Trial By TV: What Does a Reporter’s Arrest and Confession Tell Us About Chinese Media?

A ChinaFile Conversation

The latest ChinaFile Conversation focuses on the case of Chen Yongzhou, the Guangzhou New Express journalist whose series of investigative reports exposed fraud at the Changsha, Hunan-based heavy machinery maker Zoomlion. Chen later was arrested and then, last weekend, exposed himself (and his newspaper) in a nationally televised confession as a recipient of bribes from unidentified third parties paying him for his reports on Zoomlion. Ever since Chen admitted his wrongdoing, Chinese netizens’ discussion of Chen’s case has included widespread speculation [Chinese link] that Chen was targeted by the company he exposed. But who was paying him? Was it Zoomlion's chief competitor, Sany? What do we make of confessions given on state television rather than in a court of law?


I am convinced of the authenticity of the investigative work done by microbloggers, that the car Chen was taken away in belonged to Zoomlion, the company he was accused of publishing more than a dozen hit pieces against.

The same-town feud between Zoomlion and Sany, two of China’s biggest construction machinery makers, has been well documented by Chinese media over the years. As many financial journalists have pointed out in the aftermath of Chen’s arrest and confession, both companies have repeatedly resorted to unethical, legally dubious, and sometimes downright unlawful, measures to consolidate their own market leadership and undermine the other. These included poaching talent, clients and contracts from each other, commercial espionage, targeted whistleblowing on the rival’s illegal activities, violent clashes between company employees, as well as some alleged kidnapping and assassination attempts. Many have remarked that the story of the rivalry between the two companies would make good material for numerous jaw-dropping thriller movies—if the censors allowed, of course.

So far, it appears that Sanyi, the larger of the two companies, has been forced into a relative defensive position as its founder Liang Wengen announced late last year that the company was relocating parts of its head office to Beijing. As recently as 2011, Liang was ranked the richest man in mainland China by Forbes. Of course Sany’s relocation isn’t the end of the story, but this gives one an idea of the extent of Zoomlion’s power.

Some Chinese financial media have reported that the chairman of Zoomlion, Zhan Chunxin, is the son of Hunan’s former top judge. There also were unverified rumors that Zhan’s wife is the daughter of a former deputy Party secretary of Hunan, and that a vice president of Zoomlion is the son-in-law of another former Party leader in the Central Chinese province. Given these backgrounds, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that Zoomlion had put pressure on the Changsha government to launch another major assault on Sany by arresting and investigating Chen for the articles he had published. Although no one has pointed a finger at Sany, the obvious suspicion is that Sany orchestrated and funded Chen’s alleged attack stories against Zoomlion. China Central Television—where Chen’s confession aired on Saturday morning—most probably had the whole story handed to them by Zoomlion and its allies in the Hunan government, maybe even higher up.

Wang Feng’s summary of this situation is the clearest and most informative explanation I’ve read of a complicated and messy story.

But explicitly in answer to the question—“What does a reporter’s arrest and confession tell us about China's media?”—for the second time on these pages, I’d like to quote Lu Wei, the director of the State Council’s Internet Office, from an editorial first published on September 17 this year:

In the Internet era, media convergence is inevitable. If we [the Party] do not effectively capture the new battlefield of public opinion, other people will occupy it, and they will challenge our dominance and our right to speak. We must strengthen our awareness of the battlefield, vigorously promote the integration of traditional and new media, enhance our communication ability, credibility and influence, and ensure that we implement the principle of Party control of media.

I choose to take Mr Lu at his word: the Party and its members see the threat to their dominance from microbloggers, commercial media, and the Internet. They intend to wrest back control. In the recent past, media control and public opinion “guidance” have proved to be remarkably successful governance tools, and there is no reason to believe that such policies will change. What's relatively new is that there are so many alternative information channels that are difficult to control. Expect more confessions.