Anti-Corruption Journalist Gao Qinrong Released Early After Serving Eight Years

February 8, 2007

Former Xinhua journalist Gao Qinrong was released from a prison in Shanxi province on December 7 after serving 8 years of a 12-year sentence, according to a December 11 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) report. According to a December 14 Southern Weekend (SW) report (in Chinese), Gao was released from the Jinzhong Prison in Shanxi province. In August 1999, the intermediate people's court in Yuncheng District, Shanxi, handed down a combined 13-year sentence in Gao's case, including 5 years for accepting bribes, 3 years for fraud, and 5 years for soliciting prostitutes, but ruled that Gao should actually serve 12 years, according to a January 11, 2001, SW report (in Chinese, via People's Daily). Gao was sentenced after he exposed corruption at an irrigation project in Yuncheng that implicated top provincial officials, according to the RSF report.

Gao received a 21-month sentence reduction in 2002 and a 2-year reduction in 2004, in each case for "showing true repentance," and was expected to be released on March 3, 2007, according to the Dui Hua Foundation's Fall 2006 Dialogue newsletter. Gao was released in December 2006 after receiving a third sentence reduction, according to the RSF report. Article 78 of the Criminal Law provides that an individual's prison sentence may be commuted if, while in prison, that person "conscientiously observes prison regulations, accepts education and reform through labor, and shows true repentance or performs meritorious services." The provision mandates that a criminal's sentence be reduced if he or she has performed any of the enumerated meritorious services, including preventing others from committing major crimes, risking one's life to rescue another, or making other major contributions to society. In the case of a fixed-term imprisonment, the sentence may not be commuted to less than half of the original sentence. RSF reported that Gao received his third sentence reduction for good behavior, but gave no further details as to whether Gao's reduction was the result of a specific act of meritorious service or repentance.

As a reporter for Xinhua, Gao wrote a story alleging corruption in an irrigation project in Yuncheng which was published on May 27, 1998, in an internal edition of the People's Daily distributed to Party leaders, according to a June 2005 PEN Canada report. SW and China Central Television subsequently ran stories about the alleged corruption, the report said. According to the January 11 SW report, one local official claimed that the government had spent 285 million yuan (US$34.2 million) on the 1.03 million mu irrigation project. The report said that most of the irrigation facilities were fake and had been hastily constructed to show off to officials attending provincial and national agricultural meetings. The Party punished only a few officials involved in the alleged scandal, giving them light disciplinary punishments, according to the report. According to a China Society Periodical report (in Chinese, posted by the Guangming Daily on February 25, 2001), Gao was detained on December 4, 1998, and formally arrested on December 26. The Yuncheng procuratorate indicted Gao on charges of "accepting bribes, soliciting prostitutes, and fraud," in April 1999, according to the January 11 SW report. On April 28, the Yuncheng City People's Court held a one-day, closed trial in Gao's case and sentenced him on May 4, a ruling which the intermediate people's court upheld on August 3, according to the China Society Periodical report.

Investigative reports by several Chinese news media organizations found that authorities in Yuncheng detained Gao in the absence of reliable evidence, started building a criminal case against him only after he was detained, and convicted him on the basis of insufficient evidence, according to the January 11 SW report and a May 14, 2001, Legal Daily report (in Chinese). Gao's case also received the support of members of the Party-controlled Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, who urged the Party Central Discipline Inspection Commission and Supreme People's Court to "reopen" Gao's case, according to a Committee to Protect Journalists report on journalists in prison on December 1, 2005. In an interview (in Chinese) with Radio Free Asia on December 12, 2006, Gao said that a Yuncheng official who had provided Gao with tips on the scandal and later served time in prison was beaten on the day of his release in 2003. Gao told RSF that he was worried that officials named in his report would seek retribution after his release. The RSF report said that authorities agreed to place Gao under protection.

At present, officials responsible for investigating corruption face disincentives to do so and whistleblowers do not have adequate protections. Chinese leaders have said recently that the government is currently revising its laws on corruption so as to better meet its obligations under the UN Convention Against Corruption. Article 13 of the Convention calls for governments to take measures to promote the "active participation of individuals and groups outside the public sector" in fighting corruption and to protect "the freedom to seek, receive, publish, and disseminate information concerning corruption." In keeping with these international law provisions, Article 254 of the Criminal Law provides that officials who abuse their power to retaliate against "persons who report against him" are subject to up to seven years in prison. The Supreme People's Procuratorate Provisions on the Criteria for Filing Dereliction of Duty and Rights Infringement Criminal Cases, which provides guidance on which cases prosecutors should pursue, calls for cases to be filed under Article 254 when "other legal rights of the . . . person who filed the report . . . are seriously harmed." Personal relationships between officials under investigation and the investigators, who themselves are government officials, interfere with investigations and punishments, according to a former government official in an October 26 SW article (in Chinese). A China Youth Daily article (in Chinese) posted June 21, 2005, on the People's Daily Web site noted that while China's laws provide that whistleblowers have certain rights, there are no provisions that actually provide for relief in the event those rights are violated.

Authorities have continued to punish reporters and media professionals who expose corruption or engage in "aggressive reporting," including:

  • Former Xinhua reporter Jiang Weiping, who was released in January 2006 after his six-year prison sentence was commuted by one year.
  • Former journalist Yang Xiaoqing, who RSF reported on October 20, 2006, had been granted an early release in October after he was sentenced to one year in prison in June.
  • Former Southern Metropolitan Daily editors Cheng Yizhong and Li Minying, and former Southern Metropolitan Group general manager Yu Huafeng.

According to a November 9 Reuters report, Xinhua reported on the same day that being a journalist ranked as the third most dangerous occupation in China, trailing only miners and police officers and that "an increasing number of reporters were obstructed, scolded, even beaten during their interview." In 2003, journalism also ranked as the third most dangerous profession in China, according to a Xinhua report dated November 8, 2003.

In addition to the threat of punishment for exposing corruption, local officials impose regulations on reporters to steer them away from reporting negative news about their geographic area. In October, Anhui province began requiring local journalists to write "positive" reports about the province that are published or broadcast by select central news media outlets in order to receive job promotions.