Over the past two days, the news that the executive of an aerospace company brutally attacked two Chinese members of the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) last month, putting both in the hospital, has exploded on China’s internet. Though the attack occurred nearly a month ago, on June 6, the case was given new life as a report by Du Wei (杜玮) was released yesterday from China Newsweekly (中国新闻周刊) through its official WeChat public account, Weekly Says (周刊君说), adding key facts to online reports circulating the day before.

According to the report, Zhang Tao (张陶), the chairman and Chinese Communist Party secretary of China Aerospace Investment Holdings (航天投资控股有限公司), was infuriated after two scientists, Wang Jinnian (王晋年) and Wu Meirong (吴美蓉), both IAA academicians, refused after a dinner invitation from Zhang to recommend the executive for membership in the Stockholm-based non-governmental organization, which was founded in 1960. As of July 2, Wang Jinnian and Wu Meirong both remained hospitalized, Wang with broken ribs and multiple bruises across his body, and Wu awaiting surgery for a fractured spine.

According to IAA, the group’s membership consists of “individuals who have distinguished themselves in one of the fields of astronautics or one of the branches of science of fundamental importance for the exploration of space.” Wang Jinnian, 85, was appointed to the IAA’s Board of Trustees in 2019. Zhang Tao, who hoped to join the group, had sought out Wang and Wu to make his proposal over dinner.

Screenshot of coverage of the Zhang Tao affairs by the public account of China Newsweekly.

On July 2, the China Newsweekly reporter, having seen rumours of the resulting confrontation circulating on the internet, sought Wang Jinnian out at his home for his version of events, only then learning that he remained in the hospital. According to a document provided to the reporter by an aerospace industry insider on the case, Wang Jinnian had agreed to meet Zhang Tao at the latter’s request. When Zhang raised the issue of IAA membership, Wang was cautious, saying that because this was the first time they had met the executive and they were unfamiliar with his work, it was best to hold off until they knew more. China Newsweekly reported:

At this point, Zhang Tao, disagreeing with Wang Jinnian, suddenly became furious and got up to strike him. Sitting on the other side, Wu Meirong was terrified by the situation and asked that they leave table. Around 10:30 PM that night, Zhang Tao and his company subordinates accompanied the two academicians back to Wang Jinnian’s Beijing residence. Before Wang Jinnian entered the elevator, Zhang Tao kicked Wang to the ground from behind and started beating him. He later pushed Wu Meirong to the ground and dragged Wang Jinnian out of the elevator to continue beating him.

One aspect of the China Newsweekly story to send the story viral yesterday was the fact, confirmed by staff at China Aerospace Investment Holdings, that Zhang Tao remained at work, having apparently suffered no consequences as a result of his brutal attack on the two men.

But fuel was poured onto the fire with the release online of a document from China Aerospace Science and Technology (航天科技集团), the parent enterprise of China Aerospace Investment Holdings. China Aerospace Science and Technology (CASC) significantly ups the ante for this story as a matter of public interest, and as a concern for the authorities. After all, the Fortune 500 company is the main contractor for China’s space program and, according to its own description, “the leading force of China’s aerospace science and technology industry.”

Apparently issued by the “Party Group Work Department” (党群工作部) at China Aerospace Science and Technology on July 2, as the Zhang Tao affair was picking up pace online, the document was a “Notice” concerning “articles and images of the Zhang Tao affair” circulating on the internet.  

A July 2 notice from China Aerospace Science and Technology cautions Party cadres to stay quiet about the Zhang Tao affair.

The notice reads: “The group has given this matter high priority, and it is in the process of fully understanding the situation. Afterward, according to the true circumstances and abiding by rules and regulations, it will handle [the case].”

Given the graphic nature of the images circulating around the internet and social media of Zhang Tao’s violent actions, and the fact that four weeks have passed without any apparent consequences for the executive, many felt the words stank of a cover up within the aerospace sector. And indeed the final word in the China Aerospace Science and Technology notice laid emphasis on the need to keep things under wraps. “We hope that Party cadres will not spread or disseminate this matter, and will strictly abide by political discipline and political rules,” it said, “making an effort to create a clear and upright public opinion environment.”

Responding on WeChat, the public account “Map Discoveries” (地图的发现) wrote: “The key to a ‘clear and upright’ public opinion environment lies in a clean and upright society, clean and upright cadres, and clean and upright measures to confront corruption and arrogance – not in maintaining silence when ugliness occurs.”

CMP Staff

The China Media Project

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