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China: A blow to citizen bloggers

Categories: Advocacy, China

Below is Zola's recount of what he's been through [1] over the past few days [2] and his abrupt conclusion. In a second blog post [3] since his forced return earlier this week he talks of redirecting the space to focus more on blogger education, but also mentions some unfinished business related to his time in Shenyang.

It's not the specific type of violence he claims he encountered at the hands of police while in custody there, he seems to have brushed that off. Nor is it having been in custody for more than the legally allowed 24 hours or possibly having been turned in by the ant farmer he was trying to help. Zola, reminding readers of his rural socioeconomic background, wants back the USD160 he says security agents confiscated while he was being held; in this message to readers, he threatens to sue to get it back.



In his Dec. 6 account [4] of the previous few days’ events, Zola writes of an angry police officer punching him several times in the neck and all the events leading up to and following the night he spent in detention. His first day in Shenyang was largely uneventful, food with online friends and the arrangement of a meeting with one ant farmer for the following day:

The next day, I was going to go to Liaoyang, and didn't get up until 10am. When I was ready to leave, I shot a quick interview of myself, and then set out to Liaoyang. I stopped by an internet bar to see if I had any comments in moderation, and took a screenshot of Yilishen's official company website. Then I got on the bus to Liaoyang, where I caught another bus to Tongerbao, meeting “Chief”, the ant farmer I met online at around 2pm. Right when we met, he got a phone call and told me that the police were on the way to his home. I said I wanted to go and listen in, so we went to his home. I was just taking my camera out to put in the corner and record everything, but then his wife started worrying I might bring them trouble and wouldn't let me. I went up to the storage room in their attic to get away from her, and just happened to be filming from the balcony when the cop car arrived. I also saw some boxes of ants. Then “Chief” got in the car with the police and left. Once they were gone, I went down and had a chat with “Chief's” wife, getting down “a few thoughts” they had regarding the open letter in their QQ group which addressed the court's announcement of Yilishen's bankruptcy. After that I went up stairs to look for some ants, but they were all dead. Don't know if it was from the cold or if they starved.

Then I left their home and went down to the corner and caught a moto-tuktuk back to tiny Tongerbao village. It was about to get dark, and going back to the larger city center would mean more expensive accommodation, so I stayed and found a small place to stay. The old guy said private rooms were 15 yuan, so I said 10. He said 12, but then I gave him a 20 and he didn't have change, so only charged me 10. It was cold, so I took a nap, and got up again around 9pm. I went out to get something to eat and saw it was snowing. I got some noodles and went to an internet bar and paid 5 yuan. With the boss’ permission, I plugged in my laptop and started editing the video, uploading that and the photos, and then I posted '12/02/2007: Zhou Shuguang Travels to Shenyang to Inquire about the Black Ant Farmers’ [5].

At dawn, there were no buses going to Huludao where I wanted to meet another ant farmer, so I went back to the room and slept for a few hours. Then later I decided to take someone's advice and go first to Ciyutuo and from there catch a bus to Huludao there. But when I got to Ciyutuo, I noticed that Huludao was actually quite far away, and the guy in Huludao suggested I just find a local ant farmer in Liaoyang instead. He said he'd help me get in touch with someone in the same plight as himself. So later I got a call from a Mr. Li, who said he lived in Sumabao; I asked him if he had any living ants left at home, and he said there might be, that he'd look when he got home. He told me to take the bus back to Tongrenbao, and get off at the road to Sumabao. I told him I couldn't hear clearly what he was saying, and had him send me an SMS, and “the road to Sumabao” is what I got. I called him when I got there and he said he was just 100 meters past “Chief's” home. I took a motorbike there, and then Mr. Li showed up pushing a bicycle, and then we started to leave. A big guy with a white, fat, square face got out of a small, normal-looking car just behind us, and told me to freeze. He asked me my name, I said Zhou Shuguang, and then he told me to go with them. Just then another skinnier guy came and showed his ID, but I didn't see it clearly. So I walked calmly and got into their car. We sat in the back, they didn't beat or cuff me, and without saying much they drove the two of us off. In the car, they turned off my cellphone and then gave it back to me. On the way, I just chatted with Mr. Li about the differences between the northeast and Hunan. The big guy with the fat white square face got five phone calls, and each time he'd just say “we're on the way, they're here with me.” It seemed the higher-ups had put their top guys in charge of catching me. I assumed I must have been watched since the minute I got to Shenyang, that coming for “Chief” yesterday was actually to get me; my text messages and phone calls had all been recorded, and it's even possible that Mr. Li had aided the police in finding me.

