Chen Jieren, the blogger and popular “Big V” taken into custody by authorities in Hunan province back in June, appeared in court last week. But this was not a court of prosecutors and defenders, of cross-examinations, legal arguments or objections. It was the court of the People’s Daily. The court of Xinhua News Agency. The court of the Global Times.
In a raft of reports, central state media attacked Chen as an “internet pest” who had “polluted the online space,” who had deceived millions of online fans into believing he is a man who cares deeply about truth and justice. In fact, the reports said, he is a deranged profiteer, raking in millions through intimidation and extortion, all in the name of watchdog journalism.
As Chen’s lawyer, Tong Zongjin, rightly pointed out in a Weibo post that was promptly censored, these attacks in the state media — and their reported “confessions” — are a flagrant violation of the principle of presumption of innocence, and amount to trial by the media. “Neither Xinhua News Agency nor the law enforcement officers who told Xinhua reporters about the case have the right to ‘hand down a judgment’ in a case that is still under investigation,” Tong wrote.
It might be possible to debate the facts in Chens’ case, if they were available and transparent, and ask whether there is any basis at all to the allegations made against him. But the crushing, schoolyard-bully language of the state media attacks offers another kind of transparency. The reports are an illuminating gaze into the dark insides of a system that will enforce, through violence when necessary, its supreme right to the truth, that will dismiss as “fake news” all facts that are politically inconvenient or challenge vested interests — a tactic that goes back many decades within the Party discourse, no reference needed or intended to Donald Trump.
The real target of the state media barrage is the claim to independence — of journalism, of thought, of conscience — and the tools that potentially empower those claims. “The development of the self-media must be legal and orderly,” says the People’s Daily piece, referring to the universe of public accounts that have emerged on platforms like WeChat in recent years. “They cannot be allowed to develop barbarously, or even to become online criminal forces.” The kicker is a lingering threat: “The police will not rest in bringing to justice those ‘harmful pests’ of the internet, who pollute the online space with malicious hype seeking illegal profit, regardless of how popular they may be, or how much they manage to package themselves as bright defenders of justice.”
The facts in the Chen Jieren case, laid out like damning exhibits in the state media attacks, are nothing more than a distraction, a bonfire of shame and invective to send a signal to the whole of Chinese society: Do not dare claim the truth for yourself; it is the Party’s through and through.
In Translation: Maliciously Hyping and Provoking Trouble, Frenzied Profiteering Through Extortion
— Getting to the Bottom of Online Big V Chen Jieren
People’s Daily, August 17, 2018, page 9.
“Actually, I cheated you all. On the surface, I appeared bright and blameless, a Big V flying the flag of equality and justice — when in fact I was angling for personal gain, and I committed many shady acts and was essentially an online parasite.” This was the confession of online Big V Chen Jieren as he faced interrogation. “I apologize to you all for betraying your goodwill and trust. The internet is a place where information can be very confusing, and the last thing you need is for your eyes to be betrayed by a hypocrite like me.”
Over the past few years, Chen Jieren has made a name for himself through his self-media account (自媒体账号) as someone who “criticizes the government,” “dares to speak” and “dares to expose information,” to the extent that his fans reached into the hundreds of thousands. But on the afternoon of July 7, a notice from police in Hunan caught people off guard: suspect Chen Jieren had already been taken in by the police and subjected to compulsory criminal measures.
As the police have progressed more deeply into the case, the true face of Chen Jieren has gradually been uncovered. The Chen Jieren case is a “clan-style” gang offense of online criminal forces (网上黑恶势力性质的), and this gang has donned the cap of the law and of supervision by public opinion [OR: “watchdog journalism”], taking the internet as a criminal platform, and unrestrainedly conducted extortion and blackmail, wantonly seeking profit, so they are suspected of the crimes of extortion and blackmail, and of carrying on illegal business activities. Over a period of several years, the Chen Jieren gang established 21 accounts, including the “Jieren Observation Viewpoint” (杰人观察视角), “Jieren Observation Heights” (杰人观察高度), on Weibo, WeChat, Toutiao and other self-media services, issuing more than 3,000 posts of various negative forms, hyping, attacking and exposing, and altogether they manufactured around 200 negative public opinion situations (负面舆情) in 11 provinces, raking in funds in the 10s of millions, seriously misleading members of the public watching and listening, seriously disturbing online order, and doing serious damage to grassroots governance and to social stability…
Chen Jieren was born in Qingshuping Township (青树坪镇), Shuangfeng County of Hunan province, to an ordinary peasant family. His parents were disabled, and the household struggled with poverty. He worked in the local government and for well-known media, but he was fired by news media because of fake news (假新闻).
