“Detained” reporter refutes New York Times article

We’ve been alerted to a debate that has arisen regarding our post on Monday 26 September, in which we noted that the New York Times had reported that a journalist investigating a sex slavery scandal in China’s Henan province had been “detained” and accused of “revealing state secrets”.

The journalist in question, Ji Xuguang, posted a message on Weibo saying that, contrary to online rumours, he had not been “arrested” (although his previous Weibo postings stated he had indeed been accused of revealing state secrets). Yet the term “arrested” was never used in the New York Times’ article: Jacobs stuck with “detained”.

In an email conversation, the article’s author, Andrew Jacobs, told me that the issue boils down to a “parsing of language.” He clarified:

Everything in that article was based on Mr. Ji’s own published words, both in an article he wrote and in his Weibo postings.

On Weibo, he sent out a message at 11:20 am alerting followers he was being questioned at his hotel by two men who refused to identity themselves. “I will probably be taken away. Please help,” is what he wrote and posted a picture of two men sitting on a couch. He said he would likely not be allowed to do any more reporting on the subject.

Jacobs added he believed Ji had been “detained” in the sense that “he was not allowed to waltz away from his questioners, which is why he asked his Weibo followers for help.”

Online questions put to Ji asking him if he had been “arrested” seems to have been where the semantics issue occurred. According to Jacobs, his research assistant called Ji and explained the difference between “detained” and “arrested”. His assistant reportedly said:

He [Ji] said he was sorry if his “Weibo clarification” had caused us any trouble, but he had to tweet his clarification because the Henan authorities were using this “dispute” against him. He said he was hauled out of bed by his boss early one morning because Henan authorities accused him of getting the New York Times to exaggerate the story, so he had to come out and tell the truth, which is that he was not arrested.

With limited information of the events to hand, one could argue that “detained” was an extreme choice of words; perhaps “held for questioning” would have been a safer option. For Adam Minter, a writer based in Shanghai, the Times has its own agenda when it comes to reporting on China. He told me,

I find it very hard to believe that Jacobs and his editors are so naive as to believe that Times’ readers won’t assume an arrest when the words “detained,” “China,” and “security agents” are thrown together.

(Incidentally, this would not be the first time the paper has come under fire for their coverage and fact-checking in the People’s Republic.)

In his Weibo messaging refuting the Times, Ji added that he is safe and that an apology had been issued by officials in the city of Luoyang, where his reporting of a sex dungeon scandal had taken place.

Reporter detained for article on sex slavery

It was revealed last week that a Chinese man who imprisoned six women as sex slaves in a self-dug cellar was arrested in Luoyang city,  Henan province.

34-year-old Li Hao, a civil servant who has since been sacked and stripped of his party membership, kidnapped six young women working in nightclubs and enticed them into a 20 sq metre cellar that he had dug four metres beneath a storeroom. The victims were forced to have sex with Li during their imprisonment. Two of them were reportedly killed and buried in the cellar.

The four survivors were freed earlier this month after one of them went to the police when Li tried to loan her out as a prostitute. Li was arrested 48 hours later when he was trying to escape Luoyang, while one of the girls was also arrested as a murder suspect.

The New York Times have since reported that the journalist who exposed the horrifying crime had been followed and briefly detained by two men claiming to be government officials who accused him of “revealing state secrets”. Ji Xuguang, a reporter with the liberal-leaning Southern Metropolis Daily, later wrote in his newspaper,

I was only thinking about how to make my story as accurate as possible and to satisfy the public’s right to know, but I soon discovered that I failed to address the most important issue — face.

Before the truth becomes a state secret, the public and myself need answers.

For China Geeks blogger and documentary filmmaker Charlie Custer, the episode is yet another example of Chinese officials hiding truths in order to to save face:

Of course, what they actually meant by “revealing state secrets” is ‘causing the local police force to lose face’. You may be wondering how trying to conceal sex slavery, kidnapping, and double homicide isn’t somehow a bigger loss of face. By all accounts the criminal here was not some high-level official (…)

In both instances, the issue is face. Of course, in these cases, the “face-saving” effort was completely botched, but the principle is the same. Truth doesn’t enter into the equation, it’s all about polishing that turd and hoping someone — anyone — is fooled.

Custer adds that such attempts to save face only exacerbate events. Noting the disastrous Wenzhou train crash this summer, which saw officials scrambling to cover up scandalous details, he writes:

When people started criticizing them, they tried to cover that up by deleting posts, then tried to un-cover-up the cover-up by letting people speak freely for a while, then went back to covering-up by deleting posts when it seemed things were getting out of hand. In doing so, they took what was a disaster for the nation’s high speed rail and turned it into a disaster for the nation, but most especially, for themselves and their own legitimacy.