About half an hour later, the car stopped at Dengta City police station. We went up to the 4th floor, Investigations, and 5-6 people were standing at the office door to “welcome” me. Then they led Mr. Li and I into separate offices. Throughout it all, there was no rough behavior. At one desk in the room, one leader sat at a desk; on the desk was a Lenovo computer. To the left there was a tea-table and two sofas. On the right was a small bed, presumably they put in a lot of overtime and need it to rest. I sat on one of the sofas on the left, and for the first hour and some he just watched over me; didn't ask a single question. I was only able to confirm that it was 2pm at the time, and that at most they could detain me for only 24 hours. I even borrowed a book from him on laws related to criminal cases to kill the time.

Later, one small guy began to question me on the details of my trip to Shenyang, who I'd been in contact with, who I'd spoken to on the telephone, who put me up to this, and what my aim was. Of course I was honest, and I hadn't done anything wrong. We did one recorded statement, and then they made me open my backpack and searched through it, item-by-item. One laptop, one Blackberry 7230, one small flashlight, one swiss army knife I'd bought for 5 yuan on an overpass, one “ant town” [6] set and three living ants, one tripod, one SD card, as well as one Sony memory stick, a flash disk, and several card readers. The Sony memory stick confused them—I clearly didn't have the accompanying equipment, so why would I have a Sony memory stick? I just let them guess that one. They wanted to see my QQ chat history, and since I'd just downloaded Tencent Messenger two days prior, I hadn't really chatted with anyone. The ant farmer QQ group I'd entered the same day had been deserted, there wasn't even a contact person left in it. When I went to the washroom, someone accompanied me. When I wanted some water, someone went and got it. They wouldn't let me play with my cellphone, and took the battery out.

The whole night, a number of people kept coming in and out to sit in and listen, asking questions, or interrogating me, and I argued back. The focus of my argument was nothing more than “free speech,” “freedom of the press,” “objective viewpoint,” “qualification to conduct an interview,” “whether there existed laws restricting my movement,” things like these. Although they would act angry when making interrogating, I'm not afraid of anything, of course there was no way I was going to lose.

1. They felt that “there is no absolute freedom of speech,” and I said that I don't need absolute freedom of speech, just that which the law allows;
2. They felt “you don't understand Yilishen, so you shouldn't be speaking about it,” and I said that it's precisely because I don't understand that I'm trying to understand;
3. They felt that my views weren't objective enough, and I said that there are different sides to everything. My objective side is but one sample within a statistical sampling set, and according to the laws of statistics, only with sufficient samples can one approach truth and objectivity;
4. They felt my “pretending to be conducting interviews, yet refusing to admit to imitating a journalist” wasn't plausible, and I said “interviewing” is not patented for journalists only: I may not be a journalist, but I am qualified to speak to anyone I want. Chinese law stipulates that any interview only requires agreement from the interviewee or location involved.
5. They felt that the act of me photographing their police vehicles was illegal, and I said ‘fear that in investigating a case, photographs or recording might lead criminals to exact revenge would make this an internal regulation; please produce the relevant provision in the law to which I'm bound;
6. I report on sensitive news, which apparently affects national image, so I mentioned the motorcar finals drift incident [7] as an example of the inappropriateness of over-emphasis on ethnicity when making arguments: if someone winds up hurt, it won't have been me who hurt them, but fact. Those who wish to not have their image affect by reporting should please avoid engaging in events which effect their image;
7. Freedom of speech supervises small mistakes, and prevents them from becoming unmanageable large mistakes;
8. Freedom of speech is willingness to take on the freedom that freedom of speech brings; wherein even if the consequences are clearly known, as long as one is willing to accept the consequences, one can choose to express one's self in a way which brings said consequences. For example, if someone knows that to speak the truth will bring retaliation, at this time he has the freedom to choose: stay silent, or speak out. If being willing to speak out means accepting the consequences, he will choose the freedom to speak out.

