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GoetheInstitute

27/09/2006

Bing Dian Stories

Li Datong's tale of a legendary Chinese village tyrant

The Lettre Ulysses Award, the only international prize for literary reporting, will be awarded in Berlin on September 29. We preview one of the texts: Li Datong's report of the legendary career of a Chinese village tyrant. It was one of the several critical texts for which the Beijing-based journalist lost his job.

In the China of the 1990s, there was a phenomenon in officialdom known as “officials make statistics, statistics make officials”. Government officials at all levels of the administration reported to the next level up economic statistics which had been deliberately doubled so the official could ‘inflate their own importance’. And the higher these figures went up the administrative hierarchy the more they were faked. This is not to say the higher officials did not know the statistics were faked; rather, they themselves needed these faked statistics. And the facts attest that the officials who exaggerated their figures the most have risen fastest through the ranks – ‘inflating their own importance’ indeed.

Their lies and fraudulences bordered on the absolute absurd. For example, an official in Shiyan Municipality in Hubei Province who was keen to prove his ‘green’ credentials, arranged for an entire barren mountainside to be painted green so when a high official passed by on the road below he’d be impressed by the ‘verdant jungle’ outside his car. In Fang County in Hubei Province, officials wanting to impress some touring high officials with their success at goat breeding, had a class of elementary school children go out on a hillside with each child draped in a chemical fertilizer bag so they’d look like a herd of goats. It seemed nothing was unimaginable.

In China’s political environment there’s yet another saying that goes: “the paradigm exceeds the official, the official exceeds the paradigm”: local administrations spare no effort discovering and then proclaiming some new paradigm of achievement in their own area; this is then loudly proclaimed to have set the highest standard in the entire province, and then to be the highest standard in the whole country. This standard thus becomes one of the local officials’ finest achievements.

At dawn on 16 April 1999 in Danjiangkou City under the jurisdiction of Shiyin Municipality, Hubei Province, an “important event” occurred: Min Dewei, the Branch Party Secretary of Minjia Village in Jun County, Danjiangkou City, died from throat cancer.

On 17 April, the Danjiangkou City Party Secretary ordered three Party Committee members to travel through the night and rain to offer their condolences to his family.

On 23 April, Danjiangkou City started a “Learn from Min Dewei” campaign.

By 19 May, all of Shiyin Municipality had taken up the “Learn from Min Dewei” campaign.

On 28 May, all of the news media outlets in Hubei Province decided to treat Min Dewei as the next important paradigm, the next exemplar, and from 18 June onwards concentrated their efforts and resources into arranging dozens of teams to conduct interviews or people who knew or had heard of him.

Danjiangkou City People’s Arts Theatre hastily arranged and put on 30 large-scale and up-to-date performances of Hanjiang Hun. Danjiangkou City Party Committee arranged for, edited and published Exemplar – The Deeds of Comrade Min Dewei; a printing house in Beijing published a report The Good Branch Party Secretary from the Mountains – Min Dewei, and a collection of reports on the achievements of Min Dewei was the subject of lecture tour throughout the province.

Everyone listened to the programs, watched the TV pictures and heard the lectures, and everyone burst into tears, made donations and swore to be more resolute in their support for the Party.

But, as can be seen from the timescale of it all, it had been planned long before – the seed and the spirit of the paradigm had been planted long before. Even before the dead man’s funeral was over he had already been made into a model official for Danjiangkou City. Within two short months he was ‘elevated to a higher plane’ by first becoming an exemplar for all of Shiyin Municipality; he then became an exemplar for the entire province, and as the campaign continued be soon became known as a model of integrity and industry throughout the whole country.

But then at the beginning of 2000 we received several reports saying everything about Min Dewei was fake; it was all a filthy lie.

And these reports didn’t come from members of the general public; these reports were written by three Xinhua journalists with Fortnightly Discussion who had been to Min Dewei’s hometown and conducted their own detailed investigations. Their headline was “Village Tyrant Passed Off as the Finest Paragon in the Province” with sub-headings as follows: “A Secret Survey of the Villagers’ Impressions”, “Opposite Opinions: Villagers or Appraisal – Fact or Fiction?”, “Villagers Incredulous – ‘They’ve Painted a Halo Over a Demon’”, “Democracy Trampled Underfoot, Investigation Whitewash by Glory-Hunters”.

Reading the report it was obvious that the phenomenon of local government officials attempting to inflate their own importance had reached a simply preposterous degree. I asked the Xinhua journalists why the piece hadn’t been published. They told me it had originally been prepared for publication in Fortnightly Discussion but after provincial-level officials in Hubei heard about it, things were “smoothed over” and they had to submit the piece to Freezing Point instead.

