It was a rare and bold gesture by The New Express, a newspaper in China, to print across the top half of its front page the words “Please Release Him” in about size 124 font on Oct. 23. One of its reporters, Chen Yongzhou, had been detained by police after he wrote a series of articles alleging financial irregularities by the Chinese heavy-equipment manufacturer Zoomlion, and the paper was demanding his release.
It took only a few days for the Communist Party’s central authorities to swing into action: the paper was quickly muzzled, and the detained reporter was on Oct. 26 trotted onto China Central Television (CCTV), in police garb, to confess to taking money for writing the articles.
The next day the newspaper had to take to its front page again—this time with an apology. “Our newspaper took inappropriate measures, severely harming the public credibility of the media. The lesson we have learned is profound,” it said.
Now, nobody knows the truth of the matter. Had Chen Yongzhou indeed taken money and written unfair attacks on Zoomlion? Or was this merely a case of the Communist Party’s propaganda authorities punishing an upstart newspaper and its reporter?
Whatever the case, the incident showed how due process can be thrown out the window when the Party needs to achieve a political objective, as well as the perils for a newspaper in China that attempts to challenge the authorities, according to analysts who closely followed the case.
Chen Yongzhou, who is 27 years old, appeared contrite during his appearance on CCTV, when he made his confession. His head was shaved, and he was wearing a teal-colored vest provided by police.
“None of these articles were written by me,” he said. “The original articles were provided by other people, I just fixed them up and they published them.” He later said: “I regret deeply what I have done. … I hope the whole news profession can draw a lesson from my example.”
The following day, the Express placed the apology on its front page, saying, “We will take this incident as a warning and earnestly correct the extant issues, increasing control over the publication process.”
But Chinese Internet users, and observers, could not help but asking: If Chen was really to blame, why didn’t the authorities follow normal legal procedures? Why take the extraordinary measure of bringing him onto television to confess his misdeeds to the nation?
It certainly did not help the regime’s case that Chen appeared to have a bloody wound on his neck during the televised confession, a fact that online commentators made much of. The writing on the wall in the interrogation room behind him—“using torture to gain confessions is prohibited”—offered a grim juxtaposition.
A string of incidents that seem troublingly similar to the Chen Yongzhou forced confession have also occurred recently: There was the self-confession of Charles Xue, a venture capitalist with a pro-democracy bent, and Peter Humphrey, an Englishman who ran a financial investigation firm.
“After those people were arrested, the first thing they did wasn’t to meet their families and lawyers to have their rights for defending themselves, but to ‘confess their crimes’ on CCTV,” noted Fengqingyang, a well-known Internet commentator. “Are they idiots? Are they that happy to be in prison?”
According to Hu Ping, the chief editor of Beijing Spring, a pro-democracy publication run from New York, “It’s obvious that the newspaper received pressure from higher levels.”
The authorities were able to air the reporter’s confession even before any legal procedures, trial, or conviction. “Why did they shave his hair and make him wear a prison uniform? There are also pictures online showing injury marks on Chen’s neck. There’s obviously something fishy about it.”
Si Weijiang, a rights lawyer in China, told South China Morning Post that material from police investigations is a state secret before a court hearing, and only lawyers are allowed to approach suspects. “Who gave CCTV the right to violate these legal procedures?” he asked.
Behind the scenes is the original target of the articles: Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Development Co. Ltd., which has a market capitalization of $42 billion. The government of Hunan Province had a 16 percent stake in the company at the end of 2012.
With additional reporting by Lu Chen.