Misleading headline

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When you read this Radio Free Asia headline, what do you think?

"China Holds Two Activists Linked to Heilongjiang Shooting Death" (5/20/15)

Here's the photograph that accompanies the article:

Activist Wu Gan stages protest outside Jiangxi High Court, May 19, 2015.
Photo courtesy of Boxun.

There are so many questions surrounding this extremely complicated and controversial case that one hardly knows where to begin.

Let's just start with the headline itself, before we work our way through the information provided in the RFA article and other reports that we shall examine.

When I read the headline, I thought that the activists were being held because they were suspects somehow linked to the shooting death in Heilongjiang.

Here are some suggestions for rewrites of the headline from colleagues:

"Two Alleging Coverup of Heilongjiang Shooting Death Held by China"

"China Holds Two Protesters after Heilongjiang Shooting Death"

"China detains 2 activists protesting Heilongjiang police shooting death"

Ben Zimmer's view is that:

This is a case where the UK "noun pile" style of headline might actually be preferable: "China Holds Two Heilongjiang Shooting Death Activists." That way it would be easier to see the activists as protesting the shooting death (or its subsequent handling) rather than linked to it more nefariously. Except that introduces a new ambiguity, since "Heilongjiang" could be taken to modify the head noun "activists" rather than "shooting death." (I assume the activists are from elsewhere.)

Better to just make it explicit, of course: "China Holds Two Activists Who Protested Heilongjiang Shooting Death." (Or "…Shooting Death Case," to be more accurate?)

Because the Heilongjiang case itself is so complex, and the two activists who were protesting its handling had also run afoul of the authorities for protesting many other instances of what they perceived to be injustice, including some very high profile proceedings with international implications, it's not even clear precisely why they are being detained. The authorities who are holding them have not told anyone why the two men are being held, though they do admit that the two activists have been taken into custody. Consequently, I sympathize with the headline writer, since there is almost no way that one could make clear in a limited number of words that the two activists, who did indeed protest the apparent Heilongjiang killing of a man named Xu Chunhe (age 45) by a police officer which became a national cause célèbre, were being held, but not necessarily for their opposition to the manner in which that particular matter had been dealt with by the authorities, or at least not for that alone.

It is also worth keeping in mind that Heilongjiang is in the far northeastern part of the country, whereas the two activists, Wu Gan and Chai Baowen, were in the east central provinces of jiangxi and Anhui when they were picked up.

The activists were not being held because they were suspects in the Heilongjiang shooting death. That's not it at all, even though many people who read the headline take it that way. These two activists were protesting the handling of the shooting death and trying to bring the perpetrator to justice, but they had also antagonized various units of the Chinese government (courts, police, officials at different levels…) on other occasions.

One such case was that involving the judge who is pictured on the posters displayed by protester Wu Gan in the photograph at the top of this post. He is Chief Justice Zhang Zhonghou of the Jiangxi Provincial High Court. Wu was actually picked up by the police while protesting Chief Justice Zhang's refusal to reopen hearing on a totally different case than the Heilongjiang killing.

Notice that Wu seems to have doctored Zhang's photograph by the addition of a black smudge on his upper lip that might be interpreted as a big, black mole, but may also suggest a Hitleresque mustache, which — if it were true — would be a grave offense, but who's to say that's what it really is? Whatever that smudge is meant to represent, it must have been added by added by Wu Gan, since Judge Zhang does not have such a mustache or mole in real life.

Another nettlesome touch to the poster on the right side is the challenge in red characters:

Nǐ kāi gè jià ba! 你开个价吧! ("Name your price!)

This implies that Judge Zhang can be bought / bribed.

At the bottom of the poster (for a larger, clearer photo see this article), Wu Gan further taunts the judge by signing:

Dài xínghuì rén 待行贿人 ("The Person Who Is Waiting to Make a Bribe")

Wu Gan is ostensibly risking his own reputation by offering the judge a bribe, but — in a backhanded way — he is impugning the court as venal. In this article, Zhang Zhonghou complains that judges are woefully underpaid, particularly in comparison with lawyers.

On the poster to the left, the judge is pictured on a tombstone, as though he were already deceased and had to face all the souls of the tormented individuals who had died as a result of his wrongful decisions, or that he needs to be called back to put right some cases he mishandled that are still pending. This website verifies that the poster on the left represents a tombstone. This website provides updates after Wu's arrest.

To return to the Heilongjiang killing, however, for those who are interested in more details, here is a NYT report on the case, complete with chilling video:

"China Clears Police Officer in Death of Unarmed Man, but Controversy Isn’t Over" (5/15/15)

This article discusses the possible impact of bounty hunters on Xu Chunhe's behavior leading up to his death:

"Why China Should Consign Its Bounty Hunters to History" (5/27/15)

And here is an excellent, in-depth account and analysis of the Heilongjiang case:

"Qing’An: the Disappearance of Authority and the Billion-member Grand Jury" (5/19/15)

Here and here are a couple of reports in Chinese, but bear in mind that, for contentious cases like this one, posts concerning them often get scrubbed from the web.

When one is dealing with so many layers and levels of competing claims concerning legal cases that transfix the nation, writing a simple, straightforward headline is not an easy task.

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Mark Swofford, Michael Carr, Kaiser Kuo, Randy Alexander, and Xiuyuan Mi]


  1. K. Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 2:36 pm

    How about "Two protesting activists of Heilongjiang Police Shooting Held by Chinese Authorities"?

  2. maidhc said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

    Two held in China police shooting protest.

  3. abo luo said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 7:47 pm

    .. Whatever that smudge is meant to represent …

    I'd guess it is likely meant to evoke an image of 日本鬼子.


  4. K Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 11:31 pm

    @abo luo — concur. It's meant to imply either Japanese, or Japanese sympathizer (日本走狗) who's basically Chinese that dressed like Japanese to incur Japanese occupier favors.

    Here's a little update on Wu Gan… He's held for 10 days on a vague "disturbing the peace" charge. (Technically it's "picking quarrels and provoking trouble")


  5. K Chang said,

    June 3, 2015 @ 11:41 pm

    Wu Gan had been a thorn in the authorities' side for a very long time. He had been posting online as either Butcher 屠夫 or Super Vulgar Butcher 超级低俗屠夫。Not to get too political on this but he's always after some sort of local "abuse of authority" cases. Here's one long missive he penned online after a death in 2011. Some colorful language in here. Viewer discretion is advised.


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