The Xinhua journalists’ research was certainly reliable, and I prepared an edit for publication. But I had a call from one of the journalists that evening asking whether “due to extenuating circumstances”, would it be possible to remove the journalists’ names from the by-line, and to publish instead under false names. Of course that would have been impossible: journalists must put their own names to investigative and critical pieces. I said to the Xinhua journalist that in this case, we’d send our own journalist to cover the story.

Soon after the Spring Festival, I sent Cai Ping to cover the story. Before she went she pulled out practically everything written about Min Dewei, all of which showed that the main substance of his ‘political achievements’ was that before he became village chief, his was one of the very few wealthy households in the village. After being ‘recommended’ to the post by the villagers, he forsook his 6000 RMB-per-year1 work as a carpenter in order to take up the position of village chief for 600 RMB per-year.

As soon as he took up the position, he instigated a system of ‘Village Glasnost’ and established a villagers’ budgetary group to thoroughly scrutinise cadres’ expenses and income. All of the accounts were opened up for the scrutiny of the villagers and village meetings.

In the six years he was the village cadre, he always acted in the finest traditions of the Party and never once recklessly spent a single penny of the collective’s funds or sought personal advantage from the collective.

He led the masses through ice and bitter cold to reclaim land in the barren mountains, constructing several hectares of high quality orange groves.
He put enormous efforts into building up the fisheries industry. He set up Min Deshan, the poorest householder in the village, as a model householder and helped him build a pig-sty, buy piglets and feed, and that year he raised eight pigs bringing himself an income of over 10,000 RMB.

Min Dewei actually gave Zhou Youchun, the poor householder who lived out on the boundary of the reservoir district, his life savings of 5000 RMB from his time as a carpenter so that Zhou Youchun could build aquaculture nets – he earned over 30,000 RMB a year.

For 10 years he took the 70-year-old widower Zhou Dafu into his own home and treated him like his own father. In order to resolve drinking-water problems for people and livestock, he led the masses in digging seven ponds, excavating five powered wells and seven irrigation channels, and thus completely resolved the long term water concerns of the Minjia villagers – in a single leap the village became the most progressive, the most ‘well-off in an all round-way’2 village in the whole municipality.

From when he assumed the position in March 1993 through to the end of 1994, the agricultural tax burden of 240,000 RMB was cleared in full with 280,000 RMB of revenues, leaving a 40,000 RMB surplus.

With all his heart and soul, Min Dewei’s sole ambition was to serve the people; his only ‘selfish act’ was to have a public funeral. When he died hundreds of people were devastated. (Other reports stated: thousands of people – men, women, young and old – were simply shattered.)

The day before Cai Ping went to Minjia Village she invited a few of the villagers – and several other people who had moved out of the village – to meet her at the foot of nearby Wudang Mountain.

Cai Ping was stunned by the reactions when he asked them about Min Dewei. “Everything you read in the papers is false. He was a classic tyrant.”

The villagers gave Cai Ping two documents: one was a copy of a petition from the villagers dated January 1997 which detailed all manner of misdemeanour perpetrated by Min Dewei after he had been appointed Village Branch Party Secretary; the second was a petition dated November 1999 entitled “Reporting the Falsehoods of the so-called ‘Provincial Exemplar’ Min Dewei of Jun County Town in Danjiangkou City”. The report listed 27 instances of Min Dewei’s actions failing to tally with the propaganda.

“We said all of this three years ago, but they still set him up as a model official when he died!”

Cai Ping systematically prepared a whole string of questions for the villagers based on the newspaper reports about Min Dewei’s deeds and achievements.

“No one consulted with us about Min Dewei being made village chief, and we certainly didn’t elect him,” said the villagers. “Cadres have always been nominated from above in this village. There’s never been any need for the Village People’s Congress or for any other kind of meeting. If one of the higher leaders had ever come here with one of the new appointees, and if we were sure that there was no chance of revenge against us, then all of the villagers would have dared tell the truth to the higher leader. The newspapers said that when the Deputy Mayor of the Township was appointed, he tried everything he could to persuade Min Dewei to become village chief, and seeing as he was Min Dewei’s cousin he managed to persuade him – he wasn’t going to say no. There’s a saying in our village: ‘If you want to become rich, be an official; whoever becomes an official will become rich.’”

“It’s a bit much to say that Min Dewei was one of only a few wealthy households in the village,” said a villager.

