[Marxism] Fw: [reclaim the media ] In China, an Editor Triumphs, and Fails: Struggle Between New Press Freedoms, Communist Party Evident by Jailing
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Subject: [reclaim the media ] In China, an Editor Triumphs, and Fails:
Struggle Between New Press Freedoms, Communist Party Evident by Jailing
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In China, an Editor Triumphs, and Fails
Struggle Between New Press Freedoms,
Communist Party Evident by Jailing
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 1, 2004; Page A01
GUANGZHOU, China -- It was past 9:30 p.m. when the reporters finished
writing. The presses were scheduled to begin printing the next day's issue
of the Southern Metropolis Daily in a few hours, and space for a large
headline had been reserved on the front page.
But when the night editor read their story -- an investigative report about
a young college graduate who had been detained by local police and beaten to
death in custody -- he hesitated. Then he picked up a phone and called Cheng
Yizhong, the paper's star editor.
Cheng had built the Daily into this southern city's most popular and
profitable tabloid, practicing a feisty brand of journalism editors across
China were trying to imitate. But a few days earlier, in a clampdown ordered
by a new Communist Party leader in the province, he had been stripped of his
title as editor in chief. He was now running the paper as deputy editor.
Others in the newsroom had briefed him twice about the article, but given
the circumstances, the night editor wanted to check with him one last time,
colleagues recalled. The story was certain to anger government officials,
and there was still time to pull it. Instead, Cheng gave the order to
The article, published April 25, 2003, spread quickly on the Internet, and
newspapers across the country reprinted it. Reporters dug deeper, exposing
abuses in a nationwide network of detention camps that purchased and sold
inmates like slaves. Put on the defensive by rising public outrage, Beijing
ordered the camps closed and abolished a decades-old law that gave police
sweeping powers to imprison people at will.
It was a landmark victory for the Chinese press; never before had reporters
influenced national policy in such a dramatic fashion. But in March, Cheng
was arrested and two of his colleagues were sentenced to long prison terms
in a corruption probe that party sources said was an act of retaliation by
What happened to Cheng highlights a momentous and complex struggle now
underway between the country's increasingly independent-minded and
profit-driven state media and entrenched interests inside the ruling
Communist Party. The outcome could determine the future not only of
journalism in China but also of the largest authoritarian political system
in the world.
More than a quarter century after China launched economic reforms while
continuing to restrict political freedom, the government still owns and
controls all of the country's newspapers and television stations. But
journalists have fought off party censors in one sensitive subject area
after another, and they are waging a daily battle for even greater freedoms.
This push is driven in part by economics. In a sweeping industry overhaul,
the government is withdrawing subsidies from state media outlets, holding
them responsible for their own profits and losses and opening the door to
private investment. The market has led newspapers to set aside propaganda
and deliver stories that readers are actually interested in. Many have
turned to gossip or entertainment, but there is also a financial incentive
to produce a scarce commodity: journalism that challenges the government.
The party is torn about this creeping expansion of media freedoms. It
believes a more assertive press can help it fight corruption and improve
governance, but is afraid of losing control over an institution critical to
its monopoly on power. Regular skirmishing between journalists and officials
who want to suppress stories that make them look bad has threatened the
party's unity. And as journalists begin to view themselves as watchdogs for
the public rather than lap dogs for the party, the government's old methods
of control are weakening.
On Sept. 1, 1997, readers who picked up the Southern Metropolis Daily found
a different kind of Communist Party newspaper. Instead of the latest
pronouncements on Marxism, a quarter of the paper's 16 pages were devoted to
the death of Princess Diana. The tabloid stunned its rivals; almost every
newspaper in China had covered Diana's death with only a few hundred words.
The tabloid was an experiment launched by a staid party newspaper, the
Southern Daily, to grab more advertising in this booming city of 7 million.
Cheng was not yet 30, the youngest member of a three-man committee appointed
to set up the paper. He was a party member and a rising star, a peasant's
son who landed a job with the Southern Daily after studying literature at
Guangzhou's most prestigious university. He had already distinguished
himself as a creative editor, so when he volunteered to help start the
tabloid, he was named deputy editor.
