Ex-editor sees hope for press freedom
It has been less than three months since Li Datong's turbulent departure from the helm of the gutsy Bingdian Weekly, but the 54-year-old pinup for press freedom on the mainland can already laugh about his abrupt removal.
And he is optimistic that the time will come when an independent mainland media will be able to pursue stories based on news value rather than an official line.
Bingdian, or Freezing Point, was a weekly insert in the China Youth Daily that made a name for itself by running in-depth reports on social issues and corruption.
It was closed down on January 24 after it published an article by Guangdong professor Yuan Weishi criticising the mainstream interpretation of historical events such as the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.
It was relaunched five weeks later as a more orthodox publication - after Mr Li, Bingdian's editor, and his deputy, Lu Yuegang , were sacked on February 16 and exiled to a research institute.
In Beijing, Mr Li laughed loudly as he recalled the saga. He said that before the closure, he and Mr Lu pushed what authorities deemed to be acceptable limits on expression by running exposes of corruption and critiques of media censorship.
One of the critical moments was the circulation last year of a 10,000-word open letter written by Mr Li attacking the micromanagement of the party's secretive Propaganda Department and the growing blacklist of banned topics imposed on the China Youth Daily, other mainland media and websites.
But Mr Li's action was not without precedent. As an employee of the China Youth Daily, he was a leading member of the campaign for a free media during the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, when he and other media representatives met senior central government officials.
The group expressed its opposition to the tight flow of information and called for a transparent administration. In the fallout, Mr Li was sacked and sent to a research institute, where he now again spends his working days.
It was not until 1994 that he was recalled into service and invited to start up Bingdian Weekly. It became a popular journal, where readers could find down-to-earth stories that reflected their lives, exposed the unfairness of the social system, and challenged mainstream views.
He said that in his three-decade career in newspapers, he never expected to become part of the news, but he hoped to change society with conscientious and influential stories.
He was taken on as China Youth Daily's Inner Mongolia correspondent in 1979 after more than a decade in the region herding sheep. His family background prevented him from accessing higher education and he fled to Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution.
Mr Li said he and his colleagues 'have been trying to reveal the real lives of Chinese people, to be close to their happiness and sorrows, and, by all means, to push forward change of the social system'.
'We are always pushing the authorities, to prick them with the most crucial problems in society, and urge them to remedy the situation, so as to push forward social progress and improve ordinary people's lives,' he said.
'In fact, Bingdian has pierced through the political bottom lines of today, and all the barriers and restrictions on media reporting set by the authorities have been all broken up by Bingdian's coverage.'
Mr Li said the supplement's closure was the culmination of growing tensions over its content and a difference in journalistic values with the Communist Party Youth League.
He described the campaign for Bingdian's resumption as 'a political success', but said it was a pity he and Mr Lu were removed and had lost the chance to produce more stories in the mainstream media.
'Politically speaking, we won - grass roots journalists forced top-level officials to reverse an administrative decision. That had never happened before,' he said.
It was also the first time journalists had voiced public opposition to an official decision and garnered higher support.
'Chinese media have been used to not speaking out when they are strangled. They have silently swallowed the humiliation. But this time, we editors stood out to express opposition, to disclose the truth, and win wide social support from senior officials and intellectuals,' Mr Li said.
'It was also the first time that such a clampdown on the media prompted so many senior party officials to openly express their support. They were senior propaganda officials from the state media, including Xinhua and the People's Daily. It would have been unimaginable in the past.'
But Mr Li said the mainland media environment would not change radically in the next five years because the present administration is dominated by people without a specific vision of the future. 'Authorities now consist of officials with a transient ideology, instead of comprehensive abilities to generate fresh ideas about how to create a democratic and legal country with media freedoms,' he said.
Mr Li, who is writing a book about his Bingdian experience, said that in the aftermath of the closure, hopes for an independent media lay in journalists at city newspapers, rather than mainstream publications.
'If newspapers and magazines had united and signed a joint letter calling for freedom of speech in the way that those seniors and intellectuals did, the Bingdian event would have been a breakthrough for creating a wider space for freedom of speech.
'Freedom of speech will not fall from heaven all of a sudden. Freedom can only be realised through more battles. If there is no rebellion, authorities will become stronger, bolder and fiercer.'
Official newspapers are not alone in avoiding sensitive topics. Mr Li said much of the market-driven media also refused to touch on controversial issues for fear of alienating advertisers.
'All advertisements come from real estate developers and giant enterprises, so how can the media uncover the inside stories and dirty business tactics? This is also where many media fail to execute their social duty,' he said.
'But what kind of media does China need? China needs a media whose reports keep a check on powerful interests, and support and aid the disadvantaged.
'Hopes lie in the younger generation of reporters, who are no longer injected with Marxist journalism, but are inspired by the values and principles of a democratic and independent media.'