Over the 24 hours, I made a total of five recorded statements:

1. A recording regarding everything I'd heard and all the people I'd come in contact with in Liaoning, including activities with my net-friend Scavin, also including the financial assistance received from net-friend Liumiao and classmates Mei and Xu;
2. Regarding the reasons, motives, goals, funding sources and payment methods for my overseas-hosted blog. I told them that my previous alouz.com was ordered to have posts deleted, and of course I'm critical of the regulation that non-profit websites must be registered. I'm sure that at least this recording will be seen by the provincial-level leaders. I hope for chances to pass on my views to these leaders. If any of these leaders were open-minded, I might just be assisting their reforms from the bottom up;
3. Regarding my post “Who's willing to go to Shenyang to report on the situation of the ant farmers?” [8], a statement on my motives and aims; they printed it out and asked me what my motives and aims were. I of course told them the truth, on one hand I came out of curiosity toward sensitive news, and on the other hand to sell ad space, raise readership and my level of fame;
4. A statement regarding the contacts in my cellphone, of which there are over 600. After the state security agent promised not to delete my contact numbers, I unlocked my Blackberry and let them inspect it while I watched. They only wrote down 20-something names and info for people like Ms. Xu from Time magazine, Chan Kim-ching in Hong Kong, and the Deutsche Welle people. I told him that Ms. Xu had interviewed me, that I'd stayed at Chan Kim-ching's home when I went to Hong Kong, and the Deutsche Welle number was the one they used to interview me while they were choosing the Chinese contender for their Best of Blogs. I guess they're checking to see if I have connection to overseas groups, or if I receive funding from overseas;
5. A statement regarding my motives and aims in my New Year's Day post this year, “Against the communist party, against one-party dictatorship” [9]. This post was balanced and fair, and doesn't amount to calling for action or instigation; it mainly speaks of the ease, in absence of external media oversite, with which small social problems become large social problems. Right, they're very smart. The version they printed out was actually the mobile version.

The Dengta Police Station's lights were glaringly bright throughout the entire night, and of the people I could see coming in and out there were over ten. Some were local police, some were investigators, some were state security agents. At around 9pm they gave a rice lunchbox to eat, inside there was cured ham sausage, duck neck chunks, greens, red braised pork and dried tofu strips. I spent a lot of time on the sofa taking short catnaps, and by the time we finished the first three statements it was already past 5 in the morning. Then they brought me to another little room to get a little sleep.

They woke me up at around 7am, now Dec. 4, and we went down to the canteen for breakfast. They had millet congee, steamed buns, salted pickles. Each table sat six people, and there were five tables, so around 30 people didn't get any sleep that night. When we finished breakfast, it was off-and-on again with the statements. When we finished the last two, one higher-up came in to see me, he was around 60, hair was all grey, wearing glasses, and very polite. The mood felt different after he walked in. This is Director Li, someone said, and I guess that between Shenyang or Beijing he was probably the highest-ranked person involved in my case. I shook his hand, and we chatted for a while. He only said that their Hunan office had phoned, and I don't remember anything else important in what he said; he went to take a phone call, and then left without saying anything more. I guess he just wanted to give me a summary talk before they let me go.

By noon on Dec. 4 I was still giving statements, and neither the recorder nor I had had lunch. At around 1pm they gave me a bowl of Master Kong instant noodles [10]. Ph yeah, as we were doing the last statement, someone said to me: “you're a true warrior [11].” I couldn't hear clearly, so he said it again, “you're a true warrior.” I guess seeing me dare write a post in opposition to one-party party dictatorship because of its controls on media scared the balls off him. I think he actually was giving me praise, and not just mocking me. Later, someone else gave me their own assessment, and I asked: “are you mocking or praising me?”, and then I said “thank you.”

After we finished the final statement, I still didn't know what they were going to do with me. They asked me again what my plans were; I suggested they give me an official position, so I could post it on my blog and, to a certain extent, help calm ant farmers’ emotions. But they said it wouldn't be easy to allow my blog take on role of facilitating communication between officials and the people. They'd need their supervisors’ permission, not to mention that this would seem like they were giving me mad props, so the likelihood wasn't high. Only if their supervisors were able to come to realize the usefulness of a blog like mine, but it's not like they have the opportunity or time to come to see what I'm about.