“When he took the post, he lived in a three-roomed mud house, dabbled in a bit of carpentry – he wasn’t that good – and relied on the little bit of land he farmed. Where was he going to get six or seven thousand RMB a year doing that? And it was just ridiculous: a few years after he became village chief he managed to build the first two-storey home in the whole village, and did anyone look into where he got the money to build it?”

“And they say he opened the books? You can bet your life he never did! We didn’t know what the ‘Fiscal Prudence Small Group’ was or anything, but one of them looked after the money and the other looked after the paperwork for him. Even when they submitted their annual financial reports to the next level up, no books were ever opened up.”

“The truth of the matter is, after he became village chief it didn’t matter whether it was a personal or an official expense, he never once failed to claim for it. There was only him and the two people on the small group who knew, after all – he never paid for a single thing. Once, some of the villagers reported Min Dewei’s economic problems to the next level up and they asked to see a ledger. So Min Dewei told the accountant to prepare two sets of books, but to make them as opaque as she possibly could. The head of the village Women’s Committee was there at the time; she was a witness to this conversation.”

Could it really be that all the achievements of an “important role model” for the whole province had been fabricated?

“The reports said that Min Dewei led us to plant those orange groves, but that is just so far from the truth. The village has had those groves since the seventies – what could Min Dewei have done in the time he was village boss? You can go and take a look at the groves now if you like: it’s easy enough to see which trees are decades old and which ones aren’t.”

And so the villagers took Cai Ping through the orange groves telling her who tended each of the trees and in which year the tree had been planted. “To try and make some propaganda out of him, the leaders said that Min Dewei deserved all the credit for the village’s orange groves, but even the journalists knew that this wasn’t true.”

The villagers laughed out loud when discussion turned to how Min Dewei helped the poor and how he helped Zhou Youchun. “He has an interesting story – you should ask him yourself to tell you all the ins and outs.”

These so-called “achievements” could be falsified, but what about the irrigation ditches, the powered wells and the bridges – could they be falsified?

“You can ask us villagers: you wont find a powered well anywhere here, and go and see if you can find a pond or a bridge too, and if you go along the non-existent roads he supposedly built for us you can go into any of the buildings in our so-called ‘well-off in an all-round way’ village and see that we still draw water from Han River, and see that we don’t even have food to eat and that some families don’t even have salt. We don’t know what the government’s standard is for a ‘well-off in an all-round way’ village, but if this is it, then socialism’s screwed.”

“Do you want to know how 280,000 tax credits were submitted? Do want to know why we had so many credits?” a villager asked Cai Ping. “He reported the village’s average annual income as being 2700 RMB. Making 1000 RMB isn’t bad! But if it hadn’t been reported in the paper then we wouldn’t have known about this supposed 2700 RMB. He said the village had 10 fish ponds with an annual production of 230,000 kg. But actually there isn’t a pond anywhere in the whole village, so whenever a high-ranking official came in he’d go to the river bank and buy a whole load from one of the private fishermen. He said each family in the village had an average of 12.6 pigs and 8800 chickens – it was pure fantasy. No one could manage half that. But the more false reports he made the more credits were accrued, and so the bigger and bigger the tax bill became. And whoever couldn’t afford to pay, Min Dewei used to come along with one of his brothers dressed up in a policeman’s uniform and take them away in shackles. A good many of us villagers were taken away in shackles. Someone in your family would have to go and pay to get you out otherwise they’d come and break up your house and just take the TV set.”

“My older brother was taken away in shackles,” one of the villagers said to Cai Ping.

“Min Dewei came to my home one day with someone else and demanded this tax debt or I’d be taken away! And so in the new year I went to see the brigade leader and see the books, but he hadn’t even written down the money he’d taken from me – where’s my money?” shouted a woman villager.

On the 13th day of the new year, it rained constantly and all through the night. Early the next day Cai Ping went back to Minjia Village. But the villager who was due to accompany her back hesitated, and said “If the village cadres see us, we’ll be done for.”

Cai Ping was adamant she wanted to go, and there was no way the villager could stop her. He said he’d take her across the river, but then she’d have to look after herself so that he could get away without being seen.

Cai Ping stepped into a boat by the riverbank with a young man tending the small engine and rudder. She certainly hadn’t planned to interview him, but his answers to her casual questions made for a revealing exchange.

“Are you from Minjia Village?” she asked.

He nodded.

“How many powered wells are there in the village?”

“What’s a powered well?” He didn’t know.

“Where do you get your drinking water from?”

“Our collective has running water.”

“Really? Running water?”

“Kind of,” said the young man. “The collective’s well is up on the mountain and so the water flows down to us.”

