Pressure on the Press

They had one amateur video, six peasants' corpses and more than 10 eyewitnesses to the siege a day before. But on June 12, after Beijing News journalists were first at the scene where freelance thugs brutally attacked and killed village farmers in Hebei province, no one knew how their exclusive coverage would go over with the censors. That's because just recently, journalists tell NEWSWEEK, the Communist Party handed down a stern directive aimed at curbing the kind of long-distance investigative reporting that the Beijing News does best. In an April speech elaborating upon the prescriptions, known as Document 16, propaganda czar Liu Yunshan fingered The Beijing News--well as one of its sister papers in Guang-zhou--as too independent for their own good. " 'The South has a newspaper that disgusts a lot of officials in the North'," one high-placed party journalist quoted Liu saying, "and the North has a paper that disgusts a lot of officials in the South'." In fact, so many petty cadres have traveled to the capital to complain about The Beijing News, says one of its editors, "that now the pressure on us is very heavy."

The question, however, is whether such pressure really can halt the presses anymore. China is in the midst of its biggest media crackdown since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Several reporters and editors have been either arrested or sacked recently, including Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong citizen and veteran journalist of The Straits Times of Singapore, whose wife later claimed had helped Beijing formulate Taiwan policy. He's the second employee of a foreign news organization to be arrested, an extremely rare occurrence, since the clampdown began (the first was a Chinese journalist working for The New York Times). But none of that prevented The Beijing News from breaking news of the free-for-all in Hebei, in which about 200 young toughs assaulted farmers resisting the seizure of their land by a state power company. The story ran two days later--and almost immediately afterward, the top two officials in the area, Dingzhou City, were sacked. "No party document can make a long-term impact anymore," says the editor. "Because... in the long term they [the leadership] still need a watchdog press."

China's leaders don't always agree. Ever since a Communist Party conclave in Beijing last September, where he became undisputed leader, Chinese President Hu Jintao has seemed bent on pre-empting any notion that his government is headed for a Gorbachev-style glasnost. Instead, he has "gone back to the Mao school of top-down controls," says Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, journalism school. But given the intense competition for readers in print and on Web sites, the media are like "a lot of ducks crowding around a pond full of fish," says Xiao. "Killing a few ducks may chill the crowd for a while, but eventually the rest of the ducks will jump in."

Document 16 shows how seriously the government sees its control eroding, and "gives a dangerous picture of the future if it cannot" regain the initiative, says one Beijing-based scholar who's read the decree. The party's powerful Central Office first released Document 16 to ministry and province-level officials late last year. In late April, propaganda hatchet men began relaying interpretations to senior editors. The document is not a set of explicit rules; instead, say editors, it's a rallying cry for local propaganda officials to combat specific practices--most notably yidi baodao , or "reports from other places," in which papers dispatch teams of reporters to the site of scandals in distant provinces, far from their immediate government minders.

In recent months, the central propaganda department has also audited several trailblazing media outlets. One of central television's edgiest news programs, "News Investigation," received instructions not to do any hard-hitting watchdog stories, according to a producer, after the show divulged crooked admissions practices at a prestigious music academy. The department also stationed censors for more than a week at the lucrative Southern Daily Group in Guangzhou--a parent of The Beijing News. And it is keeping much closer tabs on the magazine China NEWSWEEK (which is unaffiliated with NEWSWEEK) after a monthlong probe late last year, according to one of the magazine's staffers. A senior propaganda official questioned the publication's "liberal opinions."

Document 16 itself predicts that reining in the press will be difficult, says the scholar. Beijing has tried to guide the press through market liberalization and industry consolidation, as well as to groom certain centrally administered watchdogs it can track more closely and trust to back its policy objectives. But the censors haven't adapted to the times as quickly as the hacks. Indeed, at the propaganda bureau, tea-drinking retirees from party papers still sift through fat stacks of papers, searching for offensive reports--almost always after press time. When the bureau issues advance orders, they tend to trickle out slowly, by word of mouth rather than by blast fax or e-mail. During the most intense part of the crackdown, late last year, propagandists met resistance from their own communist party papers for weeks after assigning a campaign to smear "public intellectuals."

One area where the party might be able to keep the ducks in line is the Internet. Just last week it got Microsoft to agree to blanket censoring of entry-line words like "democracy" on new blogging services MSN has on the mainland. Earlier this month Beijing ordered all bloggers to register with the government by the end of June--using their real names--or face possible closure and penalties of up to $120,000. Cybercensors have shut down thousands of Internet sites in recent years, and now they can use sophisticated software to cross-check China's URLs against the list of new registerees, says Xiao of UC Berkeley. Meanwhile, local governments are sending spies with fake identities into chat rooms to ferret out Web activists.

It's not certain even the scrappy Beijing News will be able to completely resist the latest efforts to rein in the press. Recently, the paper took considerable flak for an unauthorized interview with a Japanese diplomat it ran after thousands of Chinese protesters trashed Tokyo's embassy in April. But even Hu Jintao himself can't seem to resist the paper's fierce independence. On April 29, Hu met the leader of Taiwan's Nationalist Party, Lien Chan, in Beijing. Official media photographers took conventional close-up shots of Hu and Lien gripping hands and grinning for the cameras--the pose circulated on state wires and published in most papers. But on an airplane later, says a Beijing-based media executive with ties to Hu's entourage, the Chinese leader fawned over an unofficial and unconventional bird's-eye shot of the historic meeting printed in the Beijing News. It showed Lien's hand reaching out to shake Hu's. The Chinese leader apparently liked it because the pose aped a famous shot of Nixon's meeting Mao in 1972. Every now and then, it seems, even China's leaders enjoy a free press.