Sat, Aug 18, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Johnny Neihu's NewsWatch: Who dare chide my commodity?

By Johnny Neihu

"Infringing the reputation of a commodity" is the latest punishable offense in China, as reporter/baozi connoisseur Zi Beijia (訾北佳) was unfortunate enough to discover this week.

For daring to shed any unflattering light on China's rampant food quality problems, Mr Zi will be spending the next year or so behind bars while being force-fed an all-baozi diet and writing self-criticisms about how he will not do anything else to create a "vile social influence" again, as the official line now goes.

Oh yes, and he will also have to pay a 1,000 yuan (US$130) fine for his transgression. I suppose this is to cover what it will cost the state to feed and house him for a year.

For a country with a long and proud tradition of juvenile name-calling and comically inane slogans, "infringing the reputation of a commodity" is a stand out achievement. I can only assume that the judges have one of those magic eight balls filled with criminal-sounding words that they shake up until they have a sufficiently malicious-sounding crime.

Internet rumors say that when the judges were deciding what charge to invent to put Zi behind bars, "infringing the reputation of a commodity" only narrowly beat out "verbal sodomy of motherland pastry."

I decided to do a little snooping around on the old YouTube and found the videos of Zi's original report, his sentencing and Beijing TV's apology.

To begin with, I must say that those baozi in Zi's original report don't look half bad. Ok, so there's a little paper in them. So what? Do you really find cardboard more unpalatable than diced pig scrotum?

Apparently the cardboard was soaked in some chemical. Now, anyone who has gone to use the restroom at a restaurant in China and found that the lavatory also doubles as a food storage closet knows that having some sort of powerful bacteria-killing chemical injected into your food is not always such a bad thing.

In fact, I would say the cardboard is the least of a consumer's worries. I would be more concerned about the fact that the chef isn't wearing any pants. Or shirt. Or shoes.

The only "hairnet" he dons is a grubby pair of boxers covering his unmentionables.

But the really odd thing about the report is that at the end it shows policemen arriving on scene, while the narrator says that "after finding sufficient evidence" the authorities "clamped down according to the law" on the illegal proprietors.

Sounds like the police were fairly certain that the paper baozi were for real. At least until the higher-ups got involved and suddenly changed their minds.

The next clip I perused was the apology from the TV station, during which the anchor relates how the government food safety agencies were very concerned by the report, and formed teams to conduct thorough investigations of the "breakfast market." After their search turned up nothing suspicious -- surprise! -- the police were called in to investigate again and this time produced the "truth" that the story was a fake. The station vows to deal with the issue "severely" and says that it will work to improve the "political quality" as well as "moral quality" of its reporting.

The grand finale of the whole sordid affair is the sentencing. Zi, who looks like he is about 16 years old and pushing 50kg, is flanked immediately to his left by some generic rent-a-thug security officer with an earpiece. Zi has a seat alone in the middle of the court, while the microphone in front of him is hung with a sign reading "the accused." To his right is his "defense person" -- I can only assume he is a lawyer -- who is faced across the room by a team of three prosecutors. Staring Zi down from the front is an array of judges who look more like they should be issuing a major constitutional interpretation rather than locking up some no-name reporter.

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