"It meant more pressure and more work, but he asked to do it," recalled his
wife, Chen Junying, a fellow editor at the Southern Daily. "He wanted work
that was more honest, and more competitive, and of greater significance."
A quiet man with a youthful face, Cheng threw himself into the project,
studying newspapers around the world, writing a 10,000-word plan of action
and personally designing the tabloid's masthead using 5th century
calligraphy from the Northern Wei dynasty. His wife had just had a baby, but
it was the newspaper he doted on.
The newspaper employed fewer than a hundred reporters then, and Cheng edited
and laid out several pages each night. He also pioneered a new genre of
journalism in China, writing reviews of the foreign films that were becoming
widely available on video CDs.
The newspaper bled money at first, and Cheng's bosses had their doubts. In
one meeting, Cheng argued it would soon become Guangzhou's top newspaper.
His audience burst out laughing, colleagues recalled.
But Cheng kept pushing. The paper became the first in China to offer daily
consumer sections -- automobiles on Monday and real estate on Thursday, for
example. It broke new ground with blowout coverage of World Cup finals in
1998, publishing eight pages a day for 43 consecutive days to the delight of
this soccer-crazed nation.
The newspaper also began to distinguish itself with more critical reporting
on such social problems as crime and corruption, causing a sensation, for
example, with a report on restaurants that used cooking oil extracted from
While other newspapers avoided angering local officials by muckraking only
in other provinces, the Daily focused on hard-hitting reporting in its own
city and region.
The strategy worked. Circulation climbed from 80,000 at the end of 1997 to
380,000 a year later. After a talented, young advertising manager, Yu
Huafeng, joined the staff, revenues jumped, too. In its third year,
circulation reached 610,000 and the paper eked out its first profit.
By 2000, the Southern Metropolis Daily had become both the thickest and most
expensive daily newspaper in China, charging about 12 cents for 72 pages.
The next year, the party promoted Cheng to editor in chief. Yu became a top
deputy and the paper's general manager. The average age of the Daily's 2,200
employees was 27 in 2002. The average age of the members of its senior
management was 33.
The newspaper was pugnacious. Once, local officials in the neighboring city
of Shenzhen tried to banish it from its newsstands. The next day, a headline
on the paper's front page declared, "Someone in Shenzhen Shamelessly Shut
Out This Newspaper." A month and a half later, the ban was lifted.
Colleagues described Cheng as an eloquent speaker. At weekly staff meetings,
he urged his reporters to remember they were working for the public. In one
memo, a reporter recalled, he criticized an article describing the problems
caused by the city's prostitutes. He said the paper should sympathize with
the weak and concentrate on "supervising" the strong.
"In the newspaper business, we have already learned how to be out of power,"
Cheng said in an interview distributed by the paper's marketing department
in 2002. "Now, we must learn how to act like a newspaper that is in power."
Cheng said the party had given the press a mandate to monitor local
officials. But he said he also picked his targets carefully. "In China,
supervision by the media can only proceed within the existing system," he
said. "Freedom means knowing how big your cage is."
A Brief Victory
A few days after Chen Feng was hired as a reporter at the Southern
Metropolis Daily in late March last year, he received a hot tip. A college
student told him she had heard that a 27-year-old graphic designer named Sun
Zhigang had died in police custody after being detained for failing to carry
his temporary residence permit.
Chen was worried the story might be too sensitive. But without hesitating,
his editor gave him permission to investigate, he recalled.
Chen, 31, a portly fellow with close-cropped hair, teamed up with a
colleague, Wang Lei, 28, who was taller and thinner and sported a goatee and
long hair. They found Sun's family, and convinced them to ask a medical
examiner for an autopsy. A few weeks later, they learned the results: Sun
had been beaten to death.
The two reporters briefed one of the paper's top editors. He immediately
expressed interest, they recalled, and issued specific instructions: First,
make sure to get every detail right. Second, get the story done fast before
propaganda authorities could order the paper not to write about the subject.