In recent years, information technologies have developed. These days, “Everyone has a microphone,” and Chen Jieren clearly recognized the commercial opportunity. He neglected the general knowledge that “on the internet, there is no land outside the law,” and he discarded the principle that “self-media must also have professional journalism integrity.” Through unrestrained packaging and hyping, he steadily expanded his influence, seeking fame and fortune.
Open Chen Jieren’s self-media accounts and you find that they are filled with shiny but spurious titles like “veteran media professional,” “scholar of legal culture,” “expert on brand development” and “crisis management,” that he was selected to the list of “top 100 influential Chinese thought leaders” . . . . Read the posts in his accounts and their eye-catching headlines, the enumerations of “evidence,” and add to this the inflammatory nature of his writings, and all of this might easily give you the impression that Chen Jieren is someone who “calls for the truth and upholds justice.”
From 2003 to now, Chen Jieren has been involved in the media industry for many years, and he is clear about how to write articles so that they attract eyeballs. When he realized that writing articles could mean huge economic gain, he started to see this as a road to making money, and he saw the law and journalism as tools for earning money,” Chen Jieren’s lover Liu X said during interrogation. On May 31, 2018, Zhao X Geng (赵某庚), the driver for a certain transport company in Shaodong County, Hunan province, felt unwell on the job, and three days later passed away. Zhao X Geng’s family sought out Chen Jieren for help in seeking compensation. Chen Jieren instructed his brother, Chen Weiren (陈伟人), to negotiate, and the first time he met with the niece of the victim, Peng X, he accepted 26,000 yuan as a consultation fee and reached an agreement: for a settlement [with the company] of under 400,000 yuan, they would take a 10 percent service fee; for anything exceeding 400,000 yuan they would take a 30 percent service fee.
After this, Chen Jieren directed his younger brother Chen Weiren to post “Li X Yan, Black-Hearted People’s Congress Delegate From Hunan’s Shaodong County, Causes Death.” Chen Jieren also arranged for the child [of the victim] to appear outside the transport company with a banner . . . putting pressure on the local government and the transport company.
Right after, Chen Jieren and the others demanded that Li X Yan compensate the Zhao family. “At the time, I took charge getting the compensation down to 700,000 yuan. A few minutes later, the older brother called to cuss me out, saying I had to keep with to the 880,000 previously agreed,” says Chen Weiren. Ultimately, Chen Jieren and the others received a profit of 263,000 illegally from the deal.
“Considering myself a lawyer, when I would write things online to manufacture a disturbance, I would normally employ legal analysis, creating the impression that I was speaking from the law, but behind the scenes it was connected to a lot of personal gain, and this is something that the masses of internet users had no idea about.” In Chen Jieren’s eyes, writing essays, manufacturing public opinion, making social media posts, all of it could be turned into business.
. . . . [Long list of alleged crimes removed here] . . . .
The dignity of the law cannot be trampled, and the goodness of the people cannot be abused. Chen Jieren has ultimately been brought to justice. “I wrongly believed that without belonging to any particular media, I could act in my own way. For the sake of profit, I habitually spoke selectively and with bias, polluting the online space, and violating the overall spirit and direction of the national legal and regulatory system for the internet. I should pay the price for my own illegal actions,” Chen Jieren says with remorse.
The development of the self-media must be legal and orderly. They cannot be allowed to develop barbarously, or even to become online criminal forces. We must cut away those law-breakers who seek to gain underhanded profit by the internet.
“The masses in society must be alert to all instances of those with impure motives masquerading as justice, raising their ability to distinguish. If they are blackmailed by someone, they must not give in, but must use the weapon of the law to protect themselves; relevant departments and units should also ensure robust systems of entry, content review, responsibility etcetera are in place for self-media, creating a proper and healthy online environment,” the police said. The police will not rest in bringing to justice those “harmful pests” (害虫) of the internet, who pollute the online space with malicious hype seeking illegal profit, regardless of how popular they may be, or how much they manage to package themselves as bright defenders of justice.