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One Chinese City’s PR Nightmare

A sex slave scandal, a gutter oil factory, beatings and murders – its been a bad few weeks for the city of Luoyang in China. But not for the Chinese media’s image.

I strongly recommend setting up a Google News alert for the Chinese city of Luoyang. The city in central Henan Province, one of China’s ancient capitals, has been a magnet for scandals over the past few weeks, becoming the centre of national attention repeatedly following a string of food safety revelations, murders, kidnappings, police misconduct and the arrest of an official accused of keeping six women imprisoned in a makeshift dungeon as sex slaves for almost two years.

The stories also demonstrate the odd intersection of press freedom and local authority that characterizes investigative reporting in China.

The string of astonishingly bad press began on September 15 with an investigation by local media that uncovered a gutter oil factory, a plant which illegally gathered and resold cooking oil from gutters near restaurants. The story shocked an already food-wary public.  The journalist who produced the report, Li Xiang, was violently murdered six days after it appeared.

Meanwhile, Luoyang police were investigating the case of Li Hao, an official at Luoyang’s Quality and Technological Supervision Bureau accused of holding six women in a basement as sex slaves and murdering two. Police say that he raped the women repeatedly and forced them to act in pornography he sold over the internet; two were taken out to be used as prostitutes.  Two of the women, who the survivors say resisted his demands, were killed, their bodies found by police in shallow graves in the basement’s earth floor.

Police learned of the case on September 9, but local newspapers were forbidden to report on the arrest by city officials, who apparently feared it would endanger the city’s bid for a national ‘Civilized City’ award.  However, a journalist from Southern Metropolis Daily, one of China’s most respected outlets for investigative journalism, learned of the case from local policemen while in the city to report on Li Xiang’s murder, bringing the story to national attention.  Luoyang’s police chief apparently took the revelation as an embarrassment, apologizing for failing to discover the dungeon sooner.

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The second reporter, Ji Xuguang, also suffered retaliation for his work, as two men followed him into his hotel and told him to lay off the story. Ji said that the men claimed to be government authorities and told him that he had betrayed ‘state secrets’ with his report, demanding that he reveal his sources. Ji, understandably frightened, made an appeal for public attention on the Chinese microblog service Weibo and through his newspaper, and escaped from the city at night, carrying a knife for protection.

Even as this story broke, widely covered by national media, Luoyang authorities had another major instance of misconduct to explain: the kidnapping and beating of a local tourist in Beijing after he was mistaken for a petitioner planning to file complaints with the central government.  Such kidnappings are common practice among provincial governments, but this case attracted special attention for the mistaken identity of the victim.

These cases are a spectacular example of the corruption widespread in China’s smaller cities – and Luoyang, with an urban population of 1.5 million, is hardly the smallest or most remote – and also demonstrate some of the major problems with press freedom in China. Ji Xuguang is very clearly not The Guardian’s next Ai Weiwei – far from being suppressed by the state’s censorship apparatus, his story, along with the others mentioned here, has been extensively covered by the Chinese mainstream media. In fact, if you click on the link about the local officials who threatened Ji, you'll see that it leads to a story not only printed but translated into English by the semi-official People’s Daily.

So I’m surprised to see Ji’s story being reported as another example of the Chinese state cracking down on the freedom of speech, and the efforts to intimidate him being misreported in English as detention or even jail time. On the contrary, both cases seem to belong to a thuggish and desperate effort to control PR fallout by local interests. That national papers, including People’s Daily and the official Xinhua news agency have covered the stories shows very clearly that the officials involved lack the kind of high-level protection it takes to get stories suppressed by the state’s censorship authorities.

This is an important distinction: while journalists in Luoyang encountered serious problems – murder, intimidation, and a clampdown on local coverage of the Li Hao story that succeeded for two weeks – they were local responses that posed little difficulty for a national paper like Southern Metropolis. The story here is less 1984 than Deliverance – in the absence of effective central oversight, much of China is governed by almost feudal networks of patronage and protection, no more answerable to Beijing than it is to the public.