Chinese “Traitors” and the Foreign Press

A Forced Abortion Victim’s Family Tells Its Story, and Pays the Price

One of the images of Feng Jianmei that circulated on the Internet and sparked debate over this case.

On June 2nd, local family planning officials forced Feng Jianmei, a twenty-two-year-old Shaanxi woman pregnant with her second daughter, to undergo an abortion, as a consequence of China’s One Child Policy. In years past, this sad story might have ended there. But access to the Internet has allowed tens of thousands of people to spread and comment on Feng’s story, catapulting China’s three decades of coercive family planning into the international limelight just as blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s heroic campaign against forced abortions in the countryside was in the international spotlight.

While Feng’s case has sparked wide discussion, one underexplored aspect of it that deserves more attention is how her family wrestled with the question of whether to tell their story to the foreign media, and how they were vilified and persecuted for it when they did.

Feng was seven months pregnant when the abortion took place. This was nothing new in her hometown of Zengjia in Ankang City, Shaanxi province. Forced abortions, according other Zengjia residents, are “very common” among local women in their sixth or seventh month of pregnancy. But many were still shocked when a picture was posted online showing Feng’s stillborn girl, almost fully developed, lying lifeless next to her distraught and disheveled mother. The appalling story sparked widespread outrage. Netizens even wrote a song called “A Roar of Anger to Ankang” to express their exasperation with the brutal family planning officials. The abortion soon came to public attention, both in China and abroad.

More details, as if pulled from a crime thriller, have emerged from media investigations, Feng’s family’s Weibo account, and their lawyer’s blog. After local family planning officials found out Feng was pregnant with a second child, they demanded her family pay a 40,000 yuan fine, a fairly standard penalty for a second pregnancy. Her husband, Deng Jiyuan, did not have enough money. Rather than granting the family more time, family-planning officials bundled Feng into a van with a piece of black cloth over her head, then drove her to a hospital and held her down while medical staff injected poison into her pregnant belly. Feng delivered a fully formed, but dead, daughter.

After the news broke, guards were stationed outside Feng’s room at the hospital, preventing her from leaving. Meanwhile, when her husband tried to go to Beijing to see a civil rights lawyer and sit for a television interview, he was stopped by men in cars and beaten up. Local officials seemed to find the drama so unexciting that they brought it to a climax with an extreme move. After German journalists interviewed Deng Jiyuan, village leaders led people to the family house holding up banners that read “Beat up the traitors and kick them out of Zengjia.” Mr. Deng had no choice but to flee to Beijing.

Before this, Deng had told Zhang Kai, a lawyer from Beijing who had offered to provide legal assistance, that he trusted the government to settle the issue “fairly and satisfactorily” and therefore did not need his help. One detail is particularly noteworthy: Deng, a young farmer, who belongs to the so-called “post-80s generation” and holds a junior high school diploma, had persistently declined to be interviewed by foreign media because, in his own words, the matter was “China’s own business” and “we trust the authorities.”

His wife, on the other hand, felt so strongly about her loss that she had demanded those responsible be punished. But the local government repeatedly postponed announcing investigation results until the promised deadline expired. So she agreed to tell her story to Stern, the German weekly news magazine. Deng Jicai, Deng’s sister, wrote on Weibo, “So many people came and called us traitors just because some German journalists interviewed us. Common folks like us don’t know much but we do have conscience. You guys are humans, too. You have kids and family, just like us. But where’s your conscience? Where’s your ethical bottom line?” She said, “It takes just a little common sense to understand the meaning of the word ’traitor.’ Who’s bringing shame on our country? Who can call this country home after all? Where can we find justice and hope? Who can tell us what to do?”

The “traitor” label has left not only the Deng family bewildered and angry, but netizens as well. One commented sarcastically, “I didn’t know it was so easy to sell out this country. Anybody can do it.” Another said, “The poor man wasn’t even able to protect his own child and yet he stands accused of betraying his country. Traitors are those who usurp state power before handing it to an enemy.” Many others simply asked whether being interviewed by foreign media should be considered equivalent to dishonoring the country or to treason.

In fact, there are plenty of believers in this kind of equation. It is not uncommon in China for victims in public cases to deny interview requests from foreign media. Some fear their local government will report them to senior officials for having involved “hostile overseas forces,” in a local affair. Often this only increases the likelihood that the victims will never win their cases. Deng’s choice was mostly based on rational thinking instead of blind faith.

Local governments in China are the strongest advocates for the equation. Bo Xilai, the former party secretary of Chongqing and once the best-known local politician in the country, said in February before his ousting, “Hostile forces take great pains to manipulate information and public opinion. Whenever something happens, they will spread rumors as much as they like to provoke social unrest. The battlefield is invisible but we’re fighting a fierce war.”

