an [expensive] watch or a waist belt is not a big deal. But destroying hundreds of thousands of newspaper copies in another province? That makes you an Internet star.”

This unfolding “Watch Uncle” incident thus marks two divergent trends at once. On one hand, the incident unveils the potentially breathtaking extent of China’s already rigid system of news censorship. On the other, the influx of strident netizen reactions evinces the power of social media, a power that makes it imperative for the government to alter its propaganda strategy when facing credibility crises. The Xinhua News Agency (@新华社中国网事), having make similar claims again and again, calls for candor and transparency of the government one more time: “China had become the country with the widest use of social media. Those officials who are the focus of the public opinion, please address issues directly; those government authorities that receive tip-offs from Weibo, please investigate.”

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Yueran Zhang

Yueran Zhang is a student at Duke University, class of 2015, currently majoring in sociology and math. He spent all of his life before college in Beijing.
  • http://www.facebook.com/alan.engel.tsukuba Alan Engel

    Has anyone considered the possibility that the watches and jewelry are fakes?

    • andrewfx51

      Catch 22 – admit they’re fake, lose face; undermine public trust, lose face.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alan.engel.tsukuba Alan Engel

    Has anyone considered the possibility that the watches and jewelry are fakes?

    • andrewfx51

      Catch 22 – admit they’re fake, lose face; undermine public trust, lose face.

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  • plasticlain

    What would be a good post: “disgraced” former officials and what jobs in the government they’ve been relegated to once the furor has died down.

  • plasticlain

    What would be a good post: “disgraced” former officials and what jobs in the government they’ve been relegated to once the furor has died down.

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