A Chinese newspaper takes on the authorities, all to free a reporter

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Here's something you don't see every day, not even here in the US -- a newspaper using it's front page to plead with police for the release of one of its reporters and this is in China. That's what the New Express did today. It's a state-run newspaper in southern China, and last week one of its investigative reporters was detained for what the authorities called damage to the business reputation of a major construction company. The paper says the reporter was only doing his job. David Wertime is an editor for Foreign Policy magazine and he's been following this story. I mean perhaps the reporter was doing his job, David, but he was practicing western journalism in China. So tell us more about the focus of his reporting the company Zoomlion. What was this journalist, Chen Yongzhou digging into and how did the company react?

David Wertime: Well, Chen Yongzhou was digging into Zoomlion's revenue figures. What was released on his paper, [speaking Chinese], which is translated roughly as "new Express" is the fact that there was this exclusive investigation in which, you know, Chen basically came across this information. And this actually isn't surprisingly the first time that the new bulletin has run reports that have questioned Zoomlion's bottom line.

Werman: Explain to us what kind of company Zoomlion is. What do they do?

Wertime: Zoomlion is a Chinese heavy equipment manufacturer. They make, in particular, vehicles that are involved with construction and with sanitation. They're a company that's listen on the Shenzhen and the Hong Kong stock exchanges. And Zoomlion is a taxpayer, significantly, in the city of Guangzhou.

Werman: David, tell us more about Chen Yongzhou. Why was he arrested, what were the reasons given?

Wertime: Well, the crime of which Chen Yongzhou was accused was harming a business' reputation. Generally, in order to be guilty of this crime, and it's a crime significantly, not a civil action, you actually have to be deliberately fabricating false facts.

Werman: Was anybody from the government or from law and order able to prove that?

Wertime: So far, I haven't seen any proof and no proof has come to light. Of course, the Guangzhou police have said on their official Weibo account that this is still under investigation, so it's hard to say for certain quite yet.

Werman: So we've got a partially government owned company and a state-run newspaper, I mean isn't this kind of like playing Romper Room? I mean they're both run by the state. An arrest like this, what does it actually mean?

Wertime: It's very frequent for both commercial and media entities within China to have a significantly relationship with the state, whether they're partly state owned, whether it's simply that they pay a great deal of taxes, or that they're subject to heavy state regulation and of course, ultimately the whims of the communist party.

Werman: Do you think the Chinese central government would prefer that we not be talking about this?

Wertime: I'm sure they would. There's already been a directive issued from the ministry of propaganda essentially saying that these stories should not be run, you know, discussions of Chen Yongzhou and this incident. It's, however, a case of letting the genie out of the bottle and it's very true, although Chinese social media is censored, nonetheless, once these stories take on a life of their own, it's very hard to pull them back.

Werman: The bottle's open. David Wertime, editor for Foreign Policy magazine, thanks a lot.

Wertime: Thanks so much, Marco.