On Wednesday afternoon last week, in this remote farming village tucked into the snow-dusted hills of Shanxi Province, Lan Chengzhang was beaten to death in the frozen mud of a walled courtyard.
At first glance, he died a martyr to press freedom, courageously investigating conditions in the notoriously dangerous illegal coal mines that dot the region. But as local authorities here launch a campaign against "fake journalists" extorting money from mine owners in return for not reporting their activities, doubts have surfaced about just what Mr. Lan was doing when he met his death.
The proliferation of newspapers and magazines that appear to exist primarily as organs of extortion, and authorities' bid to rein them in, are both cause for deep concern among legitimate Chinese reporters, who fear they may be tarred with the same brush as they seek to push the boundaries of acceptable journalism.
"This phenomenon is really harmful to Chinese media," says one reporter for a metropolitan daily who asked not to be identified as he may not talk to foreign journalists. "If the government moves to control this sort of thing, perhaps they will move to control us more, too."
Lan was hired Jan. 3 as a reporter in the Shanxi bureau – about 300 miles west of Beijing – of the China Trade News, according to the paper's chief editor, Wang Jianfeng.
Barely a week later, he was seen with a colleague in a violent altercation with the owner of an illegal coal mine outside the mine office in this tiny village of mud and straw houses.
"I saw four men beating them up with big sticks really hard," says Xiao Zhou, who says he watched the killing from his village shop next to the mine office, not daring to intervene. "They just hit them really hard and kept shouting 'beat them, beat them.' Their faces were covered with blood."
Lan was declared dead the next morning at a hospital in nearby Datong. His colleague is in hiding.
Immediately after the beating, Mr. Zhou says, the mine owner and his three accomplices shut the office and left in their cars. They have not been seen since. Datong police have made "major strides" in their investigation, according to the head of the criminal-affairs division, who identified himself by his family name, Ren, but no arrests have been made.
The coal mines of Shanxi – China's largest coal-producing region – have attracted media scrutiny for some time. Last year, official figures show, 4,746 people died in mines – averaging 13 a day.
Chinese government officials have acknowledged that local authorities often connive with mine owners who bribe them to ignore safety lapses. Local farmers say the mine owner who has vanished was in league with local officials: The office, they say, was in a building belonging to the road department.
"They are all corrupt, and that includes the village party secretary," says a villager in Xi Wang Pu, a township just up the road from the mine, which is now blocked by piles of earth.
Lan's purpose in visiting the mine office was unclear. His paper, affiliated with the quasigovernmental China Council for the Promotion of International Trade, has never published articles on mine safety, Mr. Wang says. Lan had been with the paper for only a week and "nobody sent him on any assignment to that mine," according to Wang.
Lan had no reporting experience, according to an article in the "Shanghai Morning Post," a Communist Party daily, whose reporter has been on the scene since soon after news of Lan's death broke in an anonymous posting on a well-read news and opinion Web forum.
Instead, he worked as a storeman at a state mine in Datong until about a year ago, the paper said, quoting his former boss. He is then said to have joined "Safety Education Weekly" in the provincial capital Taiyuan, but lost his job as a "researcher" last year when the paper was closed after charges that it was a front for blackmailing businessmen with threats of critical articles.
The respected "Southern Weekly" quoted a former Shanxi bureau chief for China Trade News as saying that reporters were expected to bring in 100,000 RMB ($12,864) each last year, of which they could keep a third. Wang denied that charge in a phone interview.
The phenomenon of people posing as journalists to extort money from businesses is not uncommon in China: A man went on trial this week in Beijing for threatening to write a critical article on his consumer website about a health-care firm unless it paid him more than $480,000.
But in Datong, where illegal mine owners are especially vulnerable to threats that their activities will come to the attention of Beijing authorities, city officials say the problem has reached such proportions that they have launched a campaign against it. The drive, however, could also be seen as an attempt by corrupt officials to protect themselves from legitimate criticism. "The Special Campaign Against Fake Journalists and Illegal News Publications," an-nounced on the Datong municipal website, defined "all newspapers and magazines without government permission" as "illegal," and states that "all journalists without a press card issued by the National News and Publications Bureau are considered fake journalists."
Its provisions, including a ban on "publishing internal material not supposed to be published," give local authorities wide powers to silence journalists.
Lan, who was not yet entitled to an official license, would have been considered a "fake journalist" under the decree.
His death, says the reporter who broke the story, "is not a big sensational murder, but it illustrates a big issue: Will the authorities protect our right to work? The problem is that it's the local government who decides who is and who isn't a journalist."
Lan's death has attracted growing media attention. Scores of reporters from around China have descended on Datong, using the story to raise questions about their profession.
The National News and Publications Bureau has registered nearly 175,000 Chinese journalists, but more than four times that many work in the field, by some estimates. "Because of the government quotas, not everyone can be legal," says a reporter for a city newspaper who is covering the case. "A lot of real reporters are considered fake because they can't get a license. If they crack down on reporters without licenses, they'll stop a lot of real reporters, too."
"Anyway, we are all citizens," she adds. "If Lan found something wrong going on, why shouldn't he uncover it? This story is not about whether he was fake or not, it's about citizens' rights."