By David Bandurski — “Above there are policies, below there are countermeasures” (上面有政策,下面有对策). So goes the popular saying that more or less sums up the age-old dilemma of enforcement and entrenched local power in China. And as China’s central leadership pushes the principal (if not necessarily the practice) of information openness, local leaders are becoming more cunning than ever in applying countermeasures to deal with increasingly freewheeling media.

Now, it appears, local cadres are taking the fight to places far beyond their jurisdiction.

Last week, a number of national media in China turned to the harrowing story of local Liaoning businesswoman Zhao Junping (赵俊萍), who was detained for seven months in Xifeng County, Liaoning, before being tried and found guilty on charges of defamation and tax evasion in what appears to be a vendetta by local party secretary Zhang Zhiguo (张志国) involving a contested land seizure [See TIMELINE below]. National media coverage followed a January 2 report by Faren Magazine, a spin-off publication of China’s Legal Daily,

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In today’s China Youth Daily we learn that even as commercial media were turning to the Zhao Junping Case on January 4 — an editorial in Southern Metropolis Daily related it to the Pengshui SMS Case back in 2006 and underscored the need for political reform — local Liaoning officials were in Beijing investigating and intimidating the journalist, Zhu Wenna (朱文娜), responsible for the original Faren Magazine report.

On January 3, the day after Zhu Wenna’s Faren Magazine report was published, the local prosecutor’s office in Xifeng County ordered Zhao Junhua (赵俊华), the older sister of local Xifeng businesswoman Zhao Junping, to appear for questioning. Zhao Junhua tells China Youth Daily she was pressured with accusations that she had paid the Faren Magazine reporter for the negative story. It was not possible, reasoned her interrogators, that a reporter would travel from Beijing to Liaoning for a story unless she had been offered payment.

The next day, Xifeng County’s propaganda chief, Li Fulu (李福路), and the head of the county’s politics and law committee (政法委), Zhou Jingyu (周静宇), paid a visit to the offices of Faren Magazine in Beijing to speak with the editor in chief. That afternoon, a group of Xifeng police officers entered the magazine’s offices with an order for summons and detention. They said a “defamation” case had already been opened against the reporter Zhu Wenna and demanded to speak with her about it.

China Youth Daily quoted Zhou Yi, a law professor from the China Youth University for Political Sciences, as saying that “if Xifeng Party Secretary Zhang Zhiguo believes that the SMS message sent out by Zhao Junping or the report written by Zhu Wenna are defamatory, he can bring a defamation case in a court of law. But for the Xifeng police to formally investigate a journalist for defamation, that is clearly against the law.”

The brazen actions of local officials in Xifeng demonstrate the new and changing pressures facing journalists attempting to carry out cross-regional reporting, or yidi jiandu (异地监督), in China.

Cross-regional reporting, which involves media from one province or city carrying out investigative reporting in another region or area, has typically afforded media more opportunities to tackle tougher stories. As such stories — about corruption, for example — do not implicate officials in their corner of China’s vast bureaucracy, media have generally been able to pursue them without the immediate fear that they will be censored or otherwise punished.

One of the most notable examples of cross-regional reporting was Zhang Jicheng’s seminal 1999 report on the HIV-AIDS epidemic in Henan province. While Zhang worked as a reporter for a local Henan paper, his report on AIDS in Wenlou Village, unpublishable in the local media, was run in Sichuan province’s Huaxi Dushibao.

In recent years, Chinese journalists have reported a number of tactics used by provincial and local officials to curb cross-regional reporting, including you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours pacts in which local party leaders agree to discourage investigative reporting by media under their immediate control.

The following is a timeline of the Zhang Junping case compiled on the basis of the January 7, 2008, China Youth Daily report:

Early 2006 — The Shenfeng Petrol Station (沈丰加油站), run by female business owner Zhao Junping (赵俊萍), owner of two petrol stations and one market, is slated for destruction by authorities in Xifeng County, Liaoning Province as part of local urban development plans. The Property Estimates Office of the local real estate bureau (房产局房产评估事务所) estimates the value of Zhao’s property at 3.64 million yuan (US$501,073). The local demotion and removal office (拆迁办) organizes a second estimation, and the value is given as 220,000 yuan (US$30,284). Zhao Junping objects to the estimate and enters numerous negotiations to no result.

May 2006 – The Shenfeng Petrol Station is forcibly demolished. Zhao Junping files numerous complaints with various government offices.

February 28, 2007 – Xifeng’s top leader, party secretary Zhang Zhiguo (张志国) reportedly orders that no compensation must be paid to Zhao Junping, that her remaining petrol station (not involved in the demolition dispute) must be shut down and that local police must be mobilized to deal with her.

March 3, 2007 – Police in Xifeng County claim to receive information from an “informant” saying that Zhao Junping’s third business, a market (自选商场), was illegally avoiding taxes. An investigation is opened against Zhao Junping and a stink made over the case on local county television (also under the control of top county leaders, including Zhang Zhiguo).

Early March 2007 – Zhao Junping angrily sends out a text message to a number of officials in Xifeng County saying: “In Xifeng, Liaoning Province, there is a major [criminal] case [going on]. The county head surnamed Zhang has lorded it over the county for six years. His corruption through misuse of the law is boundless . . . A major market case afoot/cadre-business collusion black as soot/a cloud gathers over Xifeng County.” The very day the SMS is sent out, “according to direction for county leaders” claiming slander and defamation, Zhao Junping’s sister and others are arrested for alleged role in sending out the message.

March 15, 2007 – Upon learning of the arrest of relatives, Zhao Junping sets out for Beijing with materials concerning the illegal activities of Xifeng Party Secretary Zhang Zhiguo. Her intention is to make a report to the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.

March 21, 2007 – Xifeng police arrest Zhao Junping in Beijing and take her back to Xifeng, confiscating all materials on her person.
On October 30, after Zhao Junping has been detained for more than seven months, the court in Xifeng opens that tax evasion and defamation case against her.

December 28, 2007 – The Xifeng court determines Zhao Junping is guilty on the charge of defamation, and that the nature of the crime is serious, “harming social order.”

January 2, 2008 – Faren Magazine’s report on the Zhao Junping Case is widely disseminated by Web media across China. The same day the prosecutor’s office in Xifeng County issues a notice to Zhao Junping’s sister, Zhao Junhua (赵俊华), asking to appear at the office for questioning the next day.

January 3, 2008 – Zhao Junhua is taken in for 12 hours of questioning by Xifeng authorities, who insist Zhao paid Faren Magazine reporter Zhu Wenna (朱文娜) for the report. Zhao insists she does not know the reporter and did not pay her. Employees in the prosecutor’s office insist this is not possible. There is no way, they say, that the reporter would travel from Beijing to Xifeng without payment.

January 4, 2008 – Xifeng County’s propaganda chief, Li Fulu (李福路), and Zhou Jingyu (周静宇), head of the county’s politics and law committee (政法委), visit Faren Magazine in Beijing to speak with the editor in chief. Later in the afternoon that day, a group of Xifeng police officers arrives at the magazine’s offices saying a “defamation” case has already been opened against Zhu Wenna and demand to speak with her about it.