“So are you at middle school?”

“Middle school? I did my fifth year and then my family couldn’t afford to send me to school any more.”

“I thought this was meant to be a ‘well-off in an all-round way’ village – but you can’t afford school?”

“A well-off village!? We’re so poor it’s pathetic,” he said. His face reddened and he fell into an ashamed silence.

The road became harder after crossing the river and the villager who had crossed with Cai Ping became worried for her and decided to brave accompanying her all the way to Minjia Village. Indeed, the road on the other side of the river got harder and harder with every step: heavy lumps of red mud clung to Cai Ping’s feet until she found her legs were trembling with the effort of walking. The reports had said: “Min Dewei made sure that the paved road extended all the way to the river bank for the villagers.”

Cai Ping went into a villager’s home to interview the family. As soon as she stepped inside she was struck by the gloom – she could barely see the opposite wall and it took her a while to become accustomed to the darkness. She saw several small shafts of light coming through the ceiling.

“Do you think you’re the poorest family in the village?” she asked.

“Stay a while in the village and have a look around at the other homes – everyone’s more or less the same.”

Cai Ping saw there was a television set standing on what appeared to be a refrigerator, but the picture was just a snowstorm. “You don’t get a good signal here,” she said. “There’s not a trace of colour in the picture there.”

“What are you talking about ‘colour’? It’s black and white for a black and white household, as it should be.”

“Is that a refrigerator it’s standing on?”

“That’s no fridge, it’s a cupboard! No, the electricity’s only just been hooked up.”

And so it was that in this ‘progressive’ village, this ‘well-off in an all-round way’ place, they had neither running water nor roads.

“So how many homes in the village have enough to eat?”

“At least a third,” answered one of the villagers.

“There’s been a bad wheat harvest these past two years because of the drought, but the taxes are the same as ever.”

“So what happens when there’s not enough to eat?”

“We buy food with borrowed money.”

“So do your children go to school?”

“They can do three years of school, but after that we can’t afford schooling.”

“So did you slaughter a pig for the New Year?” she asked one of the villagers.

“No, no we couldn’t spare it. We bought a little meat instead.”

“But I thought every family had an average of 12.6 pigs and slaughtered five a year?”

“As if! Even Min Dewei didn’t have 12 pigs.” Despondency added to the gloom in the home.

Cai Ping managed to find Zhou Youchun, the ‘poorest villager’ mentioned in the press reports. Zhou Youchun was determined to relate to Cai Ping every detail of the entire farce from start to finish.

After Min Dewei died, journalists appeared asking for interviews and asking to be taken to see the nets that Min Dewei paid to be built for him.

“There’s no fish breeding going on here – Min Dewei never gave me money to breed fish. I think someone’s been telling you lies,” Zhou Youchun had said.

The journalists were stunned.

“But what could I do?” said Zhou Youchun to Cai Ping, laughing. “No one had told me yet what to say, and so I didn’t know what lies to tell!”

The cadres could see there was a serious problem, and called on Zhou Youchun within the hour. “How can you say that?” they asked with a reassuring smile. “He was a model cadre! You really should be a bit more responsible.”

The cadres handed him a report which they wanted him to quickly read. He came to the sentence, “Min Dewei gave him 5000 RMB he’d saved when he was a carpenter so he could start his fish farm,” and was a little uneasy. “What if Min Dewei’s family ever ask me to give the money back?” he asked.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be your witness,” said the cadre, and wrote him a note to that effect.

The next day, Zhou Youchun went to the township and when he saw the journalist there he said to him, “I raise fish.”

“Yesterday you didn’t but today you do?”

“Yesterday, I thought you were going to tax me!” said Zhou with a laugh. “I didn’t dare say anything.”

He went on to relate to the journalist all of the details he’d read in the report the day before, but was careful to add a proviso: “Of course, to make sure everything would always be good between us I gave him back the 5000 RMB.”

The township cadres wanted to have a few pictures of him, but there wasn’t a fish pond in the village and the nearest one was 20 km from Minjia Village. But Zhou Youchun didn’t want to go, so the village cadres arranged for someone else to go instead of Zhou with the obvious result that the journalists said “But that’s not him!”

And so the township cadres had to send a message telling Zhou to come, and made one of the Village Party Committee members personally responsible for bringing him to the village with the pond.
He had to learn the ‘script’ before the shoot, and was taught the kinds of movements a fish breeder would make so he could perform them for the camera. The photographers wanted a bit more realism, and told him to strip down to his waist. He refused. “You’re not a bloody fashion model – it’s not like we’re telling you to get your tits out!” one of them shouted.

