It wasn’t easy to cast this incident as yet another case of Chinese censorship. A day after it went on sale early this month, the July edition of the Chinese-language GQ was abruptly yanked from newsstands, apparently due to an article chronicling the pampered and hypermaterialistic lives of a bunch of rich 20-somethings; they belonged to the Super Car Club, obsessed over hot wheels and trendy clothes, and had fathers with tons of cash. Officially, the issue was recalled because the reporter behind the story allegedly taped and published quotes from interviews with club members that were supposed to be off the record, drawing ire from the club’s powerful president, who reportedly threatened a lawsuit.
But the real reason probably wasn’t a reporting snafu or even outright government censorship. In fact, GQ’s publisher voluntarily yanked the magazine because, in a country increasingly riven by frictions between rich and poor, it had painted an unflattering and critical portrait of the privileged elite, and that is a group with no problem marshaling the full power of the government and the ruling party in its own defense.
In the West, the subjects of the story would have known what to do in court. Defamation of character cases are how people with wealth, power, and connections curtail and threaten the pesky, whistle-blowing, paparazzi-riddled press, right? But in China, it’s different. For one thing, there’s no such thing as a genuinely independent press that holds the wealthy and powerful to account. In addition to being subjected to ever-vigilant official censors, all traditional reporting is supervised or controlled by government entities at the national, provincial, or local levels. Moreover, the most powerful news organizations—such as the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, or state-run CCTV—are propaganda organs first and foremost. GQ may not work this way, but the point is that, to many Chinese, the press often is the government.
As a result, defamation is a little more complicated. Many grassroots citizens who hope to sue news organizations—for example, to avoid business losses or criminal charges based on what was written about them—are heavily pressured by authorities to settle out of court. (The defamation law, which criminalizes false or malicious speech, like similar laws elsewhere, is unevenly enforced.) Or they discover that courts simply refuse to accept their cases. (Navigating the Chinese court system is another obstacle, which is why self-educated peasant lawyers, such as the blind Shandong activist and so-called barefoot lawyer Chen Guangcheng, now in prison, are on the rise.)
Yet ordinary folks sometimes do find a court to accept their defamation cases, as some courts increasingly try to assert their autonomy from government, and then they often win. That means, contrary to the conventional wisdom, average citizens without party or government connections can use courts to challenge state authority. One example, cited in the Harvard International Law Journal, is that of farmer Song Dianwen who sued the Heilongjiang Daily—the official paper of the Communist Party in Heilongjiang province—in 2000 for defamation after it reported that Song had killed two people during an eruption of rural unrest. Song won the case, and received about $430 in emotional damages. This is one type of defamation litigation.
Much more familiar are cases that fall into a second category, in which local government officials, party cadres, or wealthy Chinese with official connections sue for libel or defamation of character. If it goes to court, the GQ case could fall in this category. But these cases aren’t just contests pitting the rich and powerful against feisty, muck-raking media. Rather, in these cases “courts serve as state institutions at the local, as opposed to central, level to restrict and retaliate against the media and to block central [government] oversight,” as the Harvard International Law Journal put it.
In other words, reporters and central government officials attempting to rein in or expose errant local authorities or their wealthy patrons can be blocked by courts from doing so, if the local cadres lodge defamation suits that sabotage such central government oversight. An iconic case is that of Zhang Xide, a local party secretary in Anhui province who presided over a violent crackdown on farmers protesting illegal taxes and forced abortions. Two journalists, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, published a bestselling exposé that mentioned the incident; their book, An Investigation Into China’s Peasants, won international acclaim. Zhang sued them for defamation in August 2004—in a court where his son sat as a judge.
On cross-examination, Zhang and his local cohorts even bragged about their illegal tactics, which embarrassed the central government very badly. Here, Beijing faced a dilemma. It would’ve been awkward to try to explain any victory by Zhang to international critics. Yet local government and party sentiment clearly favored him, and if he lost, his crackdown would have blackened China’s international image anyway, serving as proof that violence and thuggery are practiced by grassroots apparatchiks.
As the court procrastinated on its verdict, the authors refused to concede defeat by settling out of court. Ultimately, central government authorities turned to the book’s publisher, the People’s Literature Publishing House, and secretly ordered it to pay some $7,000 to Zhang in 2006, according to the South China Morning Post. The authors were “shocked” to hear of the arrangement, and outraged because it suggested that they’d lost the case. Their book remains banned on the mainland, while Zhang retired with a full pension. The court case itself may have been inconclusive, but Zhang came out the overall winner. On the losing side were the journalists’ publishing house, the central government (which would’ve looked bad regardless of the verdict), and above all the rule of law itself.