China has never employed an extensive system of censors. Instead, the party
appoints the editors of every newspaper, issues directives banning coverage
of specific subjects and relies on journalists to censor themselves. Those
who don't comply are fired or demoted, and in some cases, their publications
are shut down. On rare occasions, a journalist might be arrested.
Chen and Wang moved quickly, interviewing Sun's friends, employers and
relatives as well as medical and legal experts. Then they tried to interview
police and were told to go away at two precinct houses and city
headquarters. They planned to write the story the next day.
But their editor was worried, they recalled. He said they should have waited
until the last day to contact police, because the police might call the
propaganda authorities and squash the story. Then he ordered them to write
it that night.
The article was splashed across two pages. On the tabloid's front, a large
headline read, "The Death of Detainee Sun Zhigang." A smaller one said,
"University Graduate, 27, Suddenly Dies Three Days After Detention on
Guangzhou Street, Autopsy Shows Violent Beating Before Death."
The public's response was overwhelming. Hundreds of people called and sent
faxes to the newspaper to express outrage or tell their own stories of
police abuse, and tens of thousands posted messages on the Internet.
Chen and Wang wrote a follow-up story the next day, but local propaganda
officials blocked the piece, Chen recalled. The reporters then sent the
story to a friend at a Beijing-based newspaper, where it was published a few
days later under a pseudonym.
Soon afterward, they recalled, Cheng Yizhong, the star editor, summoned them
to his office for a meeting. He urged them to keep digging, even if not all
of the stories they wrote could be published. Then he said he hoped their
reporting would lead Beijing to abolish the law used to detain Sun.
Chen recalled thinking his editor was crazy. "I thought he might be
feverish," he said.
But the pressure for change continued to build. Sun had been detained under
a law the party had used to restrict migration for decades, a sort of
internal passport system that allowed police to send people without
residence permits into any of about 700 custody-and-repatriation centers
across the country. Legal scholars began calling for a review of the law,
arguing that it violated basic human rights. Journalists began showing how
police often detained people at will, forced them to work in the camps and
then held them until relatives paid hefty fees.
Cheng kept the Daily at the forefront of the campaign, publishing a series
of special reports and editorials. When Beijing announced the decision to
abolish the detention system, he put that on the front page, too.
Afterward, some senior officials praised the Southern Metropolis Daily's
reporting as a model of how the news media could play a constructive role in
the party, party sources said.
But the end of the detention system deprived police agencies, a powerful
branch of the state, of a lucrative source of income. More important, the
story had embarrassed local leaders in Guangzhou and perhaps ruined their
Local officials angry at the media usually go to propaganda authorities to
demand that journalists be punished. But Beijing had all but endorsed the
Daily's reporting by abolishing the detention camp system, which made it
difficult for officials in Guangzhou to take action.
Still, they tried to pressure the newspaper. On the day the story of Sun's
death was published, Guangzhou's party secretary angrily threatened to take
the Daily to court, journalists said. Later, Cheng received a call from an
old classmate who delivered a message from another senior city official
warning him to back off, colleagues said.
Soon after Beijing abolished the detention law, Guangzhou party leaders
ordered an investigation into the newspaper's finances and investigators
began pressuring advertisers for evidence of corruption, party officials and
"They couldn't use the propaganda system to punish the newspaper because it
hadn't made any serious mistakes," said one provincial party official, who
spoke on condition of anonymity. "So they turned to the justice system."
Within a month, prosecutors detained Yu Huafeng, the paper's general
manager, and questioned him about a $350 necklace an advertiser had given
his wife as a gift after she had a child. Yu replied that he had given the
advertiser a $1,000 video camera when his wife had a child, and he showed
them the receipt to prove it, according to his wife, Xiang Li.
The authorities refused to release Yu. But Cheng mobilized his own
supporters in the party, and the provincial propaganda chief intervened and
forced the prosecutors to let Yu go, two party officials said.
The showdown suggested the Daily had more support in the party than its
enemies, and Cheng and Yu relaxed, colleagues said. They made plans to
launch tabloids like the Daily in other cities, and opened talks with
another newspaper to join forces and start one in Beijing.
In mid-October, in what appeared to be an important endorsement, the party's
central propaganda department in Beijing approved the newspaper. Cheng was
named the new paper's editor in chief.
