China Fires Journalist, Blocks Agency

Chinese authorities ramp up censorship ahead of the 18th Party Congress.

suspended-journalist-305.jpg Shi Junrong posts a response to his termination on Tencent QQ.

A newspaper in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi has suspended a journalist who wrote about local officials' use of luxury cigarettes, while the country's Internet censors blocked access to Bloomberg's website following the agency's expose of overseas wealth linked to the family of vice-president Xi Jinping.

Wei'an city bureau chief Shi Junrong had his contract terminated by the Xi'an Evening News last week after he wrote a story about a local meeting of the ruling Communist Party at which attendees smoked costly "95 Zhizun" cigarettes, which retail for more than 1,000 yuan per carton.

"The paper has asked me to stop work and reflect upon the matter, which I wholeheartedly accept," Shi wrote on his Tencent QQ microblog account.

It was unclear whether Shi's public statement would result in his reinstatement, however.

"Regarding the luxury cigarette story, I acted on information from readers and from a local government website, and conducted a telephone interview," the post said.

But Shi added: "I didn't interview everyone involved, which is against the editorial policy of my newspaper."

An employee who answered the phone at the newspaper's editorial office declined to comment on Shi's case.

"I don't really know about this," the employee said. "You should call the news bureau."

Calls to the Weinan bureau of the Xi'an Evening News went unanswered during office hours on Monday.

Online support

Shi's post garnered hundreds of comments on Tencent by Monday evening, many of them supportive.

"Venerable brother, I know how little choice you have," wrote user @huangzhong. "Don't worry; those dogs of officials will all fall from power."

"I support you," wrote user @zhangzhimin.

But user @dongdong added: "You do a good thing, and the people and history will remember you ... you do something out of despair, and you will have made our grandchildren all the more powerless."

Veteran Beijing journalist Gao Yu said the incident showed just how hard life was for Chinese journalists in today's political climate.

"The working environment for Chinese journalists, their level of press freedom, is very embarrassing," Gao said.

"What he wrote was the truth ... negative news about county-level officials," she said.

"It just goes to show the level of control they are exerting over public opinion ahead of the 18th Party Congress."

Website blocked

Meanwhile, China's Internet censors reportedly blocked access to the Bloomberg website after an agency article described in detail the multimillion-dollar assets of relatives of vice-president Xi Jinping, who is widely tipped to succeed president Hu Jintao at a leadership succession later this year.

While the Bloomberg report did not link any assets to Xi, his wife or their daughter, it did list multimillion-dollar investments and luxury properties in Hong Kong owned by his extended family.

It said most of the assets it traced were owned by Xi's older sister, Qi Qiaoqiao, her husband, Deng Jiagui, and Qi's daughter, Zhang Yannan.

The report was at pains to point out that there was no indication that Xi or his family had done anything wrong.

But allegations of official wealth are highly sensitive in China, where public opinion is quick to condemn the trappings of official privilege.

Communist Party investigators are currently probing the assets of ousted former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, whose extended family accumulated at least U.S. $136 million in assets, according to previous Bloomberg research.

Bloomberg reported that Xi's family had "investments in companies with total assets of U.S. $376 million; an 18 percent indirect stake in a rare- earths company with U.S. $1.73 billion in assets; and a U.S. $20.2 million holding in a publicly-traded technology company."

It quoted Xi as saying in a 2004 conference call with top-ranking officials: "Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain."

Belina Tan, head of Bloomberg corporate communications for the Asia-Pacific region, told the Guardian on Friday that the company's website was apparently unavailable in mainland China.

Sensitive atmosphere

New York-based China commentator Li Tianxiao said the blocking of the site came amid a highly strained political atmosphere ahead of the 18th Party Congress later this year.

"The 18th Party Congress is nearly here ... and the Chinese Communist Party doesn't want to give [the next generation of leaders] any unstable factors to deal with," Li said.

"China also has highly repressive Internet policies, so it's not surprising that this article has been removed."

He said Xi was in the same political camp as incumbent Hu Jintao and premier Wen Jiabao when it came to the power struggle over the fate of Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai.

"Xi Jinping is a hot political topic right now," Li said. "The government will take a hardline attitude to any news about him, whether it be about him or about his relatives."

Reported by An Pei for RFA's Mandarin service, and by Grace Kei Lai-see for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.


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