Writing on the wall for outspoken Chinese magazine two years ahead of closure
Not even endorsement of president’s late father could save ‘Yanhuang Chunqiu’
The writing was probably on the wall for the outspoken, Beijing-based liberal political journal Yanhuang Chunqiu two years ago, when it was placed under the oversight of the Ministry of Culture’s Chinese National Academy of Arts.
Du Daozheng, the founder of the 25-year-old journal, which was previously under a lighter rein when it was affiliated with the ministry-linked Association for Yan Huang Culture of China, announced on July 19 it had ceased publication.
The immediate cause was the academy’s unilateral removal or demotion of almost all members of the magazine’s top, decision-making editorial committee on July 13. A year earlier, chief editor Yang Jisheng had been forced to step down.
The influential journal, particularly popular among liberal-minded retired officials and intellectuals as a rare voice on the mainland in support of constitutional democracy and for its habit of running articles contesting the official version of Communist Party history, had a monthly circulation of about 200,000.
But not even the endorsement of President Xi Jinping’s late reformist father Xi Zhongxun, among the first generation of Communist revolutionaries, could save it. A calligraphic scroll written by the elder Xi on its 10th anniversary, which was displayed at the magazine’s office, read: “Yanhuang Chunqiu is pretty good.”
Hu Dehua, the magazine’s deputy publisher and a son of the late reformist Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang, was stopped by around dozen security guards from the academy on Tuesday when he tried to collect its financial statements for taxation purposes.
Hu then held an impromptu press conference in the presence of a handful of Hong Kong and foreign journalists.
“You can’t just take over the offices because you say no,” he said. “In China we have a saying, ‘even rabbits bite when they’re provoked’.”
But he also sounded pessimistic about the magazine’s future, comparing it to the fate of top officials persecuted during the Cultural Revolution: “Peng Dehuai, Xi Zhongxun, Liu Shaoqi all lost,” he said. “What is it that we couldn’t possibly lose?”
At an editorial meeting last week, Du, 92, compared the journal’s fate to the raids on homes during the Cultural Revolution, vowing to “fight until the end” for democracy and rule of law in China.
Du, who was sacked as its publisher this month, accused the academy of violating an agreement in late 2014 that was supposed to guarantee him and his team autonomy when it came to the journal’s editorial decisions, human resources and finances.
A veteran journalist and former head of the General Administration of Press and Publication, Du said one of the main goals in establishing Yanhuang Chunqiu in 1991 was to tell the truth at a time when content of publications in Beijing was “as dry as a desert” amid a sweeping, nationwide crackdown on liberal ideology following the crushing of student-led pro-democracy protests in June 1989.
“With a circulation of tens of thousands of copies each month at the very beginning of the publication of Yanhuang Chunqiu, the journal made its name in a short time in Beijing,” he said. “Almost all media in the capital then were filled with lies, big words, empty words or polite formulas.”
Former chief editor Xu Qingquan, who was demoted to deputy chief editor by the academy on July 13, said that for a past quarter of a century, Yanhuang Chunqiu staff had adhered to Du’s maxim to “keep telling the truth, however difficult it is”.
But the weight of regulatory oversight eventually became too much.
“Quite a number of people keep asking me why our magazine enjoyed looser control when compared with others,” Xu said. “I liken orders from the top echelon to a needle. When it comes to the executive department, the needle becomes an iron baton. But in the eyes of even lower-ranking publicity officials, say those below provincial level, the needle becomes a pillar with a diameter the likes of a bucket.”
With guidelines advising officials to assume full responsibility for their regulatory patches, Xu said officials at almost all levels inevitably veered towards stricter control.
But he said Yanhuang Chunqiu tried to stick to the original instructions from the top as far as possible, allowing it to make some breakthroughs in its reports.
In the first few years after the June 4 crackdown in 1989, the names of two former Communist Party general secretaries, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were taboo – never mentioned in a single mainland publication.
Xu said that in 1993, Yanhuang Chunqiu published a number of photographs of Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 prompted the student protests, to accompany a memorial poem. It sparked an outcry, and the magazine was ordered to discard all copies not yet sold.
Two year later, on the 80th anniversary of Hu’s birth, Xu paid several visits to Dai Huang, a former reporter with the official Xinhua News Agency who had written a book commemorating Hu, before securing the rights to publish a series of articles paying tribute to Hu – whose name was, from then on, no longer taboo for mainland media.
“It was a bit risky at that time, but it was worth it to portray Hu was a man who had made a huge contribution to history,” Xu said. “An idea came to mind that there were two things we should do with our journal. Aside from Hu, we should also desensitise Zhao Ziyang’s name in publications.”
When the official Central Literature Publishing House printed a biography of Communist Party patriarch Chen Yun in 2006, Yanhuang Chunqiu acquired its permission to republish part of the book that mentioned Zhao.
A year later, Du invited former vice-premier Tian Jiyun, Zhao’s deputy when Zhao was premier between 1983 and 1987, to write article in commemoration of his former boss. The series of articles published by Yanhuang Chunqiu effectively desensitised Zhao’s name.
Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan, a prominent historian, said Yanhuang Chunqiu had made an important contribution by restoring “the true face of history”, in addition to its objective critiques of current issues.
“But the time for the journal to save the party by re-establishing its ruling legitimacy from an insider’s point of view has gone,” he said. “The party has now closed the door on political reform based on freedom of speech and ideology.”
Hopes for long-anticipated reform within the party had proved illusory and had vanished into thin air, he said.
Echoing Zhang’s viewpoint, former Yanhuang Chunqiu executive editor Hong Zhenkuai painted a gloomy picture for reformists after the journal’s closure.
“Toeing a line with maximum consensus among intellectuals, the magazine actually represented the voices of reformists within the party and liberals within the establishment, which is different from radical and revolutionary stances,” he said.
He said its closure was a reflection of the full scale purging of reformist voices within the party.
“One of the most important advocacy roles for Yanhuang Chunqiu was urging the party to push forward with political reform, albeit at a slow pace, in order to remain the country’s ruling party.”
The journal’s closure was an indication the incumbent leadership was not interested in investigating historical facts or reviewing historical wrongdoings at the moment, Hong said.
Zhang likened the journal’s fate to a patient ignoring a doctor’s advice.
“You intend to treat his illness, but he tells you that he does not feel sick at all, and had no need for your help,” he said. “When you insist that he is sick, he may respond that you are a trouble maker, or even accuse you of being subversive.
“How can you right his wrongs in a rational way in that case? Please don’t talk about his ailment any more, because he will just tell you that he’s not happy about it.”
Additional reporting by Jun Mai