Hu Jintao

Pressure point

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2006, 12:00am

The sudden revival of controversial mainland publication Bingdian Weekly late last week caps a dramatic seven days for Chinese journalism. It has also illuminated rarely seen divisions within the Communist Party.

Officially 'suspended' in late January by propaganda officials after publishing an essay critical of Chinese history textbooks, the four-page weekly received unexpected high-level support on Tuesday in an open letter signed by former senior officials and editors. Including the names of Li Rui , Mao Zedong's former secretary, and Hu Jiwei , a past editor of the People's Daily, and advocate of press freedom laws, the letter condemned the closure of one of China's more outspoken publications, and went on to question the need for media censorship.

On Friday, 13 leading mainland intellectuals also voiced concerns over freedom of speech and academic freedom in a letter to the president and politburo members. Observers say it is likely the issue, which attracted widespread domestic and international attention, was discussed at politburo level, and this may well have influenced the decision to reopen the publication.

A rare public denunciation of government behaviour by party officials, Tuesday's letter captured the ambiguity of press censorship regulations at a time of growing media commercialisation and internet usage. At the same time, it exposed opposing lines of thinking in the corridors of power.

'It is very clear that the government has at least two wings on this issue,' says Jiang Wenran, a Bingdian reader and director of the China Institute at Canada's University of Alberta.

'One is a conservative element, often associated with the propaganda department, which advocates political control of the media in the name of social stability, and fears the effects of market reform on content, in particular a move towards western-style sensationalism. The other would like to move towards a more open system.'

Describing the debate as 'heated and ongoing', Mr Jiang said the 'trend is that the propaganda department is not in control of everything even if it wants to be. Pressure is coming both from journalists and also the State Council, who resent propaganda officials wading in with their giant axe and chopping everything up.'

It is not clear whether Bingdian - its name translates as Freezing Point - which is set to be relaunched next month, will maintain the same hard-hitting, investigative format.

It was previously renowned for its willingness to tackle controversial topics, including rural poverty and Aids patients, but both founding editor Li Datong , and his deputy, Lu Yuegang , are being moved to the newspaper's research department.

On Friday, in an open letter protesting against the decision, Li said he had been told he had broken company policy and was being held responsible for an article published on the internet criticising the newspaper's executives for self-censorship.

His deputy, Lu, stands accused of similar charges, as well as writing an article on the late journalist Liu Binyan , who was a strong critic of the Communist Party and press censorship, and of having ties with pro-democracy activists, a charge he denies.

The weekly has been ordered to print a criticism of the article which sparked the controversy when it resumes publishing on March 1. The author of the original piece, Yuan Weishi , said this was to be expected.

'Of course the essay will take the official government line on Chinese history but I welcome the debate it will create,' said Professor Yuan, of Guangzhou's Sun Yat-Sen University. 'This is about saving face. By criticising my article like this they can say they were right to take the action they did.'

The impact that last week's ruling will have on other newspapers keen to push the boundaries of accepted speech is not yet clear.

China ranked 159th out of 167 countries in a World Press Freedom Index released last year by Reporters Without Borders. Censors have in recent months dismissed editors at three occasionally outspoken newspapers - the Beijing News, Southern Metropolitan Daily and the Public Interest Times. It also reports that 81 journalists and cyber-dissidents are now behind bars.

Many editors, including Li Datong, however, remain optimistic. They say the reasons for this are twofold - media commercialisation and the internet. Buoyed by market reforms, Chinese newspapers are now chasing readers and advertising revenues with a heady mix of controversy, tabloid sensationalism and breaking news stories. There are now more than 2,000 publications, an 11-fold increase since the late 1970s. Under one programme started last year, government departments must now hold regular press conferences and learn how to field questions from journalists, showing the Chinese media machine is more than a mere mouthpiece.

The mainland's internet users now number 111 million, making it the second-largest market in the world. The exact role that Yahoo, Google and Microsoft are playing in fostering the flow of information around China is debatable. The American companies came in for heavy criticism at last week's hearing on Capitol Hill when they were forced to defend their record in the face of searing criticism from both Republican and Democrats.

For those wanting to engage in politics on the mainland, the internet, via the use of proxy servers, bulletin boards and an estimated 14 million weblogs, affords opportunities for controversial news to be circulated and opinions expressed in ways not before possible.

In a recent report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, researchers wrote: 'The internet has become a prominent forum where the public can make its opinions known to the government ... It is undeniable that the internet is building a bridge between the governing and the governed.' It concluded that the internet's impact on politics would only increase.

Speaking in Washington in September, former Southern Weekend deputy director Qian Gang suggested the Chinese media was in a process he called the three Cs - control, change and chaos - out of which could emerge three possibilities. While one involved the ubiquitous presence of the government as an overseer, the other two did not.

One area of uncertainty remains the position of the top leadership. Despite the possibility of high-level involvement in the defrosting of Freezing Point, 'media people in China are really struggling to see where Hu Jintao sits on this issue. China is a fork in the road right now,' said David Bandurski, a researcher at the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project.

Li Datong believes the next hurdle will be the 2007 party congress. With about half of the leadership retiring, he hopes a new round of media reforms will soon be back in the headlines.