Then they made me write a letter guaranteeing that I would not create disturbances for the government, that I would not instigate people's emotions, and that I'd encourage people to give the government time to make their records and liquidate Yilishen Co.'s property. The ant farmers’ losses could only come from Yilishen Co., the ant farmers and the government each taking on their own part of the burden. For example, ant farmers were saying they'd lost 400,000 RMB, when really they'd only invested 100,000 RMB. They can demand 400,000 in compensation, but the government will not see this amount as correct, and in the end it can only be all three parties taking their own share. The government knows that the people's emotions are a little irrational, and that's why it hasn't let them go to Beijing to petition or block the railways. This is the government attitude and approach that I heard from their conversations; as for how widespread the disaster is and how much money is involved, I only heard that there was someone who, when they saw the total figure, started to cry. I was not given any concrete data.

When it seemed I could leave, the recorder and the other familiar computer people came to chat with me, saying that I was a computer master, and they wanted to learn a few things. The recorder said he wanted to see some foreign porn websites and asked me how. I told them there's this open source free thing called Tor that they can use with Firefox and FoxyProxy that will allow them to see most overseas websites. I even told them the basics of how to use a VPN. They knew all about software like Silence and Wu-jie. I'm not worried about them “knowing the enemy” [12] and stepping up censorship. Anyway, Tor is unblockable, unless there comes a day when everyone goes “bandit.”

But then, the station chief and the recorder found a computer with an internet connection and told me to delete my two [13] most recent blog posts [5], the reason being that they contained photos of police vehicles and would lead people to make associations and impact police work. I said, if I delete them it's just going to make people make even more of these associations; my personal brand will also be subject to suspicion. The freedom of speech I used to have won't be there anymore, nor will I have any standing before my friends. I said that regardless of whether I delete them or not, I'll still have to take blame. I told them to give me a reason I could pass onto readers, and to tell me what sort of consequences I faced in not making the deletions, and that between the consequences and not deleting, I'd be able to make a decision. But they would not tell me what would happen if I did not delete, only giving me one choice: delete. They didn't try to intimidate me. I told them, I comply with light-handed techniques, not heavy-handed. You need to tell me the reason for making me delete these two posts, and which law it is that placing such restrictions on me is based. They were unable to find a corresponding law, and gave up. So the posts were not deleted.

At just after 3pm on Dec. 4, one uniformed cop asked for my identity card, as well as asking how much money I had on me. I said I only have 1,235 RMB. He said he wanted me to give him the money which he would then use to buy a plane ticket to send me home. I said I didn't want to take a plane, that going back by train was good enough, and that I don't have much money as it is. Then they turned fierce, saying ‘oh, we've been to kind to you, have we?’ The uniformed cop started punching me in area between my collarbone and neck. Afraid he was going to break my glasses, I took them off, and then someone closed the door. He started knocking on my head, and then swearing at me. Finally he fist-chopped me in the neck. I couldn't speak. I thought of how when Sun Zhigang [14] died there were no external injuries on his body, so I decided to keep quiet. Keep little me alive for now and worry about the rest later. From this point on, the good impression they'd given me up until then completely changed. I stopped chatting with them, saying I didn't trust them anymore.

At around 4pm, four people put me into a police vehicle. I sat in the back, squished between two people; throughout all of this I didn't see a single pair of handcuffs. When we got to the airport, they spent 4,650 RMB [15] on three plane tickets to Changsha. I saw them take out a big stack of money, which looked like ten thousand flat. I also saw them put my 1,200 yuan and identity card into an envelope. I assume they took my money not because they needed to cover travel costs for the case, but to stop me from running off and going underground to continue doing my reports on the Yilishen incident. I assumed they'd give me my money back.

Before we got on the plane, another one drove over with my laptop and gave it back. They had been inspecting it for nearly 24 hours. Luckily, there was nothing too important on it.

On the plane, I was still sitting between the two state security agents, one young surnamed Wang and another older surnamed Zhai. Halfway there we stopped in Hefei [16], and it might have been that my cellphone turned itself on or that it was never shut off, but right then the BBC called. I said I was on the way back to Changsha. They wouldn't let me say too much, and I turned the phone off again.

At 9:40, we arrived at Changsha Huangji Airport and the Changsha provincial Security Department was there to pick me up. While we met I noticed that the Department had sent security agents straight from Ningxiang County to pick me up, and take me straight back to Ningxiang. The state security agents had the Meitanba police come to Ningxiang to pick me up and take me back to Meitanba. Turns out the Meitanba people wouldn't come, so they had to take me from Ningxiang to Meitanba as well. The Ningxiang state security agent was surnamed Ou, and there was civilian cop who stayed in Ningxiang to find places to stay for comrades Wang and Zhai. When they got out, they dropped the three plane tickets and comrade Wang's identity card right in the open, and I picked them up and gave them back to comrade Ou. Then I asked him about my own identity card and my 1,200 yuan. He said comrades Wang and Zhai hadn't given them to him, but that he would ask when he got back to Ningxiang.

