“We think that if we cover news stories responsively, there would not be any problem. If there is a problem, we run articles to correct our mistakes and make apologies. If the problem is indeed severe, we go to the court and if we lose, we pay the compensation or even shut down—that’s on us anyway. But it turns out that we are too naïve.”

This is an excerpt from a statement printed on today’s front page of and by the New Express (新快报), a metropolis newspaper based in Guangzhou, southern China. The statement, titled “Please Release The Man” (请放人), is an appeal for the release Chen Yongzhou (陈永洲), one of the staff reporters detained by police from Changsha, southern-central Chinese city, last week. 

On October 18, Chen and his wife went to a police office in Guangzhou as requested. “Just a few minutes after we entered the interrogation room, several police from Changsha Public Security Bureau came in, saying that Chen is suspected of violating the law and thus has to be detained. I asked why but I was taken to another separate room in no time. “ Chen’s wife recalled.

Thirty-six hours later, she received a phone call from Chen, telling her that he was (and still is) being held under “suspicion of damaging commercial reputation”.  Up till today, she has never seen Chen again.

The allegation traces back to a series of  news stories Chen wrote in May this year, investigating the finances of China’s second-largest construction equipment maker, Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science and Technology Company—a company that based in Changsha. Chen questioned Zoomlion’s revenue figures, which the company has denied.

But the disagreement between Zoomlion and the New Express has now escalated into a bigger concern by a wider audience ever since the detention of Chen and the newspaper’s statement. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, “Chen Yongzhou” has become one of the top ten trending topics and so does “Zoomlion”. Screenshots of the front-page appeal went viral, with many outraged Chinese netizens supporting the Guangzhou-based tabloid and condemning Changsha police.

Verified Weibo user @西门不暗 wrote, “[I] support the New Express’s reaction against the detention of its reporter. If reporters have to take the risk of being detained to do a news story, will our society be a good society?  (支持新快报在记者被刑拘后的反应。记者做报道,要面临刑拘的危险,这个社会还会好吗?) User @范以锦  , verified as Dean of School of Journalism and Communication at Jinan University, shared similar opinions, “Is Chen’s report inconsistent with the facts or not? Did the police ever inquire the New Express for investigation?  Even if the report has false information, can the police just hold Chen in custody under ‘suspicion of damaging commercial reputation’? There are many reports that present information inconsistent with facts every year; how many people the police need to detain? Do reporters still have a sense of security?” (报道是失实还是没有失实?警方向报道方新快报调查了吗?即便失实就能以“涉嫌损害商业信誉罪”刑拘吗?每年因各种原因失实的报道不少,要抓多少人啊!记者还有安全感吗?)

Some refuted Changsha police’s conduct from a law perspective. User @何兵, verified as Vice Dean of the School of Law at China University of Political Science and Law, remarked, “This is way too much. The police is suspected of detaining people randomly and without solid base.” He continued by analyzing that, “Deliberately and subjectively fabricating facts is what partly constitutes the crime of damaging commercial reputation. There is a high threshold to such crime. Even if the information in the news report is inconsistent with facts and has bad influence on the society, it should lead to a civil dispute that involved reputation infringement.”  (这事过了!警方有乱抓人的嫌疑。明显地,蓄意、主观故意捏造事实是构成损害商业信誉罪的主观要件。这个入罪是要很高门槛的,不是随随便便的就可以扣上这个罪名。警方必须有充分的证据证明记者是在捏造事实,故意使之造成重大损失。对事件的报道,就算失实了,造成了不良的社会影响,那也应该是名誉侵权的民事纠纷。)

Not everyone remains calm. While public intellectuals voiced their opinions from an analytical perspective, many ordinary netizens are more emotional and direct.

User @宏风王 commented, “It’s too polite of the victim to use the word ‘please’. It seems that since ancient times, grassroots can only do the begging part. (太客气了,受害方居然用一“请”字。唉,自古以来,草民们只有哀求的份儿。) Some went much further as user @王道大_S  warned, “The incident symbolizes that China has officianlly become a police-state. Congratulations!” User @Citizen1982 wrote, “The root cause of all these problems is the dictatorship in the institution.” (一切问题的根源在于体制的独裁!!!)

Still, some has questioned whether the New Express’s conduct is “an abuse of public instrument” as verified Sina blogger Zhou Bihua wrote, “First, media is public instrument; second, many expressions in the New Express’s front-page statement are inappropriate. The proper way to do is that the newspaper should hire the best lawyer for Chen Yongzhou  instead of being so sensational.”  Wu Fatian, a law practitioner that is widely considered as “Five-cent Party” member, asked, “If a China Central Television reporter get caught, can Zhang Quanling (an anchor at the television) say ‘Please release the man’ during her broadcasting news?” (如果央视记者被抓了,@张泉灵 是否可以在播新闻时插播一句:请放人)

These discussions were met with criticism. User @萧–瀚微博244世 rebutted by mocking that “some said the New Express’s editorial is not well-written. I don’t know why they say so. Is it because the newspaper has said something true?” While some considered the New Express lacked “public rationality”, user @萧–瀚微博244世 regarded such discussion as being off the topic. (有人说社评写得不好。我不知道不好在哪里,是因说出真话吗?有人说这叫板缺乏公共理性。听到这我差点吐了。人家上门来抓你的记者,你大喝一声:“呔,哪里走,放银!”拐角处出来一人说,哥们,你的普通话不标准。我觉得这时纠正口音的欠揍。)

Much as the incident has escalated into a public concern, there is no new response from Changsha police bureau so far and Chen’s fate remains unknown. But what people do know is what verified user @胡洪侠, chief editor of Jing Newspaper based in Shenzhen, a city neighboring Guangzhou, pointed out, “‘Please Release the Man’ is a remarkable piece of writing and it has become the youngest literature in the history of journalism.”  ( 《请放人》是奇文,已成新闻史最年轻的文献”。)