Mr. He Didn't Die in Vain

He Haisheng, a small-time businessman in Hainan Province, China, died in June at the age of 49. No one believes the official explanation of his death -- that he suffered from sheer fatigue.

More likely, people say, he was murdered.

From August 2001 to early this summer, Mr. He disclosed a number of corrupt judges and, in the process, received numerous death threats.

Mr. He's battle against corruption began when his mother was wronged in a simple business suit last year. He quietly collected evidence of corruption within the provincial judiciary and sent it to the Central Discipline Committee of China's Communist Party. As a result, certain senior judges were arrested for embezzlement and many others were interrogated.

Many remain pessimistic about China's ability to curb corruption. But Mr. He's death is being discussed and debated openly in the pages of China-based newspapers and Internet providers, a clear sign that Chinese media are finding their teeth.

In August, China's leading muckraking newspaper, the Guangdong Province-based Southern Weekend, interviewed several people who had helped Mr. He and detailed his fight against corruption.

Beijing Youth Daily soon followed with a commentary calling for the government to recognize Mr. He as a martyr. Sina.com, China's largest Internet content provider, ran a special column on him. In Sina.com's chat room, users weighed in on the matter with statements like "Eradicate corrupt judges" and "Send corrupt officials to jail."

It is widely believed that the Chinese have no freedom of speech, but increasingly, journalists and ordinary people are speaking up. China-based chat rooms often teem with points of view rivaling in breadth and scope those found in similar Western venues.

"It would be too pessimistic to say that China has no freedom of the press," says Hu Shuli, managing editor of Caijing (Business and Finance Review). According to her, China has a bigger market for journalists than the United States. Media proliferate in China, while in the United States major media corporations are consolidating and content is shrinking.

Americans, Hu says, may have lost their thirst for scandal. "Even Enron is not big news for the American people. They are fed too many corruption reports and are complacent."

But in China, where a Western-style, independent press is a new thing, critical stories sell.

Underlying the rise of investigative journalism is an expanding market economy and a growing public desire to have market deficiencies disclosed. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), news media were completely state-financed. Now that most Chinese media survive on subscriptions and advertising, they more naturally lend their ears to public sentiment.

Southern Weekend, Beijing Youth Daily, Sina.com and Caijing, for instance, all run on ad revenue. In pursuing their own economic interests, and driven by market forces rather than ideology, these media offer the public one critical report after another.

Of course there is a limit to investigative journalism in China today. An implicit consensus seems to exist among Chinese journalists: One can only muckrake in economic fields or local affairs. Many news media hit hard at local wrongdoers, but align themselves with national leaders for protection.

For now, this double standard may be the safest way for media to play a bigger role in ensuring social justice in China. Chinese investigative journalism is in its infancy. If it goes too fast, like a baby learning to walk, it may fall flat on its face.

In fact, a central government that takes upon itself to fight corruption -- that is, with the help of an independent media -- could help ensure justice at local levels. And once the nation accepts muckraking at local levels as the norm, it may eventually accept muckraking higher up.

Some Western analysts remain pessimistic, doubting that China's new journalism will go far. But many Chinese intellectuals are hopeful. They see the history of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as one of confidence building. China, they say, may not be ready for American-style freedom of expression -- yet. Times are changing, and more Chinese are participating in public forums and beginning to look toward the media as a source of truthful information. As the famous U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Learned Hand once said, "Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court will save it." Mr. He may not have died in vain.

PNS contributor Yong Wang (yayong@stanford.edu) is a former Chinese journalist and was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University last year. He is currently studying law.

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