China is moving backwards in society's quest for freer media
Chang Ping says sale of a stake in Beijing News to propaganda officials caps years of backsliding
Is our society moving with the times? This abstract but important question was the preoccupation of our generation of Chinese journalists. We believed its answer would decide the value of our work, the recompense for our toil.
To one newspaperman, the answer was a resounding "yes". At the founding of The Beijing News in 2003, its then chief editor, Cheng Yizhong, said: "No force in this world can stop time! … Respect it, and history will be ours!"
It was an exhilarating time. The Beijing News was a first-ever cross-regional collaboration in the industry, a subsidiary of the free-spirited Guangdong-based Southern Media Group and Guangming Daily, a national paper headquartered in the nation's capital.
Hopes were high that its launch would usher in greater freedom of speech and pave the way for political reform. "A cry from The Beijing News would shatter the stillness of this ancient capital city!" Cheng declared with such passion.
Ten years on, how things have changed. Late last month, the Southern Media Group announced that it had sold its 49 per cent stake in the newspaper to an office under the control of the publicity department of the Beijing Municipal Communist Party Committee. Hearing the news, a pioneer member of the paper said: "A decade of hard work, and all for naught."
In fact, in late 2011, the then General Administration of Press and Publication had already given the Beijing propaganda department "approval" to run both The Beijing News and Beijing Times, a newspaper under the People's Daily Group.
At the time, propaganda officials hailed the move as an "important measure to implement the central government's order to deepen cultural reforms", with the aim of "upholding the correct direction of public opinion, serving the public interest, as well as promoting the healthy and rapid development of the press industry in Beijing".
It was not the first time the outspoken Beijing News had been censured. In late 2005, the publication of a series of reports and commentaries that angered the publicity department resulted in the sacking of then chief editor Yang Bin and two deputy editors, Sun Xuedong and Li Duoyu. A good number of editors, reporters and administrators who came from the Southern Media Group also left their jobs.
The paper's founding editor Cheng had left even earlier. In March 2004, he was arrested by Guangzhou prosecutors on trumped-up charges of "economic crimes", in retaliation for investigative reports on two issues published by the Southern Metropolis Daily under his charge - on Sun Zhigang, a college graduate who died in police custody, and on the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome.
At the time, Cheng was in charge of both The Beijing News and Southern Metropolis Daily.
Looking back, it is hard to conclude that we are indeed moving with the times. Once, we believed that economic liberalisation would prise open the clamps on the media and slowly widen the space for free speech; it would set new rules of the game that the publicity department would have to accept. Not so. Reality proves that propaganda officials and their bosses may simply refuse to play by any rules.
I, too, went through a similar experience. In 2002, some friends and I founded a Shanghai newspaper, The Bund. This newspaper has no connection with the Southern Media Group, but because some of its key members were formerly from one of the group's papers, the Southern Weekly, we were quickly seen part of the "Southern gang". It didn't help that the paper set out to stir up the dull media environment in the city.
The paper was tolerated for a while. But after two years of harassment, the publicity authorities decided they had had enough. They said the publisher of the paper, the Shanghai Literature And Art Publishing House, was doing a poor job of running it and "requested" that the paper be sold to the "more experienced" Shanghai Media Group. Targeted from day one, the newspaper never did well. We had a situation where the seller did not particularly want to sell, and the buyer didn't want to buy. Yet this proved no barrier to a deal.
In any free market, this would have been an absurd transaction. But it just shows how much of a bully the publicity department is. It disregards rules at will, knowing no one can stop it.
We don't want to believe that we are regressing, and that as journalists we are wasting our lives. So we try to find any proof to convince ourselves that things aren't so grim. Today, many of us who have taken the fight to the new media were formerly with the Southern Media Group, or at least share the same ideals of a free press.
We believe people can tell right from wrong, and more and more Chinese people are awakening to the reality. But, in the chill of this media winter, there's no ignoring the small voice that asks: "Really?"
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese