Beijing's media chill

About the author
Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.net, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

With the first public sign of dissent in senior ranks of the Chinese Communist Party, the tensions over China's increasingly repressive approach to press freedom have burst into the open. In the last few weeks, Beijing has stepped up the pressure on China's press, shutting down newspapers and picking off editors who resist; measures that the party leadership appears to regard as essential to maintaining "stability" in the face of a steady increase in public protest across the country.

But the response of three former senior party officials echoes the alarm, already felt by many outsiders, that the leadership's present approach is counterproductive and could heighten tensions and lead to greater instability. The argument goes to the heart of the debate about China's political future: will China's continued development eventually oblige the party to share power, or can the party maintain its monopoly on power by a combination of repression and the manipulation of public opinion?

Also in openDemocracy about China, the media and freedom:

Weigui Fang, "Reflections on China's internet boom"
(July 2003)

Isabel Hilton, "China and Japan: a textbook argument" (April 2005)

Becky Hogge, "The Great Firewall of China"
(May 2005)

Isabel Hilton, "China's freedom test" (September 2005)

Giovanni Navarria, "The future of dissent: hacking Chinese censorship"
(October 2005)

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At a high-level meeting in London recently, participants noted that concern about China's repression of the press was not confined to the usual suspects: human-rights organisations have long been sounding the alarm over the renewed repression, but now businessmen and government officials are beginning to voice concern that trade with and business in China are being damaged by Beijing's repression. Business and trade, they argue, depend on an open environment, in which corruption can be exposed and legal abuses checked. Without a culture of free criticism, they fear that business will be unable to operate in a stable environment.

A series of recent reports signal the widespread consensus that media repression in China is increasing and is more systematic and of a different order than that practiced elsewhere. The United States-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in its 2005 report on media repression, said: "The government-run People's Daily reported in February that censorship agencies permanently shut down 338 publications in 2004 for printing 'internal' information, closed 202 branch offices of newspapers, and punished 73 organizations for illegally 'engaging in news activities'."

Now three former senior party officials are pointing out the practical dangers of such extreme media repression. The three – Li Rui, a former aide to Mao Zedong; Hu Jiwei, former editor of the Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily; and Zhu Houze, former party propaganda chief – wrote in a letter that was released on Tuesday 14 February: "History demonstrates that only a totalitarian system needs news censorship, out of the delusion that it can keep the public locked in ignorance…". Far from ensuring stability, they argued, such media repression would "sow the seeds of disaster".

The censors exposed

This protest appears to have been inspired by the most recent example of censorship – the forced closure on 24 January 2006 of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement to the newspaper China Youth Daily – which the three former officials denounced as an example of "malignant management" and an "abuse of power".

The order to close Freezing Point had been anticipated for some time. In May 2005, its editor Li Datong made public a row that had broken out within the newspaper when the new editor of its China Youth Daily parent attempted to impose a system of rewards and punishments for reporters that depended on how much official praise their work garnered.

Soon after, on 26 May, Freezing Point published an article by the distinguished Taiwanese-born columnist, Lung Ying-tai, until recently the only columnist whose work appeared in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and in the Chinese diaspora. The article, The Taiwan You May Not Know, provoked a warning from the propaganda ministry to the editor, Li Datong, that Lung's writing was considered an "attack on the Communist Party".

That Li Datong continued to publish Lung Ying-tai's work is believed to be the undeclared reason for the clampdown on Freezing Point (and Li Datong's own blog was shut down after he circulated an open letter of protest over the closure). The official reason, however, was an article written by a Chinese historian, Yuan Weishi, a professor at Zhongshan (Sun Yat-sen) University, on the way history is taught in China.

The editor of Bingdian (Freezing Point), Li Datong, also wrote an open letter protesting the weekly supplement's closure; read it on EastWestSouthNorth here

The Bingdian columnist, Lung Ying-tai's open letter to Hu Jintao was published simultaneously on 26 January 2006 in the China Times (Taipei), Mingpao (Hong Kong), Xing-zhou Daily (Malaysia), the World Journal (United States)

Read it here on openDemocracy

Professor Yuan complained that Chinese textbooks conceal the government's responsibility and blame others instead for China's troubles. Although his article was named as the prompt for the government's action, the newspaper's staff point out that similar views had been expressed elsewhere without reaction.

In another protest against press repression, Chen Jieren, the sacked editor of Beijing's Public Interest Times, has written an open letter detailing the pressures the government exerts on the newspaper's executives. The ostensible reason for Chen's dismissal on 8 February was an article he published criticising incorrect English translations on the government's official website.

But in a long essay published on the academic website www.acriticism.com, Chen detailed the inner workings of the government system of censorship, cataloguing several alleged cases of self-censorship by the newspaper's senior executives in the last five months. He also claimed that the civil-affairs minister, Li Xueju, continually interfered with the newspaper's content, pressurising the paper's management to threaten staff who worked on sensitive stories.

This series of incidents presents a sharp question for China's censors: what is the greater danger for China, to allow official corruption and abuse to continue unchecked, or to allow a free press to investigate such abuses? The current government in Beijing appears to have decided that the price of holding on to power is increased repression. The warnings that are now coming from inside as well as outside China say this policy is dangerously self-defeating.