And so Zhou took off his shoes and socks and rolled his trousers up and performed a few of the actions for them.

“It’s awful when I think back on it now,” said Zhou. “I regret it. I should have told the truth.”

“The reports said that after Min Dewei helped you to become rich by breeding fish, you bought a motor boat for 30,000 RMB.”

“That’s ridiculous. I had to borrow that money for the boat, and I’m still trying to pay it off now.”
It had to be concluded that the local media played a particularly odious role in fabricating the myth of Min Dewei.

A television crew came to interview two villagers, one of whom was elderly. The journalists asked him to fill and then light his pipe so they could film it – it was something seldom seen these days. He did as he was told. When he’d lit the pipe, one of the journalists said “Comrade, there’s a bit of tobacco there by your eye – could you brush it away?” The old man brushed his eye. “No, it’s still there,” said the cameraman and the old man brushed his eye again. This scene was then presented as the devoted old Party veteran wiping away his tears at the death of Min Dewei.

One of the local journalists quietly told Cai Ping that when they went to Minjia Village they hadn’t the time to arrange interviews and could only interview people the leaders had chosen for them. As soon as the interviews were done they then left having never had the time to wander through the village talking to people.

An old Party member told Cai Ping that when Min Dewei died, a meeting was called of all the Party members in the Township and the surrounding area. They were told that if anyone in their area said anything to the coming journalists that undermined Min Dewei, then they – the Party members – would be fined.

When Cai Ping first came to the village wanting to look around, people were terrified. They argued for more than an hour before finally deciding to lead her in, thinking in her old clothes and battered coat she’d be fine wandering around on her own and looking after herself.

Cai Ping walked the length and breadth of the village and in her own estimation, there was no way Minjia Village could be ‘well-off in an all-round way’.
The most eye-catching thing about the village was the bright white two-storey building where Min Dewei had lived surrounded by the dilapidated homes of the villagers, built who knew when. Everything she heard and saw rubbished the story of the model official.

According to the regulations on investigative reports, oral presentations on a report’s contents have to be given to leaders at the village, township and city levels, and the leaders’ thoughts [shuofa] must be included in the report. However, they had already passed the earlier Xinhua report, and so there was no way that this could be done again without losing the story entirely.

All of the facts from the interviews were reliable apart from a few small discrepancies in what the villagers said. And the basic facts could not be changed: where were the powered wells, the fish ponds and the hundreds of thousands of kilos of fish and the millions of oranges? And what about the villagers’ average income of 2700 RMB a year? All of these were the basis of the original fake reports.

In reality the report was more like a secret investigation. Right up until Cai Ping left Minjia Village, the villagers never knew where she was from or which paper she worked for. All they knew was that someone had come from outside to find out the truth about Min Dewei.

Cai Ping wrote up the manuscript quickly when she returned to Beijing, carefully going over it to burnish the details. The title of the piece was “At century’s end, the filthiest lie.”

We had assessed what dangers there might be in producing a report like this. Min Dewei may have been a small-time character, but in Hubei Province he was their ‘exemplar’ and there was bound to be a furious reaction when the report was published. But, it was a solid investigation and although it went against the rules by not presenting at the same time any rebuttals from Min Dewei’s side, the basic facts were still the basic facts, and they could not be changed no matter what was said.

“At century’s end, the filthiest lie” was published on 22 March 2000. Very soon, Freezing Point was receiving letters from readers in Shiyan Municipality who knew perfectly well why we had chosen to risk exposing this ‘model official’:

Dear China Youth Daily Editorial Board:

I was simply stunned upon reading the feature article in Freezing Point on 22 March.


Last summer, a lecture tour recounting the goods deeds of Min Dewei met at a hall in the county where I live. I am a middle-school teacher from the mountains around Bisai, and I was deeply moved by the accounts of such an honest yet seldom seen “clean official”, and I was deeply saddened by the news of his passing. It was only when I read your report that I realised the whole story was a political exercise, and it has left me infuriated, and with three serious and lingering doubts.

First: the myth of Min Dewei’s ‘model status’ spread from Danjiangkou City up to Shiyan Municipality, and from Shiyan Municipality up to Hubei Province;
and his crimes were changed into good deeds; lies were made true and the tyrant was made an innocent. And so who could do this – change black to white? And why would they do this? The reasons are clear as far as I can see: when Min Dewei was alive he was a money-stealing tool for other so-called leaders higher up; these people could steal with impunity through him, and then when old Min died they used his death to steal some political capital for themselves, bestowing on each other a touch of glory. This not only propagandises the story of Min Dewei and his ability and integrity, it also shines well on those leaders, highlighting their ability to ‘spot a good man for the job’.

