China ratchets up control on expression: A top editor was fired, web logs and cellphones have been restricted.

Robert Marquand – The Christian Science Monitor

January 03, 2006
Copyright The Christian Science Monitor
BEIJING – An emotional strike by 100 journalists at this city’s most
popular and lively newspaper follows a 16-month campaign to quash a
broad range of “unapproved” public speech in areas verging on politics
or society – a campaign that includes Internet blogs, and new
restrictions on cellphones designed to smoke outsenders of renegade text
messages.
In the case of Beijing News, whose progressive editor Yang Bin was
replaced without warning last week, Chinese authorities dealt a
seemingly fatal blow to a publishing project that two years ago gave the
press some freedom to experiment.
Last June the paper reported on violent land disputes in Hebei province,
and last month, in what may have precipitated the purge, it published
tame, but independent, stories on the official coverup of a massive
benzene chemical spill in the Songhua River.
Last Thursday, in a gritty south Beijing neighborhood, nearly 100
reporters left the news offices. They began a short-lived strike – a
rarity in China – and signed a petition asking for Mr. Yang’s
reinstatement, describing the removal as a tragedy. Some wept publicly,
according to sources at the meeting.
“We were happy with our paper and the idea we had. But now the editor is
leaving and the idea will leave with him. I am very sad,” said a
journalist who spoke with foreign reporters despite the presence of
security officials and a warning that she could lose her job.
While Beijing News is often described as “radical” or “bold” – it would
not warrant that definition in a Western setting. The thick daily
tabloid is a subtle blend of eye-catching photos, pop culture, and
real-life stories about the good, bad, and ugly. Interspersed are
full-page ads for clothes and credit cards that appealed to an aspiring
urban middle class.
Editor Yang, who cut his teeth in the looser commercial media climate of
south China, brought a professional ethos that captured the imagination
of staffers. As one put it, “He asked us to be responsible, accurate,
and true. He is a model for me and a man with high standards. I would
hope that some day I could be like him.”
Yet Beijing News was mainly quite moderate, not crusading – and many
Chinese journalists say the real message behind Yang’s removal is that
even slight divergences from moderate norms may be punished. This
discourages testing the boundaries of free expression, they say, since
any paper could lose its license or leadership.
The sudden move on Beijing News is part of a systematic effort by the
central propaganda department in Beijing to more-closely police speech
and expression. In the past year, the party initiated the broadest
ideological education campaign in a decade. In part, that campaign
discourages liberality and freedom of expression. The official news
service Xinhua this week, in fact, selected this party campaign as its
No. 1 story of 2005, calling it “a massive political and ideological
education drive among more than 68 million CPC members to maintain their
moral and socialist ethical superiority, a new, great project to promote
Party construction.”
As a result, in the past year “public intellectuals” that spoke out on
social welfare or the environment have been curbed from doing so in
state media.
Last summer a set of editors resigned from the Economic Times citing a
loss of the paper’s core values. A plan by China Youth Daily to tie
reporters’ salary bonuses to the degree of praise by party officials was
narrowly scotched. Last week the monthly magazine Bai Xing, whose
readership is similar to that of Beijing News, was told to remove its
interactive web commentary, its investigative news department, and the
magazine’s slogan, “recording China in change.”
Bai Xing editor Huang Liangtian was quoted in the South China Morning
Post as saying that “we are required to focus more on culture and
lifestyle topics.”
Blogs, college message boards, and cellphone text messages have been
censured or shut down. Just Monday a new policy was announced that will
require some 200 million Chinese to provide proof of identity before
buying prepaid cellphone cards.
The controlling share of Beijing News is owned by a conservative
southern media group whose flagship is the conservative and often
cash-strapped Guangming Daily. Editors from that paper took control
after Yang and at least one other top deputy editor were forced out.
Beijing Daily staffers worried that the unusual combination of letters
to the editor – a rarity in Chinese papers – and stories about official
corruption and official apologies, would sour the public on their paper.
In the past 10 days, two Chinese journalists in prison for alleged
violations of state security laws are reportedly being prepared for
trial. The cases of Zhao Yan, an assistant for The New York Times, and
Ching Cheong, a veteran Hong Kong reporter, have languished for months,
but now may be heard within six weeks. Numerous press freedom groups,
including the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, have vigorously
protested the charges, as well as the chilling effect it has on the work
of ordinary news gathering. Mr. Ching was arrested in China while on a
trip to procure manuscripts from the late premier Zhao Ziyang, who until
his passing a year ago lived under house arrest after opposing violence
at Tiananmen square in June 1989.
“The Communist Party leaders have a strange way of celebrating the end
of the year,” noted the Paris-based Reporters without Borders. “After
announcing that Zhao Yan and Ching Cheong are to be tried, the Beijing
authorities have decided to kill off one of China’s most popular and
liberal newspapers. We affirm our solidarity with the staff of the paper.”
Beijing Daily staff members, mostly ordinary reporters, tried to mount a
serious strike at the paper, something almost unheard of in the obedient
ranks of Chinese journalists.
But after the new editors threatened immediate dismissal, there was not
enough cohesion to sustain the effort. Instead, reporters phoned and
e-mailed friends and colleagues, with one writing with traditional
Chinese heroic fatalism, “There is no way to retreat, so we won’t
retreat. The butcher’s knife is already raised … we’re going to die so
let’s make it a beautiful death.”
A more artful and indirect protest statement came on the weather page of
the paper Friday, in the form of a photograph of birds flying into the
distance. Underneath were the words, “A bird leading its flock flies
across the sky. Although the sky is not so clear, they fly far away,
carrying their goals in their hearts.”
http://www.christiansciencemonitor.com/2006/0103/p06s01-woap.htm


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