Zheng Yanxiong, the party secretary of Shanwei City, Guangdong province, gave a notorious speech in the midst of the Wukan incident, an anti-corruption protest, in late 2011. He described the foreign media that reported the protest as “rotten media, rotten newspapers and rotten websites.” He said, “How can they [foreign media] help you? They can’t wait to see you fight each other and make a mess of socialism. Then they’ll be happy. If you need help, come to the government. Don’t let outsiders meddle in our own affairs.” He added, “If foreign media are trustworthy, then pigs can climb trees.” This is the image of foreign media in the eyes of local power-holders in China.

The central government usually denies direct involvement in any public incident and shifts blame to local government wrongdoers. But they are not essentially different in their view of foreign media. President Hu Jintao published an article in Seeking Facts, the flagship theoretical journal of the Communist Party of China, on January 1, 2012. He wrote, “We should clearly note that hostile foreign forces are intensifying their strategic plot to Westernize and divide our country. Ideological and cultural fields are the focus of their long-term infiltration. We must be keenly aware of the seriousness and complexity of ideological struggles and remain permanently alert by taking powerful measures to prevent and address them.”

Remarks from the top boost lower ranks‘ inclination to keep foreign media out of China’s public scandal and social unrest. In recent years, local officials have said in many cases, “hostile forces both inside and outside China tamper with and take advantage of mass incidents to foment and create unrest.” Many government research projects have argued that hostile overseas forces interfere in mass incidents to promote their own agendas and sometimes lead to escalation of the situation.* Since foreign reporters are a major “hostile force,” once an incident breaks out, the local government will prepare for their arrival as if facing a dangerous enemy. Had the bold protesters in Wukan not dismissed official rulings, embraced foreign media and put the government under international pressure, they would not have become targets of Mr. Zheng’s rage.

The root cause of the hostility toward foreign media lies in the political system. The central government has adopted a mechanism in recent years to hold officials accountable for local misdeeds by, for example, removing those responsible from office. It serves as a stimulus to forestall public incidents. But it also encourages local politicians to immediately block the news, when things actually happen, to buy time and space to solve the problem and absorb the impact. According to Chinese political tradition, local governments are held accountable to higher authorities instead of to the people and are thus incentivized to impose an information blackout. Once the situation gets out of hand, they will portray the social movement as a premeditated, organized, or even anti-Party, anti-government campaign before linking it to “hostile overseas forces” as the “mastermind.” Politicization of public incidents is a way to frame innocent people, hold higher authorities hostage, and cover up their deteriorating governance and serious misconduct.

Local governments can also play the patriotism card by diverting people’s love of their country to themselves. The Chinese are traditionally reluctant to discuss in public embarrassing things happening at home. Therefore, the authorities try to convince people that telling foreign media, who have “ulterior motives,” about China’s flaws amounts to vilifying the country as well as the government. Victims then come under considerable public pressure, as the Deng family did in the farcical demonstration outside their home. In the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, substandard construction claimed many students’ lives when school buildings collapsed. HBO later aired a documentary called China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, a story about parents seeking justice for their dead children during the ten days after the earthquake. In the film, a mother who lost her child defends herself from her fellow villagers’ accusations that she is unpatriotic as they turn their backs on her and walk away. It becomes clear, from her voice, that the woman herself is starting to waver: All I ask for is justice for my child but am I actually doing the wrong thing?

The State Council promulgated in 2008 the Regulations on News Coverage in China by Foreign Journalists in the Beijing Olympic Games and Its Preparation Period. The regulations allowed foreign journalists to conduct interviews as long as they gained permission from interviewees. Registration with and approval from foreign affairs administration authorities were no longer required. Censorship of foreign journalists’ news reports was also abandoned. On October 17, 2008, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that the Regulations on News Coverage by Permanent Offices of Foreign Media Organizations and Foreign Journalists took effect immediately or, in other words, the previous regulations would be extended indefinitely. Therefore, Chinese citizens have the freedom to be interviewed by foreign correspondents. However, the reality is that journalists will encounter formidable barriers when they report on issues regarded as “sensitive” by the government. Even if they manage to carry out an interview, the interviewee will fall into serious trouble. The government has neither stopped interfering in foreign journalists’ work nor relaxed restrictions on freedom of speech. So, in today’s China, foreign journalists are free to interview whomever they want but Chinese citizens have the “right” to say no.

  1. See, for example, the Institute of Police Science at Southwest University of Political Science and Law, “Analysis of Group Incidents in the Transition Period,” Economic and Social Development 7, No. 2 (February 2009).