Second, and a point most people are already aware
of: if it was only Min Dewei there’d be no problem. Premier Zhu Rongji said to Chinese and foreign journalists during the last National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference: there are a lot of Chinese people, and so it may seem there are more corrupt officials. Yes, one Min Dewei is not necessarily to be feared, but it’s all the others that are the cause of fear. Would Min Dewei still have dared to do what he did if the people beneath him dared to oppose him and if he was properly supervised by the leaders above him? The problem is, even if the people did dare to oppose him, the “leaders” did not supervise him. And so what could the people do when he started acting so outrageously with the effective support of the leaders? Some people have said so long as he was in bed with only the Deputy Mayor of the Township – just one level above his own – then the City, Municipal and Provincial officials would all look the other way. But of course, Min Dewei was in bed with the Deputy Mayor of the Township, who was in bed with the Deputy Party Secretary of the City, who was in bed with the Deputy Party Secretary of the Province. These links run from top to bottom, not mention within a single level; in a system such as this an honest leader would never stand a chance.

Third, is the old saying: “Good is rewarded with good and evil with evil; if the reward is not forthcoming it is because the time has not yet come; when the time comes one will get one’s reward.” But in the current climate I fear that this “time” is well beyond our reach. The Min Dewei invented by Danjiangkou City was entirely wrung from the common people until they were almost wrung to death. And despicably, even when Min Dewei died there were still people who wanted to wring what more capital they could from him. If these people had then just stopped and walked away after the death of Min Dewei, then it’s almost certain that the whole affair would in time have been forgotten – as is the way with the Chinese people’s thinking. But how many of them will ever come forward and confess to their wrong-doing? One of the most terrifying aspects of this is that they all have impunity while the ordinary people look at the case of Min Dewei and wonder how many more there are. I personally think that the only way such people can be dealt with is if the will exists to deal with them.

And I do not believe we will be around to see it!

Wang Jun.
No. 1 Middle School, Zhushan County, Hubei Province.


Readers in Danjiangkou City reported that the Freezing Point supplements in that day’s edition of China Youth Daily had all been removed by the Post Office in Danjiangkou, so other readers copied the article for them at their own expense and sent them to into the city.

On the third day after the report was published, the Hubei provincial authorities announced that a “Min Dewei Progressive Exemplar Situation Joint Investigation Team” had been formed under the authority of the Deputy Director of the Provincial Propaganda Bureau, and that they would immediately visit Minjia Village to carry out their own investigation.

We knew that we were going to have to be extremely careful. Their obvious intention was to completely discredit our article, and we could only imagine what kind of report the group would produce under all that pressure from all those leaders. We couldn’t sit and wait. I straight away said to the editor-in-chief that we should immediately establish the paper’s own investigation team and go again to Minjia Village, but this time to be completely open about it and conduct face-to-face interviews with all of the leaders. Obviously, the strongest reporters would have to be dispatched in these circumstances. And so after some discussion, the paper’s own investigation team of Lü Yuegang, He Yanguang and Cai Ping was assembled to once again go Minjia Village, to leave as soon as possible.

On route out to Hubei Province, the paper’s investigative team happened to meet up with a crew from the China Central Television program News Investigation. It turned out that having seen our report they decided to send out a crew of their own to cover the story. This amounted to the CCTV crew and our own team joining forces. The good thing about television is that it is impossible to deny the reality of what you’re seeing before you.

The News Investigation program would later play an important role in the court case. Anyone who ever saw this broken down and dilapidated village would never claim it was ‘well-off in an all-round way’ and here were the pictures for all to see:

Wang Zhi: Are there many people in the village who’ve built themselves a new home?

Villager: 97% of the villagers haven’t built a new home.

Wang Zhi: So why don’t they want to build?

Villager: They don’t have the money. We only make a few hundred RMB.

Wang Zhi had come to home of the village’s 2nd commune leader, and asked him when the home had been built. It was put up by someone in the previous generation, was the answer. The average annual income for the commune-leader’s family was 600 RMB.

Wang Zhi asked Li Qihua, the Deputy Mayor of the Township, how many mu of orange groves Min Dewei had established.

Li Qihua: More than 800.

Wang Zhi: And that can produce 1.2m kg of oranges?

Li Qihua: Yes.

Wang Zhi went on to ask the same questions of the Village Party Secretary. The Village Party Secretary said Min established 100 mu.