But Cheng had underestimated his enemies in Guangzhou. A year earlier, the
party's top official in Guangdong province had departed. His replacement was
Zhang Dejiang, a party leader who soon complained that reporters in
Guangdong were too difficult to control, according to people who heard his
It was Zhang who had ordered the March clampdown in which Cheng was demoted
to deputy editor, party officials said. He had also fired the editor of
another paper and completely shut down a third.
In December 2003, city leaders won permission from Zhang or his deputies to
continue the corruption probe of the Southern Metropolis Daily, according to
two party officials. Prosecutors detained Yu again, and this time he was not
But Cheng refused to tone down the paper's coverage. Ten days after Yu's
arrest, the Daily reported a world exclusive: Health authorities in the city
had identified a suspected case of SARS, the first in China in several
The next day, the city confirmed the report and said it had been planning to
make the announcement all along. Zhang was embarrassed and furious, a party
official said, but because of the government's failed cover-up of the first
SARS outbreak, it would have been difficult for him to punish the newspaper
for the disclosure.
Instead, the corruption probe intensified. In early January 2004,
prosecutors interrogated about 20 editors and business managers at the
newspaper, including Cheng.
But even as the pressure grew, the Daily won some of the nation's top
journalism honors and announced that circulation had topped 1.4 million and
2003 profits would approach $20 million, making it one of the country's most
At the end of January, Zhang turned the screws tighter. At a large gathering
of party discipline officials, party sources said, he asked sarcastically
whether the party still owned the Daily. Then he declared that the media
couldn't just monitor others; someone had to monitor them, too.
One of his deputies accused the Daily's executives of stealing state funds,
essentially convicting Yu before trial, the officials said.
A few days later, Cheng delivered a defiant speech to his staff. Dressed in
a black jacket and a cotton shirt and sitting at the head of a conference
table in a room with more than 100 senior staff members, Cheng said a clash
between the newspaper and "a few powerful individuals" had been building
since the Sun Zhigang article was published, according to witnesses and a
copy of the speech.
"Some people are sharpening their weapons. . . . This storm was bound to
come sooner or later," he said. "We are already prepared. For the progress
of the nation, the development of society and the happiness of the people,
it is worth suffering some inconvenience and misery!"
"Whatever happens," he vowed, "we must not give up our ideals and beliefs."
A few weeks later, a local court convicted Yu of corruption for transferring
bonus funds from the paper's advertising department to the newsroom, a
common practice at many newspapers. The court also convicted him of bribery
for paying a bonus to a supervisor at the Southern Daily, Li Minying.
In March, Yu was sentenced to 12 years in prison. Li received an 11-year
sentence for accepting a bribe. The next day, police arrested Cheng.
The moves stunned the newspaper's supporters because there seemed to be no
evidence of any crime and because the amount of money involved was
relatively small. Journalists across the country signed petitions in
protest, and many who had campaigned against the detention law began
lobbying on behalf of the Southern Metropolis Daily.
As public outcry grew, three retired party chiefs in Guangdong wrote letters
to Zhang urging him to review the case, arguing it had jeopardized the
province's reputation as a pioneer of economic reform, party officials said.
In an unusually public sign of division within the leadership, a Beijing
magazine reported on two of the letters.
In June, the courts reduced Yu's sentence to eight years and Li's to six
years on appeal. Cheng remains in prison but has not yet been charged with a
crime, a sign that party leaders have not decided what to do.
The Southern Metropolis Daily is still publishing, but editors are more
careful about criticizing local authorities. Almost all of the paper's key
ad salesmen have resigned, and dozens of reporters have quit. In the first
quarter of the year, officials said, the paper lost $1.5 million.
But the new tabloid started by Cheng in Beijing has adopted the aggressive
style of the old Daily and appears to be prospering. "This is the way it
works," said a senior editor in Guangzhou who spoke on condition of
anonymity. "For every two steps forward, there is a step backward. But we're
still going to keep pushing."
© 2004 The Washington Post
to the source:
archived at http://www.duckdaotsu.org/080104-china.html
with Chinese translation
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