HONG KONG — CHINESE leader Deng Xiaoping lacks an important ally in his campaign to speed up economic reform: an outspoken, semi-independent press.
During the 1980s decade of market-oriented change, China's reformers often gained support for their policies from a handful of non-state newspapers that defied press controls and aired debates on privatization, democracy, and other critical issues.
Many of the unorthodox publications, including the World Economic Herald, the Economics Weekly, and the New Observer, were shut down with the crackdown on pro-democracy protests in June 1989 and the ensuing media purge.
But some of Mr. Deng's prots are apparently aware of the political loss.
According to recent disclosures, Communist Party chief Jiang Zemin and other moderate leaders have attempted twice since June 1989 to revive the Shanghai-based Herald. It was Mr. Jiang who, as Shanghai mayor, ordered the paper to stop publication and dismissed its editor, Qin Benli, in 1989.
"Deng and Jiang already realize that they need help in criticizing the conservatives. Without press freedom, there is no one to reflect public support for reform. The reformist forces have a problem," says Zhang Weiguo, the Herald's former Beijing bureau chief.
Conservative officials in charge of press administration have blocked the reopening of the Herald by canceling its registration, former staff members say.
Some former staff members say they doubt the paper would enjoy the same wide scope to reflect dissenting views as it did before mid-1989.
"If the paper had no more freedom than [Shanghai's official] Liberation Daily and Wen Hui Bao, it would not be very interesting," Mr. Zhang says. "In terms of theoretical depth, a new paper could not be compared with what the Herald was in 1989."
Former party chief Zhao Ziyang was a major supporter of the Herald. Mr. Zhao intervened to prevent conservatives from closing the Herald after student demonstrations broke out in Shanghai in late 1986, the sources say.
Until his ouster in 1989, Zhao gained from the exposure the Herald gave to intellectuals who shared his views, including the "new authoritarians" who sought to make him an enlightened, free-marketeering autocrat.
Chinese advocates of press freedom say that a more open media is necessary to guarantee political reforms that are vital to modernizing the country.
But China's long-awaited press law, which could have granted a stronger legal foundation to newspapers, has been shelved since 1989. Instead, conservatives have introduced new "ethical principles" for reporters that make them more vulnerable to party censure.
"With press reform, one step forward means 10 years' progress, and one step backward means retreating 10 years," Zhang says, quoting a slogan of journalists who marched for press freedom during the spring of 1989.
Nevertheless, average Chinese continue to demonstrate a strong thirst for more objective news.
Despite state funding, subscriptions of major party newspapers such as People's Daily have stagnated or dropped. Orders for Guangming Daily, the newspaper targeted at intellectuals, have fallen 9 percent over last year, according to the Hong Kong daily Ming Bao.
At the same time, subscriptions for Reference News, a compilation of edited foreign news reports, shot up 13 percent. Subscriptions increased by 5 percent for Legal Daily, an official paper that carries detailed reports on corruption and law, and introduces foreign legal concepts. And many Chinese listen to foreign news on shortwave radios.
"People today want an independent source of news to be able to judge the situation," Zhang says.