10 Questions: For A Courageous Reporter

Nancy Ramsey is a contributor to CBSNews.com

(Committee to Protect Journalists )
Last week in New York the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) honored reporters from Pakistan, Russia, Mexico and China—journalists who have risked their lives investigating corruption, organized crime, arms smuggling, even the murder of three of their colleagues. When we called CPJ to hear more about the honorees, we learned that one, Gao Qinrong, from China, would not be attending because his government had denied him a passport.

Gao had uncovered a scam irrigation project in his home province—a striking example of local authorities' self-aggrandizement and corruption. For writing that story, Gao spent eight years in prison; he was released last December. When CPJ asked us if we wanted to talk with him (through a translator), we of course leaped at the chance.

1. Mr. Gao, thanks so much for speaking with us, and let's start, more or less, at the beginning. Tell us about the story you wrote that ultimately put you in prison.

It was about a fake irrigation project in Yuncheng, a city in Shanxi Province, which is southwest of Beijing. This project was costing the government about $38 million, and it was a scam.

It's a region that doesn't get much rain, so people are very dependent on the weather. In 1995, local leaders learned about a foreign irrigation technology that they thought might solve the region's problems. It involved
building these large pools with pipes in the bottom to collect water. But the soil wasn't the right quality. It was sandy and sticky, not suitable for this type of irrigation. Agriculture experts agreed from the start that it wouldn't work, but the leader of the district, Huang Youquan, wanted personal glory, he wanted to enrich himself and enhance his reputation, so they began this huge building project.

2. Who were you working for at the time? Was this a story that your editors assigned?

I was working for the Xinhua News Agency, the state news agency. I found the story myself. One day I was traveling to Yuncheng from my home in Taiyuan, which is the provincial capital, and I overheard people on the train making jokes, in the form of a rhyme, or a proverb, about how whenever you walked down a road, there were these empty pools being built.

Of course I was very interested when I heard them talking, and I worked on the story for about a month.

I sent it off to a few publications, including the People's Daily. It was published in the version that circulates to top Party officials. The South China Morning Post heard about it, and I went with them to see the irrigation project. Then many TV stations came too. All this was based on the reporting I had done.

3. The authorities weren't pleased...

On April 5, 1998, the investigators showed up to see me, and I was quite glad. I thought they wanted to hear more about the scam. But they didn't ask me anything about the project, they asked about me and any problems I had had. "You're supposed to be investigating the fake engineering problem," I told them, "but instead you're investigating me." I was very angry.

I had to cooperate, they had been sent by orders from above. They asked me, "Where did your cell phone come from? Where did your beeper come from?" They checked out my receipts, and the facts checked out with what I had told them.

4. But it didn't stop there...

In July they came back and started asking me, "Why did you write that story? What was your motivation? And who gave you the information?" I answered that I wanted to fight corruption, and I said I couldn't tell them who my sources
were. But they were very persistent. They kept emphasizing that they were representatives of the Central Communist Party and that as a party member, I should believe the party above all else. They promised they would not retaliate.

But my source, a local figure in the administration, was arrested.

5. What happened next?

I went to Beijing to lodge a complaint because I'd received threatening phone calls. I also received a phone call from a friend who said he'd be in Beijing, and when I went to meet him, it turned out it was the police. They kidnapped me and took me back to Shanxi, and I had no chance to communicate with my family.

The trial was on April 28, 1999, and the whole thing lasted one day. It was conducted in secrecy. My lawyers pled not guilty on my behalf, but the authorities didn't listen.

I was charged with fraud, bribes, even pimping. I hadn't heard any of the crimes before. I was sentenced to 13 years.

While I was in prison, my wife, who is an accountant, was working extremely hard running around on my behalf. She was constantly traveling to Beijing; sometimes after work she'd take the overnight bus. My daughter, whose name is Gao Ya, wasn't told her father was in prison, she was told I was overseas.

6. Your sentence was 13 years, but you got out early. How did that happen?

Because I studied while I was in prison and took part in labor activities--I worked on the prison newspaper--and put on a good face, they lightened my sentence.

One day, out of the blue, they said I could go.

7. With the Olympics coming up, the eyes of the world are poised to be on Beijing, even though many journalists are still in jail. Do you think that might have had anything to do with your being released?

Not particularly. But I do think that because everyone's busy dealing with the Olympics, the authorities might have been preoccupied. I had been petitioning for release the whole time, so one time they didn't take the time to review my case, and they just let me go.

8. You were released in December of last year. What have you been doing?

At the moment I'm unemployed. I came out of prison and tried to find another job as a journalist, but no one dared employ me. I've been thinking about two things: writing about my experiences, and figuring out ways to help people when they get into difficult situations such as mine.

9. What advice would you give to young reporters in China just beginning their careers?

Speak the truth. Do the right thing.

10. If you had to do it over, knowing what you know now, about what happened to you after you wrote this story, would you still write it?

I would.

My feeling is that being a journalist is really hard and speaking the truth is also really difficult. But the role of a journalist is to speak out on behalf of the people and to maintain fairness and justice in society.