The Last Word: Li Datong--Loosening Up 'Under Pressure'

Early last year, New York Times researcher Zhao Yan was detained by Chinese authorities after the paper published an article accurately predicting that Chinese leader Jiang Zemin would retire. His editors said Zhao wasn't involved in the scoop, and recent reports that charges against him had been dropped were greeted with a sigh of relief. But China is hardly embracing the idea of complete media freedom. The country's Internet police have been more active than ever in their efforts to control bloggers. Even Zhao himself has yet to be released. NEWSWEEK's Melinda Liu spoke with Li Datong--whose own hard-hitting weekly, Freezing Point, was suspended in January but allowed to resume publication on March 1, without him at the helm--to get his thoughts on Beijing and the media. Excerpts:

LIU: You've been removed as editor. What are you doing now?

LI: I've been transferred to work in the News Research Institute of the China Youth Daily (under which Freezing Point is a weekly supplement). People working there are either old or sick. It's a halfway house for retirement. My articles are no longer permitted to be published in China now--not even on the Internet. As soon as my name is recognized, the article would be deleted. My phones are monitored. I am not afraid about that since I have no secrets.

If this had happened 10 years ago you might have lost your freedom too.

Yes. Now they at least pay me my salary. It is a kind of social progress.

From a historical perspective, how do you assess the current period in China?

A country like China, which is an autarchy and closes itself to international discourse, can be compared with two countries. One was Russia during the period of serfdom; the other is Japan, which had a similar system to China now. When you observe their reformation, you see a similarity: it is difficult for people to form a force within society. They don't have the education. It's possible only when the top leader, like an emperor [during Japan's Meiji period], senses the necessity of change and takes the lead in reform. For China, I believe that if things happen in this way, there is hope for change.

Is China ready for this?

It depends on the thinking of the top leader. It needs courage and a farsighted view of building a democratic country. If such a leader doesn't show up, reform will be very difficult.

What about the political evolution of Taiwan? After decades of one-party rule under the Kuomintang, the late Chiang Ching-kuo lifted martial law in the mid-'80s and put Taiwan on the path toward democracy.

Chiang Ching-kuo gave up one-party dictatorship first. If he hadn't, it would have been unimaginable for any [reform] to take place in Taiwan. Before his death, Chiang sensed the problem of how Taiwan would sustain itself; he realized the important thing was to join the mainstream of moral society in the world. He knew very well what would happen later, but he made the decision to change.

Could a Chinese leader do the same?

Difficult to tell. No one from the current central government leadership [could]. It would be the government after [Chinese President] Hu Jintao. The new leader should come from the current provincial party secretaries or other people from the same generation.

Do you think the transition will be smooth?

There could be a big disturbance if the problem of the two [political] extremes isn't solved. And if there is a disturbance, it might be a senseless one.

Could there be tumult similar to the 1989 Tiananmen Square repression?

Yes, there could be something irrational like that.

You believe that change is coming. When?

We have to be patient. From the year 1840, China's been debating whether to reform. But in the past 20 years, since the opening up and reforming of the economy, China has changed greatly--very fast. The country can't be closed to international communication anymore. Thanks to the Internet, information is available even if the government tries to do something about it. It cannot be controlled totally.

But government authorities are managing the Internet more and more. They've persuaded foreign firms such as Google and Yahoo to make concessions in terms of content and user privacy.

Yes. They have effective control over the Internet. They have spent huge amounts of money to block Internet information. And foreign firms have made concessions--but these concessions cannot delete all information.