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Chinese Whistleblowers Pay In Blood Amid Official Calls To Curb Corruption

posted 4 Aug 2013, 03:25 by Sam Mbale   [ updated 4 Aug 2013, 03:26 ]

A Chinese blogger, blinded by acid and hacked with knives says he is one of the latest victims in a string of unsolved violence that targets whistleblowers who expose corruption online.

HUIZHOU CITY, GUANGDONG PROVINCE, CHINA (JULY 23, 2013) (REUTERS) - Li Jianxin had been threatened, but he would not stop posting online about what he saw as official misconduct, illegal land grabs and nepotism -- all proof, he asserted, of pervasive corruption in his district in southern China.

Then in early July, two men splashed acid on him, burning the skin off his back, and hacked his arms and eye with a knife while his six-year-old son looked on.

"He ran towards me and splashed it onto my body. When he was splashing it, I turned my head and it didn't hit my eyes. The other man continued to beat me up. He went to get a knife, and by then I was under their control. I was under their control, I couldn't run away, and the first slash got my eye," said Li from his hospital bed in the southern Huizhou city in Guangdong province.

The 45-year-old small restaurant owner is now blind in his right eye. He has undergone three operations and is awaiting about three more.

A personal grievance last year with a prominent meat distributor left him with a distaste for officials and businesses, which he said were colluding with each other in Huiyang district.

Since then, he posted regularly about how several local officials had used their connections to install their relatives in their government jobs and instigate land grabs against villagers, based on information that he said he received from informants.

None of his exposes have prompted official investigations but Li defended the veracity of his reports, saying that he has never been sued for slander despite posting dozens of reports.

In March, someone had thrown a brick into his daughter's bedroom, breaking a window in his home.

The July acid attack against Li is part of a series of threats and harassment against whistleblowers and coincides with a crackdown against anti-graft activists, which has rattled the human rights community.

The rise in violence comes even after President Xi Jinping, who has made fighting graft a key objective of his administration, called on "the supervision of the people" to help the party fight corruption -- an oft-cited phrase that was also used by his predecessor Hu Jintao.

Li said he and his fellow whistleblowers were thrilled when they heard officials discuss "public opinion-based oversight" over the exercise of power.

He said he thought that meant the government was more inclined to use the Internet as a tool to weed out corruption.

"Back then we praised and believed in the country's policy of online supervision. It was like a morale booster. It signified that the nation's leaders attach importance to and support our anti-corruption efforts on the Internet," Li said.

Police promised they would investigate the acid attack, saying that "the leaders attach great importance" to it.

But they told the Li family their surveillance cameras were not working. The scrap workers who had helped Li immediately after the attack were not interviewed, according to Li Jianhuang, Li's younger brother.

"This is a man, not an animal, right? It doesn't matter whether his actions affect you officials, and ultimately it doesn't even matter if his actions are useful to society or not, he is still a legal citizen. A legal citizen should have his legal rights, shouldn't he? Now he is suffering from this kind of injury. It's not like he hurt himself from crashing his own car. It's all because of this little thing, this kind of thing, this online anti-corruption campaign. What do you mean, online anti-corruption campaign? It's only because of this online anti-corruption campaign that he has become like this. What do you say, if the country's leaders see this, won't they feel their hearts ache?" said Li Jianhuang.

The Huizhou government did not respond to repeated faxed queries from Reuters.

Reuters calculated the number of whistleblowers based on microblog postings and media reports and found at least 24 whistleblowers who are demanding accountability from a rigid political system.

At least six of them have been attacked, harassed or threatened after their reports, according to media reports and microblog postings. Authorities deleted Twitter-like microblog accounts belonging to one "citizen journalist".

China has also detained at least 16 activists in recent months who were involved in a campaign pushing for officials to publicly disclose their wealth in what rights groups describe as a co-ordinated crackdown.

These examples of intimidation underscore the limits of an anti-corruption push by Xi and highlight his new government's intolerance to any challenge to its rule.

Prominent historian, Zhang Lifan, said the central government's failure to control corruption at the local levels reflects Beijing's weakness.

"Our central government is now actually a very weak central government. It cannot control these local tyrants at all. This is also a unique phenomenon when the party rules everything under the sky, under the one party system. After the central government becomes completely weak, the 'dukes' everywhere -- including the little 'dukes' at the bottom units -- become very strong. They have absolute power in the areas under their jurisdiction," Zhang said.

Apart from online whistleblowing, hundreds of petitioners across the country pour into Beijing each day to seek justice for everything from land grabs and industrial pollution to unresolved murders.

Only a tiny minority solve their problems through petitions, according to many studies, but some people still fight on, sometimes for years, abandoning families and livelihoods.

Many are rounded up by provincial officers and sent back home or to illegal "black jails" to protect local cadres' reputations.

Online whistleblowers like Li say petitioning often yields no results, so they decide to circumvent official channels, take matters into their own hands and turn to the Internet instead.