TAIYUAN, China—Journalist Gao Qinrong paid a huge price for uncovering a bogus irrigation project in his native western China: Officials sent him to prison for eight years in retaliation. And now that he's out of jail, his travails haven't ended.
He appears to be blacklisted from a job in journalism. Censors prohibit most articles about his campaign for vindication, even blocking access to Web sites about him. And Gao worries about his safety.
Assailants wielding pipes beat up a source for his story, leaving him partially paralyzed. Facing harassment himself, Gao sleeps with one eye cocked, a sword beside his bed and a big hammer behind the door of his sixth floor walk-up apartment.
China is a more freewheeling place than it was even a few years ago. Twenty million Chinese regularly post on Internet blogs, and vendors hawk a spate of new publications, conveying a sense of freedom. But government control of traditional outlets—newspapers, radio and television—remains unyielding. And reporters such as Gao who shine a light on official corruption still can face criminal charges and prison terms.
Gao's case is unusual because he's a supporter of the ruling Communist Party, not an opponent.
Reporters Without Borders, a press-freedom advocacy group, says China now imprisons 31 journalists, more than any other country.
"His is a very symbolic case. He is not really a dissident. A lot of journalists who are detained in China are journalists but they are also dissidents," said Jean Francois Julliard, a spokesman for the Paris-based group.
Gao has been pulling his life together since he was released from prison Dec. 7, getting reacquainted with his 16-year-old daughter, who didn't know the real reason for his absence until his wife told her about the prison term just as he was being freed.
"I said to her, `Darling, I didn't commit any crime. I just spoke the truth for the people,'" Gao recalled. He said he handed her essays and articles about the case.
"She read the reports and cried," he said.
Gao was a full-time freelance reporter for Xinhua, the state news agency, in early 1998 when he broke open a fake irrigation scheme near Yuncheng in Shanxi province, in the coal-mining region southwest of Beijing. After overhearing residents ridiculing the project amid a fierce drought, he discovered that officials had spent $25 million for a Potemkin image project, hoping that provincial officials would admire the plan and give them promotions.
Gao's report, never released to the public, was in a secret compendium distributed only to senior party leaders, a common practice with sensitive information.
News of the sham project soon leaked out, though, generating a furor of media attention and embarrassing local officials. Gao was blamed, and in late 1998 authorities charged him with bribery, fraud and pimping, and sent him to Shanxi's No. 1 Prison.
During his incarceration, Gao said, prison wardens tried repeatedly to get him to sign confessions to what were widely considered false charges. He refused.
"It would disgrace me. I believe that I did nothing wrong," Gao said.
He suffered severe bouts of depression in prison, relieved only by his assigned task of putting out a prison newspaper.
Events took a downward turn in 2003, when a key source for Gao's report, a bureaucrat in Beijing who served as liaison between the central government and Yuncheng, the site of the irrigation scam, was sent to the No. 1 Prison, too.
On his release in 2003, masked thugs with steel pipes set upon the official, Gao Manqiang, beating him so badly that he was in a coma for 48 days.
"It happened right at the gates of the prison," journalist Gao recalled, noting that it appeared to be a message from higher-ups to remain silent about the case.
From prison, Gao said, he sent more than 100 petition letters to officials asking for vindication. He even prepared one written in his own blood on prison bed cloth.
The letters got him nowhere, a sign of the chasm between party rhetoric pledging a steadfast fight against corruption and the reality in the hinterlands.
After Gao was arrested, the party secretary and police chief in Yuncheng received promotions even as other state media confirmed that the irrigation project was a sham.
A media lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, expressed no surprise at that development.
"Local officials all over China are powerful," Pu said. "If a local official regards some behavior as damaging to his region, he will retaliate against the person. . . . It is not only to punish the people who seek the truth but to threaten the local people."
Since Gao went to jail, the national environment for journalists has worsened, as senior editors pull back on issues that are deemed delicate, such as corruption, Pu said.
"Chinese editors in chief always tell reporters what they should not write about, rather than encourage them to get out and report news firsthand," Pu said.
Since Gao's release, he's faced unwanted attention from the police.
"They've called me many times. They want me to come to the police station," Gao said, his hands trembling from a nervous condition brought on by his imprisonment.
Police also have gone to his wife's workplace, an electronics vocational school, asking whether she's divorced him yet, apparently trying to nudge them into conflict.
Lawyers' and journalists' groups have offered him some assistance, but Gao can't land a reporting job. The only writing he does now is letters demanding vindication, but he hasn't been able to clear his name.
Among his solaces are the text messages he's received from journalists around the country, which are stored on his mobile phone. He showed one to a visitor.
"I'm very sympathetic to your cause. I admire you greatly for your courage," wrote a national legal-affairs television host, adding that much was at stake in his case.
"This is not just for one individual. It's for the freedom of all the media in China."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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