At the police station in Meitanba, I did yet another recorded statement for a Meitanba cop, comrade Huang, a record of my movements in Shenyang. Then he told me of many unstable factors here in Meitanba, telling me not to say anything crazy. He even went out of his way to say that if I do go ahead and open my own vegetable shop, to give him a call when it opens so he can come take a look, and that if there are any crime issues to let him know. But for now, he said, you're not to go too far from home. If you need to go out, you have to give me a call first.

Then the auxiliary officer comrade He back in our Xifenglun came on his motorbike to pick me up, and dropped me off at my building.

When I got home it was already 2 or 3. I got something to eat and then went to sleep, waking up on the afternoon of the 5th. For two days I didn't sleep well, and it's always more comfortable at home anyway, so..

Dec. 5, did nothing. Went online and put a few lines on Fanfou and Twitter to let friends know what was up and that I was safe. I checked my computer for anything unusual, but only noticed that they'd deleted all photos and video related to ants. I don't know if they turned on my GTalk or Skype, I'll have to check when friends come back online. I wasn't online from the afternoon of the 3rd to early morning of the 4th, so if friends saw me online during that time, please tell me. Of course I'll be changing my passwords and taking related measures.

Dec. 6, today, I said at lunch that I'd write something. First I gave officer Huang a call to ask if he had security agent Ou's phone number. He said he didn't, so I phoned Director Li at the Hunan Province Security Department, asking what was going on with my 1,200 yuan and if he could give me comrade Ou's phone number. He said it was none of his business, telling me to figure out my own way of getting ahold of them. All I can do is blog this. I assume that the Dengta City police and internet monitors can see my blog, so I hope you give me my money back. Writing this took me 2-3 hours.

I hope that if Dengta City state security agents Zhang Qicheng and Wang Qingyou see this, that they can get in touch with me and give me the airplane ticket money back. Taking the airplane was not my idea. The time the flight took already put you over the 24 hour time limit on detaining me; you already overstepped your limits on my freedom of person, and if you don't give me my money back, I'll sue you for corruption or the illegal plundering of a citizen's property.

If you've been following Zola's blogging career, you might have read of the controversy this autumn over payments he received from those whose stories he blogged, with one subject in Xining accusing him of theft. Zola addresses this briefly at the end of this post in a manner which suggests the matter is quite complicated. All parties concerned seem to have made their sides clear in different places online, and Zola's peers from within the active blogging community seem to have left the issue behind.

In closing to the above post, Zola lists several ways readers can continue funding his blogging pursuit or support his possible upcoming legal battle, from adding money to his mobile phone card to buying ads on his blog. For those seeking to deposit to his bank or PayPal account, he provides a disclaimer:

Please, when you make the deposit, do not make any requests other than the size of your ad. If police see it as me receiving large sums of funding from unclear sources, they will see you and your funding as an overseas reactionary power. So, please do not give me too large of a donation. And especially, when you donate, do not make requests to me for transparency in how I use the funds. Also do not make any other demands of me, you cannot oversee how I spend the money you donate.

I won't be getting back in the game after this. You can give a man a fish, but teaching him how to catch one is even better. I've already spent more than half a year as a living example to everone on how this works:

1. Using a blog to truthfully express your thoughts is legal;
2. Entitlement comes from awakening of the conscious, one can only save one's self;
3. Oppression is normal, giving up resistance is abnormal;
4. Fulfill your obligation as a citizen, uphold citizens’ rights;
5. Establish urban society, defend public spaces.
6. Reform is bottom-up, don't count on heroes coming to rescue you. Even if there is such a hero, in a bottom-up society, he can only become a dictator; when wolves go, tigers move in;
7. Make democratic awareness universal, raise the people's cultural education levels.

The task of saving yourselves is in your own hands now. I have no responsibility or obligation to anyone currently in a situation of life or death; the only person who can save you is yourself. Don't come to me looking for justice or truth; justice and truth are things of idealism; if it's the truth to you, then the truth it is; it's certainly none of my damn business.