China: Demoted Editor on Dark Media Climate

These are dark days for the Chinese media. In recent months the number of mainland journalists behind bars has grown to 39, more than any other country. Editors have been sacked or demoted. And the Internet police have been more active than ever in a campaign to restrict sensitive content in the mainland’s proliferating blogs.

Against this bleak backdrop, people welcomed last week’s news that court charges against jailed New York Times researcher Zhao Yan have been dropped. More than a year ago, Zhao was detained in what was seen as a gauge of official displeasure at the newspaper, after its Beijing bureau chief published an article citing anonymous sources and predicting—accurately—that Chinese leader Jiang Zemin would retire the following day. The paper denied that Zhao helped dig out the scoop, and his detention sent a chill through the media on the mainland, both Chinese and foreign.

As of Thursday, a week since the good news about Zhao, he still hasn’t been released. His friends and his lawyer have begun to worry. Moreover, there’s no sign that the court ruling represents a strengthening of legal institutions, nor a systemic victory for press freedoms. Indeed, legally speaking, the court decision is a curious one, experts say. “The strangest legal document I’ve ever seen,” is how U.S. lawyer Jerome Cohen, a veteran Asia expert currently teaching at a Beijing university, describes it. There were two charges against Zhao, the first accusing him of revealing state secrets plus a later charge of fraud. “The document says that since the prosecutor didn’t have enough evidence in the fraud case, the indictment is dismissed,” Cohen tells me. “It didn’t directly address the state secrets charge at all.”

Just as Zhao’s jailing appeared to be political, so does this latest twist in his case. It just so happens that next month Chinese President Hu Jintao will make a long-anticipated state visit to Washington. The new development in Zhao’s case is being interpreted as a political move to excise a potential source of tension and embarrassment before Hu hits the red carpet in the United States. “Hu’s about to visit the U.S. and he doesn’t want to be asked questions about the case,” says veteran Chinese editor Li Datong.

A chainsmoker with an intense gaze, Li has intimate knowledge of China’s media crackdown. Of the three editors sacked or demoted at Chinese publications in recent months, he’s the best-known. His name hit the headlines Jan. 24 when the weekly publication that he edited, Freezing Point, was suspended. The party’s Central Propaganda Department was irked by the publication’s outspoken and unconventional articles, which questioned government policy, exposed corruption and plagiarism and analyzed taboo topics such as the evolution of Taiwanese democracy—an awkward issue for Beijing’s leaders because of the lack of genuine democracy on the mainland.

Freezing Point’s suspension triggered an unusually public outcry from senior party members and intellectuals, including Li Rui, Chairman Mao Zedong’s secretary. A weekly supplement of the party newspaper China Youth Daily, Freezing Point resumed publication on March 1, but without its edgy candor—and without Li Datong at the helm. Instead, Li has been relegated to the “news research institute” of the China Youth Daily, a musty bureaucratic corner with nothing to do and just three staff. “The people there are either old, like in their late 50s, or in ill health,” Li says, “It’s a place to transition into retirement.”

But Li, 53, isn’t the type to give in. Even before the suspension, Li made waves by protesting a new policy that would link reporters’ pay raises to the amount of praise they received from party officials. (The scheme was rescinded.) Now, Li’s pigeonholing has not dimmed his fierce intellectual energy. Though his name has been banned from appearing in domestic media and his Weblog has been shut down, Li has granted a stream of interviews to foreign media. He’s also filed a formal complaint against the Central Propaganda Department, calling it an “illegal organization.”

The proximate cause for Li's demotion was an article by professor Yuan Weishi with the dry title “Modernization and Chinese Historical Textbooks.” As scholarly as its name may sound, the piece triggered a visceral reaction among Communist Party censors because it revisited the xenophobic Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when Beijing’s foreign-legation quarter was besieged. Was the revolt a worthy anti-imperialist movement (as official textbooks have taught), Yuan asks, or were the quasi-religious Boxers “simply destructive”?

Li believes that the party’s powerful Central Propaganda Department seized upon the article because public opinion about the topic could be manipulated easily by appealing to nationalistic sentiment. In fact, party censors had been complaining for a long time about the unconventional articles in Freezing Point. (Popular among liberal intellectuals, the weekly four-page supplement—circulation: 4 million—has been published for 11 years in the China Youth Daily.) “A small number of ‘higher-ups’ have plotted for a long time to strangle Freezing Point,” wrote Li in a lengthy open letter the day after the suspension.

China’s current media crackdown reflects a fundamental problem with the political system. Li tells NEWSWEEK that “it doesn’t allow you to criticize it … this is a conditioned reflex [in] an ossified system. It needs a senior government leader in order to change stupid decisions.” He compares China today to czarist Russia and Japan during the Meiji era. “[Reforms] are possible only when the top leader, like an emperor, senses the necessity of change … It needs courage and a farsighted vision of building a democratic country. If such a leader doesn’t show up, reforms would be difficult.”

Despite his setbacks, Li doesn’t admit to feeling gloomy about the future: “Pessimism and optimism in China often go together.” He cites the positive growth of civil society in China as a welcome trend. But he forcefully ticks off a laundry list of unresolved political issues that still haunt the collective psyche. There was the 1957 anti-rightist movement, which victimized most of China’s outstanding intellectuals. Two years later came the disastrous Great Leap Forward—a Maoist campaign of forced industrialization—in which “about 40 million people died of hunger.” Then came the 1966-1976 leftist-inspired Cultural Revolution which shattered the lives of more than 100 million people. “And also the June 4th movement [of 1989, when protestors were suppressed at Tiananmen Square]. How can the leadership afford to pay back all these debts?” Li laments.

If any top-level Chinese official tries to make amends to grass-roots citizens, he would likely wind up “like a stone paving the road toward democracy,” says Li, “and then he himself would get smashed to pieces … just like [Mikhail] Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. This is why the Chinese leadership has resolutely refused reform politically.” Li predicts that a new breed may emerge from the younger generation of party leaders who're slated to move into prime slots in 2012, after current president Hu Jintao’s second term.

Will the transition be a smooth one? “No, there could be a big disturbance if the problem of the two [political] extremes is not resolved,” he warns. Could such a disturbance shake the body politic the way the 1989 Tiananmen repression did? “Yes, people could act irrationally”, says Li, who compares the building tensions to a societal pressure cooker that could explode.

For now, Li is counting up small victories. When Freezing Point resumed publishing on March 1, it contained a party-mandated article criticizing Yuan Weishi, author of the piece that was cited as the reason for the publication’s suspension in the first place. But, Li says, the weekly’s nine editors and reporters registered their protest in a subtle way—by not printing a customary series number on the apologist article. “This is a protest,” says Li, “It means they don’t recognize that the article was done by Freezing Point. This is the only thing that can be done now.” It’s just the sort of innocuous detail that might slip by party censors unnoticed—but which could signal to supporters of Li and Freezing Point that the spirit of the hard-hitting weekly has not died.