Beijing’s iron grip on news is under attack as this week 2,000 journalists
urged the release of jailed colleagues
Jonathan Watts in Guangzhou
Friday July 1, 2005
It could have been the scoop of the year: the deputy governor of Henan
province had reportedly conspired with a local mayor to have his wife killed
and chopped up. If proven, the murder would rank as one of the worst crimes
by a senior official for decades.
But the story was a minefield. Knowing how many papers have been closed down,
and how many journalists arrested, for covering such sensitive topics, most
editors gave Henan a wide berth.
The exception was the Nanfang (Southern) Daily Press Group, whose papers are
increasingly earning national respect, and official condemnation, for their
coverage of China’s social ills. When reports of the killing emerged this
month, reporters from two of the group’s flagship titles, The Southern
Metropolitan Daily and Southern Weekend, flew to the provincial capital,
Zhengzhou, and talked to the victim’s family, colleagues, and detectives. Off
the record sources confirmed the murder and arrest, but a request for an
official comment effectively killed the story. Henan’s propaganda department
ordered a news blackout.
It was nothing new. That week, three other Southern Weekend stories were
spiked by the authorities. Nothing was published on police negligence in
floods that killed 100 school children, nor on six villagers murdered in
battles with gangs recruited by power companies to kick them off their land,
nor poor safety planning that led to a fire in which 31 died.
Even after their stories were buried, the journalists used other means to get
the news out, via private diaries and field notes posted on the internet or
circulated by email. Some revealed they had to travel in near secrecy to
avoid local authorities. Others said they used public phones to avoid being
traced, and filed from net cafes and through friends.
“As a journalist, my job should be focused on writing a good report. But half
of my effort is spent on considering how to get a story past the censors and
the likelihood of punishment,” said Liu Jianqiang, whose Henan story was
“By writing out these notes, hopefully I can emerge from this gloomy mood. To
act otherwise, by keeping my head low and docile in the face of mistreatment,
and by pretending I’m a ‘good citizen’, my heart would feel bitter.”
The risks are great. Last year, three editors from the Nanfang group – Yu
Huafeng, Li Minying, and Cheng Yizhong – were imprisoned on fraud charges, an
act of revenge by the local public security bureau embarrassed by scoops
about police brutality and corruption. Many reporters lost their jobs when
the authorities closed down the 21st Century Herald and the New Herald. “It’s
very traumatic. I don’t want to have to go through that again,” said a
veteran. “Now, every time a sensitive story comes in, I’m nervous. To be a
good journalist in China, you can’t just be an idealist; you must be a
But the system that nurtured so many good journalists is still in place.
Guangdong was one of the first provinces to open to the outside world.
Reflecting its modern business environment, the Southern Weekend blazed a
trail in 1992 when its parent company, a party-controlled propaganda organ,
transformed what had been a four-page celebrity gossip sheet into a hard-
hitting news weekly.
The aim was to attract readers and advertising by being first to the news.
Out went stodgy layout, in came smart design.
To encourage hard-hitting journalism, reporters were rewarded for the
quantity and quality of their work. It was a huge success. The Nanfang
Weekend now has a 1.3m circulation nationwide. By breaking stories before
officialdom had a chance to censor them, it and sister papers such as the
Southern Metropolitan Daily and The Beijing News, have had more influence
than others in shaping public debate on the dramatic social changes now
As well as scoops about Sars and the Three Gorges dam, the Nanfang Weekly
made the biggest splash of 2003 by investigating the case of Sun Zhigang, who
died in police custody. Its coverage forced a change of national policy on
detentions, and humiliated local police chiefs.
“This was our Watergate scandal. It transformed attitudes,” said Wang
Xiaoshan, a former Southern Metropolitan employee. “Until then, journalists
had put the priority on self-survival. After, everyone wanted to break
important news. More and more young reporters now want to be heroes.”
The Nanfang spirit permeated the media. “I think the group has greatly
influenced journalism,” said Liu Aimin, a producer of Oriental Horizon, the
edgiest news program on the state-run channel, CCTV. “They have moved away
from control by the party and the government, and towards the market. This
has changed the way they produce news.”
The Communist party’s propaganda department lists stories which must not be
published. Several journalists confirmed such lists exist, but warned that
providing copies could be considered a breach of state security. In quiet
weeks, lists contain few subjects: typically, Taiwan, Tibet or religious
freedom. At other times, they stretch to 25 or more items: riots, strikes,
and alleged affairs of senior leaders. No editor would disobey such orders,
but the role of newspapers has become more adversarial.
“Nanfang group has started a nationwide movement,” said a former employee. “I
think most journalists don’t stand on the side of the party, they stand on
the side of society. There has been a big change in the attitude of the
The authorities appear rattled. Propaganda officials now convey orders by
phone. A more direct control is to replace editors with propaganda officials,
such as Xiang Xi, latest chief of Southern Weekend. There are more sinister
means: in the past two years, at least five Chinese and two foreign
journalists (recently, Ching Cheong of the Straits Times) have been arrested.
According to the rights group, Reporters Without Borders, China has jailed 30
reporters and 62 cyber dissidents – more than any other country.
But the media’s assertiveness was apparent in an open petition this week by
more than 2,000 journalists against the detention of former Nanfang editors
Yu and Li. Their colleague, Cheng Yizhong, former editor-in-chief of the
Southern Metropolitan Daily, has been released after an outcry. In April, he
was awarded the World Press Freedom prize by Unesco. Stripped of his post,
kicked out of the party, and refused permission to attend the prize-giving,
Mr Cheng wrote an uncompromising acceptance speech. “Terror is everywhere.
Lies are everywhere,” he said. “I believe that in the near future, we will
look back and find this insane and absurd episode to be absolutely
It is still difficult to heed his call. The Henan story shrank to a terse
report in the local paper that deputy governor Lu had been arrested and
stripped of his positions. The only explanation was the official one: “Lu was
suspected of involvement in a crime.” Even in Nanfang’s stable of papers, not
a word on the case was reported.
· Additional reporting by Huang Lisha
Copyright – The Guardian