By Chris Buckley
Chinese Communist Party elders and U.S. lawmakers fired shots at
China's powerful censors this week, but Li Xinde says muck-raking
campaigners like himself are undermining the country's barriers to
free speech every day.
Li is one of just a handful of Internet investigative reporters,
exposing corrupt officials and injustice on his China Public Opinion
Surveillance Net (www.yuluncn.com).
Then he spreads his often outrageous, sometimes gruesome stories on
some of the 49 blogs he uses to slip past censors.
"They shut down one, so I move to another," he told Reuters.
"It's what Chairman Mao called sparrow tactics. You stay small and
independent, you move around a lot, and you choose when to strike and
when to run."
Li, 46, lives in Fuyang, a city of 360,000 in the rural eastern
province of Anhui, and he is far from a household name among Chinese
readers, even Internet enthusiasts.
But some of the cases he first reported became notorious after other
reporters, even state-run television, took them up. Li's Web site has
become a magnet for discontented rural citizens hoping to turn his
spotlight on their complaints.
In 2004, Li helped bring down a corrupt deputy mayor in the eastern
province of Shandong after posting bizarre pictures of the official
kneeling before his one-time business partner, apparently begging her
to stay silent.
More recently, Li published the grisly story of a businessman
apparently beaten to death while in official custody in the northern
province of Hebei.
Recently, the Communist Party has sought to tighten its grip on
information. Censors sacked editors from three bolder newspapers, and
on Thursday removed the editors of Freezing Point, the China Youth
Daily's combative investigative weekly.
But China has 110 million registered Internet users, and even rural
towns have Internet bars where locals can email complaints to Li or,
more often, play computer games. "Sometimes old farmers get their sons
to write to me," Li said.
"CAN'T TURN BACK A RIVER"
Swelling popular demands for rights are combining with the spread of
the Internet to make it harder for the Propaganda Department to shore
up censorship, even as officials shut down newspapers and purge
editors, he said.
"It's like the Yellow River. You can guide its course, but you can't
block it and you can't turn it back. That's the Internet."
Before embracing the Internet in 2003, Li was a soldier who joined the
Communist Party and then workend as a reporter for a series of small
newspapers. Now payments from well-wishers and reporters who use his
leads give him a small living.
Several Chinese journalists who have written for Internet sites abroad
are in jail, and in two cases Yahoo provided evidence used against
Li said it might make business sense for international companies such
as Yahoo and Google to comply with China's censors, "but morally it's
wrong to sell people's freedom."
Li said he had published hundreds of reports on the Internet without
direct trouble with police, but evading the censors had become more
difficult in the past two years, as controls were tightened and his
His Web site was shut down for several months, and only recently
reopened, and many of his blogs are regularly shut by nervous or
intimidated operators. But Li said China had dozens of Web activists
who shared news about corruption despite censors.
"I can still spread news across the whole country in just 10 minutes,
while the propaganda officials are still wondering what to do," he
said with a chuckle.
On Tuesday, 13 retired senior officials and scholars in Beijing,
including a former aide to Mao Zedong, jointly denounced
censorship. And members of the U.S. Congress this week proposed
legislation to deter foreign companies' cooperating with Chinese
Bu Li said Chinese people's demands for clean, accountable officials,
and their salacious curiosity about bad ones, were the censors'
"Our party always said revolution depended on the gun and the pen --
the military and propaganda," said Li, echoing a slogan of Mao's. "The
gun is still firmly in the party's hands, but the pen has loosened."
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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