Overcoming the warnings against raising Li Wang-yang issue

Bruce Lui - Special Correspondent of Cable TV news, China Desk (Recorded by Cheung Lai-san)

[Oct 2012 - The Journalist] In normal circumstances journalists covering the Mainland do not find obstacles in their way. For news photographers and TV cameramen it's a different story: obstruction is commonplace. Still, there are hidden pressures that are not talked about much. And less known to outsiders.

When Hong Kong was all agog over the so-called suicide of dissident Li Wang-yang some Hong Kong media were invited by the Hunan provincial government to conduct an interview during 29 July to 5 August. Among those given a rare chance to “interview” Zhou Qiang, secretary of Hunan Provincial Committee of the CPC, was principal Cable TV China reporter Bruce Lui. Together with other reporters he pushed the staged interview further to touch on the “untouchable topic”. It was very difficult and success was minimal.

By Bruce Lui, Special Correspondent of Cable TV news, China Desk
Recorded by Cheung Lai-san, Editorial Board Member, The Journalist

We were warned, at least three times, not to ask “sensitive questions” during the tour even before we met the secretary of Hunan Provincial Committee of CPC Zhou Qiang. The first request had been made by Ta Kung Pao – the Beijing-supported newspaper which arranged the tour to Hunan.

When asked to clarify what “sensitive questions” he (or she) was suggesting, the caller intended to say “Li Wang-yang” but misspoke Li’s name as something else. After some confusion he clarified and explained that Li’s death should not be raised to prevent embarrassment to the interviewee.

To ensure I could tag along with the tour and avoid being shut out, I subtly replied that I would reflect his request to our editors. The same warning was made also to other media members who went along with us, such as South China Morning Post, Commercial Radio, now TV and Ming Pao. I later found that the reporter from SCMP had risked being dropped from the trip by strongly protesting the organizer’s intention to censor their questions. The organizer originally refused to let him come along on the pretext of limited quotas, and only relented after he suggested the exclusion of media might create a political scandal.

We were openly reminded of the limitations on our interview once we started our trip on July 29. A briefing to which I was particularly reminded to attend was held by the tour leader Zhang Guo-liang, a member of The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC), and the publisher of Ta Kung Pao Jiang Zai-zhong. At Zhou’s request, they told us directly not to ask anything about Li during the press conference as it might cause inconvenience for Zhou with the 18th National People’s Congress drawing near, and would create trouble for Ta Kung Pao which arranged the tour.

However, the Li incident was a subject of public interest in Hong Kong, so I told them: “If we ignore the voice of the public and censor our own voice, Hong Kongers will no longer trust us”. But they simply said the situation was not as serious as we thought, and asked us to seek another occasion to raise the issue. I thought it was best not to argue with them and waited for an opportunity to present itself.

The third warning was raised when we arrived in Hunan and attended a welcoming dinner during which the propaganda chief and news officers repeatedly reminded us to listen to the guidelines issued by the tour leaders. They said the interview time would be limited and no question-and-answer session would be allowed. All questions should be referred to our tour leaders instead and they would, in turn, refer them to Zhou, who would answer them during the press conference. A reminder with the same message was particularly directed at me and the reporter from now TV during the toast.

Later the reporters gathered to discuss a solution to deal with this blockage. Different ways to deal with the problem were suggested. Some said we should give the questions to the tour leaders but others said we should seize the chance to ask Zhou. Among the five media organizations that had joined the interview tour, there were some reporters who had asked to come along on their own, and feared they would face a hard time ahead if they raised questions. No conclusion was reached so I suggested that we could do something on the spur of the moment or raise our hand for questions towards the end of the one-hour conference.

The press conference the next day began with a 15-minutes opening speech by Jiang Zai-zhong, followed by a 35-minutes speech by Zhou focussing on Hunan’s economy, environmental and legal structure, and the province’s establishment. However, when the speech ended we were still 10 minutes ahead of schedule. I noticed the two tour leaders were slightly nervous as if they did not expect there would be any time left and not sure how to close the conference. They invited each other to ask more questions but neither could come up with any idea, so they proceeded to present souvenirs. Immediately I seized the opportunity to raise my hand and said politely that there was a question which concerned many Hong Kongers. I noticed someone was giving away a look of discomfort, but as Zhou delightedly accepted my request, no one stopped me from saying what I had to say.

I asked: “Hong Kongers care about the incident of Li Wang-yang, will this event become a black spot on your legal and political life in Hunan?” Zhou did not show any displeasure towards my sensitive question but rather, seemed to be prepared for it. He was, by then, the highest ranking authority to issue a statement over Li’s death -- even though the answer was wrapped in bureaucratic niceties. We figured we could not get him to say anything else even if we pursued the topic further, so we let him go after this.

Were there any consequences to my query? Not only was there a no to the answer, but the person who had earlier displayed his displeasure came forward and praised me for my question. He also said Zhou had given a very good answer as it would erase all doubts about the incident, and from that Hunan could be able to start all over again. But I disagreed with him, as Zhou’s explanation did not clear our doubts, and, not only Hong Kongers, but also mainlanders had signaled that they would not accept the official’s explanation over Li’s so-called suicide.

Mainland tours now arranged by pro-Beijing newspapers

Arrangements for interview tours on the Mainland used to be organized by the liaison office after the Handover as far as I remember. But a few years after that, such trips have been arranged by Beijing-supported media. Taking turns to play host have been Ta Kung Pao, Wei Wen Pao and Hong Kong Daily News. Since then there have been less and less invitations to the Hong Kong media to take part in interviews on the Mainland.

Even though the liaison office would offer the chance mainly to Beijing-loyal media in the past, they would also extend the invitation to other media groups for, I guess, they could not display their favoritism too explicitly, being an official organization. But such balance has broken down since the meetings have been arranged by the pro-China newspaper organizations. Their invitations are sent in a more conservative way, meaning most others invited are Beijing-loyalists, with only one or two “unsafe” media like us being included. It was only a rare exception that this Hunan trip included five “unsafe” media – likely a mistake by those who screened the participants.