So how many oranges is that? The village accountant said 150,000 or 200,000 kg in a good year.

With the good deeds of Min Dewei, the village produced 330,000 kg of fish in 1998.

Wang Zhi: Was there 330,000 kg of fish?

Village Party Secretary: No.

Wang Zhi (to a villager): Are fish bred in this village?

Villager: I don’t known anyone who breeds fish. I’ve not seen it here.

Wang Zhi (puzzled): But you eat fish in the village, right?

Villager: What fish are we ever going to eat!?

News Investigation interviewed Zhou Youchun, the “fish-breeding specialist helped to wealth by Min Dewei.” Zhou explained how he had been coached to lie by the Township cadres. Wang Zhi took this particular point to Li Qihua, the village Party Secretary.

Li Qihua: Helping a villager to become wealthy with fish breeding – that happened. But you’ve got his name wrong, that was actually Zhou Chungen.

Wang Zhi: So, is this true or false?

Li Qihua: So long as the fact is there, it doesn’t matter who it was.

So where was this Zhou Chungen? News Investigation went to try and find him but according to the villagers he’d moved away from the village around 30 years previously, when Min Dewei wouldn’t even have been weaned.

When Min Dewei passed away, the only brick building in the village was the white one he’d built for himself.

Wang Zhi asked Li Qihua, the Deputy Party Secretary of the Township, how many people in the village could afford to build such a place for themselves?

Li Qihua: Lots of people could afford to.

Wang Zhi and the CCTV team went to interview a villager who was in the process of building a mud-brick home.

Wang Zhi: Why don’t you use brick, and why not build another storey?

Villager: Cadres can do that – there’s not one of the villagers could afford to do that.

The interview with Dong Yongxiang, the Deputy Party Secretary of Danjiangkou City, was even more interesting. Dong Yongxiang had gone to Minjia Village three times to ‘spread he word’ of Min Dewei’s good deeds.

Wang Zhi: And so when the Min Dewei phenomenon was being propagandised, was anything ever exaggerated?

Dong Yongxiang: Let’s say it was very close to reality.

Wang Zhi: How is it that no one in the village except for Min Dewei has built a brick home for themselves? How many families in Minjia Village, do you think, could afford to build a home like Min Dewei’s?

Dong Yongxiang: I have not yet conducted thorough research into that question.

Wang Zhi: Can you clear this up? How much land did Min Dewei actually convert into orange groves?
Dong Yongxiang: I have not yet been availed of the precise figures.

Wang Zhi: And the 330,000 kg of fish?
Dong Yongxiang: I have not yet perused the annual report.

Wang Zhi: You went to the village three times. The original reports said that the village averaged 12.6 pigs per household. How many households did you see with 12.6 pigs?

Dong Yongxiang (muttered): That figure is not based on… concrete research.

Wang Zhi: So what did you research?

Dong Yongxiang: It must be propagandised that he had a great deal of successes. He achieved a lot.
Wang Zhi: How did these successes show? Are there statistics?

Dong Yongxiang: (hesitating) Not all… statistically.
Wang Zhi: What here is the connection between statistics and integrity?

Dong Yongxiang: That’s just semantics.

Wang Zhi: But without the statistics, do you think this ‘model official’ status should still be conferred?

Dong Yongxiang (silence): Yes... it should still be established.

I don’t need to write out all of the interviews that were shown in News Investigation, but there were also accounts of him beating people, including the women he forced to be his live-in mistresses. It’s galling enough for us see how leaders at various levels propagated the idea of the ‘model official’ on the basis of these stories. Simply put, it was extremely irresponsible rumour-mongering.

Similarly, the paper’s second investigative team went over all of the statistics, took a huge number of photographs of the village, and most amazing of all, conducted interviews with many of the leaders involved. After the paper’s investigative team came back they immediately put their report together.

In the middle of April, a “Min Dewei Progressive Exemplar Situation Joint Investigation Report” was issued under the name of the then First Party Secretary of Hubei Province, who at the same time informed the Information Office of the State Council, the Central Organization Department and the Ministry of Propaganda, calling for the responsible people at China Youth Daily and the journalist Cai Ping to be “dealt with seriously”, and demanding that Cai Ping make a full and public apology. The report completely rejected everything that had been in the paper’s report, saying it was “false accusations by people who had contradictions with Min Dewei.”

