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Blogger murder pits technology against Chinese control

CNN
Jan 17, 2008 at 12:30pm IST

Beijing: Wei Wenhua was a model communist and is now a bloggers' hero — a 'citizen journalist' turned martyr.

The construction company manager was driving his car when he witnessed an ugly scene: a team of about 50 city inspectors beating villagers who tried to block trucks from unloading trash near their homes.

Wei took out his cellphone and began taking pictures. The city inspectors saw Wei and then attacked him in a beating that lasted five minutes. By the time it was over, the 41-year-old Wei was slumped unconscious. He was rushed to the hospital but was dead on arrival.

His death earlier this month continues to stir controversy. In China's mainstream media and in the blogosphere, angry Chinese are demanding action.

After the website sina.com published news of Wei's beating, readers promptly expressed their outrage. In one day alone, more than 8,000 posted comments. Bloggers inside and outside China bluntly condemned the brutal killing.

"City inspectors are worse than the mafia," wrote one Chinese blogger. "They are violent civil servants acting in the name of law enforcement."

Another blogger asked, "Just who gave these city inspectors such absurd powers?" Known as "chengguan" in Chinese, city inspectors are auxiliary support for police. They are expected to deal with petty crimes. Their tasks include cracking down on unlicensed trading. They frequently are seen chasing street vendors off the streets and confiscating their goods.

Critics have said they often abuse their authority and prey on the weak. In the central city of Zhengzhou last year, 1,000 college students scuffled with police and overturned cars after city inspectors roughed up a female student who had set up a street stall. These incidents prompted the government to redefine the role of city inspectors.

Still, observed Jeremy Goldkorn, editor in chief of Danwei.org, "Some bloggers [are] saying this whole chengguan system is prone to corruption and abuse and it should be disbanded."

Beijing scholar Xiong Peiyun wrote in Wednesday's Southern Metropolis Daily, "Perhaps no one wishes to face this question. Wei Wenhua's death stands as clear proof of the violent ways of local city inspectors. It's 2008 and another citizen goes down. When will we stand up and restrain the law enforcement violence of this city inspectors system?"

More and more victims of abuse already are standing up. "It's the latest in a series of incidents which have pit provincial government authorities against citizens -- those who are protesting against something who are recording and blogging and writing about something that they consider scandalous," Goldkorn said.

Some journalists and bloggers have even compared Wei's fatal beating to the Rodney King case, when the Los Angeles police repeatedly clubbed him.

Others say this is reminiscent of the 2003 death of graphic designer Sun Zhigang in the Chinese city of in Guangzhou. The 27-year-old college graduate was fatally beaten while in detention for not carrying proper identification. The public outcry, amplified in the country's blogosphere, prompted China's premier to restrict police powers of detention.

Years ago, killings such as these would not have received such attention, and victims would have been forgotten, but with modern technology in the hands of ordinary citizens, abusive officials are getting caught in the act.

China's burgeoning economy allows a relatively freer flow of information. In September, China had 172 million Internet users, 10 million more than the last official count was released in July. Officials said about 4 million Chinese go online for the first time every month.

Millions have opened blogs, too. Mobile phone users also reached more than half a billion in September, according to the government.

Even though Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution is supposed to guarantee freedom of speech, China continues to restrict the flow of information.

Fearful of the surge in Internet and mobile phone usage — and the information they are able to transmit — the Chinese authorities are stepping up efforts to monitor and restrict their use, according to Reporters Without Borders, which fights against censorship and laws that undermine press freedom. A few Internet data centers have been closed down, along with thousands of websites.

Controversial blogs are blocked and unblocked multiple times. But silencing these citizen journalists is getting more difficult.

Days after Wei's January 7 death, a government official in Tianmen city, Wei's hometown, was fired, four others detained and more than 100 placed under investigation. Chinese authorities now appear to be taking these cases seriously.

Goldkorn said: "It's the kind of trouble that is very threatening to the party and the government, because it's the kind of trouble that questions their reason d'etre. So when looking at things like this, in the back of their minds, is always, 'Could this develop into a real mass incident that has the power to threaten the stability of China?' "

Meanwhile, bloggers are heaping eulogies for Wei. So far, no one has seen the pictures Wei took that day. It is thought his camera was destroyed in the beating.

Eternal repose to Citizen Wei Wenhua," wrote blogger Wang Gongquan. "In the face of violence and brute power, he lifted a citizen's rights, conscience, responsibility and courage."

Reporters Without Borders said, "Wei is the first 'citizen journalist' to die in China because of what he was trying to film."

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