By Zheng Chu
Published: 2008-06-27

From Nation, page 14, issue no. 373, June 23 2008
Translated by Zuo Maohong
Original article
: [Chinese]

Citizen Hao Jinsong:

Thanks for your concern and support for our work.

Notice is hereby given that the "South China tiger photograph" issue has entered the investigatory phase, and we will publish related information when that work is finished.

Despite the 51 Chinese characters in the main body, this reply apparently disclosed little about the ongoing investigation.

On June 15, over 20 days after he submitted an application to the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Forestry (SPBF) for details of its investigation into the authenticity of a group of photographs featuring a wild South China tiger, lawyer Hao Jinsong finally received the above reply.

   Lawyer Hao Jinsong
In May, China promulgated the Provisions on the Disclosure of Government Information.

For Hao, the application was an exercise of right given by the new law, and more importantly, a new effort to find out the truth behind the "South China tiger photograph" controversy, which was once heatedly debated and now rarely mentioned.

"It's Not Our Obligation"
The controversy traced back to October 12 2007, when Shaanxi forestry authorities published a series of images showing a wild South China tiger, an animal that experts believed to have been "functionally extinct" in the country.

The photographs were purportedly taken by 52-year-old farmer Zhou Zhenglong, who claimed to have filmed the animal on October 3 2007 in the mountains of Zhenping county.

Yet the images were later suspected of being doctorded by Chinese netizens and academicians.

Controversy thus arose over the authorities' intention in issuing the photos, which some believed were intended as bargaining chips to establish a natural reserve in Zhenping and gain financial support from the government. The case therefore became more a question of government integrity than of the pure authenticity of some photos.

On November 7 2007, Hao brought the case to the People's Court of Dingxiang, Shanxi province, where Zhou's residence was registered, and demanded one-yuan compensation for emotional distress.

Hao said he didn't expect the court to look into the case, but only wanted a reply so that he could appeal. Hao had rightly guessed the outcome, but certainly not the process—he didn't receive a reply within seven days, as required by law, nor after another two weeks. 

Eventually, a commentary in the China Youth Daily finally made the court respond, Hao said. An official of the High Court of Shanxi Province saw the article and urged the local court to give a reply as soon as possible through the Intermediate People's Court of Xinzhou, he added.

Hao then received a phone call from the People's Court of Dingxiang informing him to fetch the court ruling, which rejected his case.

Hao said he asked the reason for the delay, and was told that the ruling was issued long before, and it was his fault not coming to get it. When he replied that he hadn't received any notice for this, the other side said it wasn't their obligation to give the notice, Hao recalled.

Hao thus appealed to the Intermediate People's Court of Xinzhou, demanding the case be heard by the Dingxiang court. This time there was quick response—ten days later, he received a reply that filing of the case was rejected.

Rejected by both courts, Hao could no longer make any more legal claims against Zhou in his own name, as by Chinese law, filing of civil cases end after two reviews.  

Yet the fervor of fighting the case continued. At a press conference last December, a reporter asked the spokesperson of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) Cao Qingyao: Why didn't the SFA verify the authenticity of the photos?

Cao's answer was the SFA had not received any such application from any organization or individual.

Seeing this on the television news, Hao immediately wrote an application for administrative appraisal and sent it to the SFA together with a letter accusing SPBF of forging the tiger photographs.

A few days later, Hao said he received a decision memo saying the SFA declined to consider administrative appraisal. There was also a reply to the accusation letter, noting that SFA would investigate into the case.  

On December 10, 2007, Hao again made a legal claim against the SFA at the Beijing Second Intermediate People's Court, demanding the SFA accept his application for administrative appraisal. The same refusal came soon after.

Hao then appealed to the Beijing High People's Court, which again refused the case on the ground that his application did not fall under concrete administrative jurisdiction.

Information Disclosure
Hao had one last means--the Provisions on the Disclosure of Government Information, which was published last June and took effect this May 1.

On May 11, Hao submitted two applications to the SFA and SPBF respectively, demanding details of the photographs' verification and investigation progress on the existence of South China tiger, the cost spent on the investigations, and Zhenping county's application for becoming a state natural reserve. 

The next day, the SFA replied that his application was not of standard format and only SFA application form would be accepted. Hao wished to download one from the SFA's website, yet there was none uploaded, and he was asked to make a trip personally to SFA for the forms.

When he got the forms the following day, Hao found one column read: the title and number of the document demanded to be disclosed. Disclosure of government information thus became that of government documents, Hao said.

"We care about how the government handles a matter, not its conclusion or documents. We surely want to know the result, but also have the right to know how the result comes. Only this can be called transparency," he argued.

By this form, the government could easily decline any request for non-document information in the name of a disqualified application format, Hao said. He thus refused to fill in the form, as what he demanded for disclosure was not certain documents, he added.

According to the Provisions, the government should reply to an application for information disclosure within 15 days.

On May 26, 14 days after application, Hao said the SFA notified him via phone that the disclosure of information he requested should be postponed for half a month, as the Administration had devoted itself to disaster relief work since an earthquake hit Sichuan on May 12.

Again Hao expressed his disagreement—the fulfillment of obligation to notify should include a written notice, which could serve as a proof if subsequent disputes occurred, he said.

On June 15, the SPBF issued the notice mentioned at the beginning of this article. The SFA replied to Hao two days later. According to the latter's reply, the SPBF hadn't received any application from the Zhenping local government for establishing a natural reserve.

The reply also explained the "breakthrough" in the second appraisal of the South China tiger photographs - a statement the authorities told the press last December - referred to the SFA had agreed to entrust professional institutions to verify the authenticity of the photographs. However, none of Hao's questions were directly answered.

On June 24, rumor had it that Zhou – the purported author of the controversial photographs – had admitted to the police that the photos were fakes and the tiger in the photos was originally a picture.

However, Zhou's confession didn't necessarily mean the truth, a commentary of Xiaoxiang Morning Post argued.

To Hao, he wanted to reach the truth through legal means.

"Whenever there's a problem, we should solve it by law and call for the public to supervise it. Only in this way can wrongs be corrected. And I will go on fighting this tiger until the truth prevails," Hao said.