We didn’t have to even see the report by Hubei Province to know what it would be like. And we had no doubt that whatever it was they investigated they could distort the results to however they wanted. But the Hubei Province report at least had to admit the existence of some of the discrepancies: “In the reports and declarations recommending Min Dewei to be a progressive exemplar, there were in places a few inaccuracies to enhance his model official status. […] For example, there were in fact rather a lot of un-official receipts in the village’s financial accounts. […] As another example, in the process of assessing the recommendation process, it was claimed that the village had gone from being backward to becoming ‘well-off in an all-round way’ and that the average annual income was 2780 RMB. However, this does not tally with the facts. Seven li4 of newly built road was described as 7 km of road. Annual production of oranges was in fact only 400,000 kg, but had been described as 1.2m kg. Families had on average three pigs, and not 12.6; and families on average had 10 chickens, not 40; and the average annual production of fish was actually only several thousand kilograms, and not 230,000 kg, etc. and so forth.”

We were all laughing hard by this point. It was as though they were bored with all of the falsifications – “etc. and so forth”! It was simply astonishing. In the conclusion of Hubei Province Party Committee’s own report, after it had already been proven without a doubt that Min Dewei’s credentials were all faked, they nevertheless argued: “However, in our considered opinion, no one is perfect. Perfection cannot be demanded of even a progressive exemplar, and especially not when that person is the most minor and lowly rural Village Branch Party Secretary.”

This was truly terrifying: for the sake of the Party and even in the very face of the facts, the same old irresponsible clap-trap.

We were extremely indignant at the paper, and sent our report to the central government along with a tape of the News Investigation program in the same way that internal government reports are circulated. We also included numerous colour photographs with our report – a move which was unprecedented. At the time the paper was under the Central Communist Youth League, the Secretary of which was from Hubei. When he looked at the photographs of Minjia Village he sighed, saying: “This place looks as awful as my hometown did 20 years ago. I don’t see how you could fail to win a lawsuit with this.”

The paper was under extraordinary pressure at this time. To have exposed as fraudulent an important provincially sanctioned model official in a national newspaper had never been done before. Criticism levelled at the paper from the relevant central government departments was that we should have been in touch with the provincial government before publishing the story – but what would they have said had we ‘been in touch’?

Because of the strength of the facts – and despite the threats – no contact was made by anyone in the Hubei provincial government with the paper’s senior management in the Communist Youth League. Instead, they went directly to three of the most important central Party offices demanding that the paper be ‘severely dealt with’. Ultimately however, the paper never had to undergo ‘correction’ and the journalists didn’t have to publicly apologise. And sadly, CCTV’s News Investigation report was never broadcast – it was one of the best programs they had ever made.

However, there was a sentence in the last section of the Hubei Province report: “The family of Comrade Min Dewei have our full understanding and support to sue the journalist Cai Ping for slander.”

Why had this been added to the report? Obviously, people in Hubei had arranged for the suit to be filed. So we waited patiently but a year later and we still hadn’t heard anything. And then another year later, four lawyers suddenly appeared from a practice in Danjiangkou City in Hubei representing Min Dewei’s family. They filed the suit at Dongcheng District Court in Beijing, suing the paper for 460,000 RMB as compensation for Min Dewi’s family.

We were a bit confused when we received all of the documents from the court. If they wanted to be sure of winning, they should have filed the case at a court in Hubei: with so much local protectionism in China’s legal system the paper could never have won in Hubei with all of the pressure and influence from the local Party and government. We could only assume that these lawyers just weren’t very good. Someone went to their offices to ask the reason for filing the case, and the lawyers answered it had all been arranged by the local leaders!

The case lasted about a year and in the end Dongcheng District Court threw it out.

*

The text originally appeared in Chinese in 1995, in the book "Bingdian" Gushi, published by Guangxi Normal University Press. The German translation will appear in the upcoming (December) issue of Lettre International.

Li Datong was born in Sichuan, China in 1952. In 1968, in the midst of China’s Cultural Revolution, he was sent to the grasslands of Mongolia, a province in northern China, and spent the next 10 years of his life as a herder. In 1979, he was allowed to leave Mongolia, to go and work for the China Youth Daily, a national newspaper, where he has been working ever since.

In 1995, he launched the Bing Dian (Freezing Point) weekly. In its 11 years, Freezing Point published features on all facets of contemporary China, many of them controversial. Freezing Point had great influence on its readers. At the end of January, 2006, Freezing Point was shut down by the authorities, Li was dismissed from his position as chief editor and banned from editorial work.

Li Datong has published two books: "The Story of Freezing Point," Guangxi Normal University Press, China, 2005; and "Using News to Influence Today,"
2006, TideTime Publishing Co. Ltd, Hong Kong

Translated from Chinese by Ben Carrdus.

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