China ratchets up control on expression

A top editor was fired, web logs and cellphones have been restricted.

An emotional strike by 100 journalists at this city's most popular and lively newspaper follows a 16-month campaign to quash a broad range of "unapproved" public speech in areas verging on politics or society - a campaign that includes Internet blogs, and new restrictions on cellphones designed to smoke outsenders of renegade text messages.

In the case of Beijing News, whose progressive editor Yang Bin was replaced without warning last week, Chinese authorities dealt a seemingly fatal blow to a publishing project that two years ago gave the press some freedom to experiment.

Last June the paper reported on violent land disputes in Hebei province, and last month, in what may have precipitated the purge, it published tame, but independent, stories on the official coverup of a massive benzene chemical spill in the Songhua River.

Last Thursday, in a gritty south Beijing neighborhood, nearly 100 reporters left the news offices. They began a short-lived strike - a rarity in China - and signed a petition asking for Mr. Yang's reinstatement, describing the removal as a tragedy. Some wept publicly, according to sources at the meeting.

"We were happy with our paper and the idea we had. But now the editor is leaving and the idea will leave with him. I am very sad," said a journalist who spoke with foreign reporters despite the presence of security officials and a warning that she could lose her job.

While Beijing News is often described as "radical" or "bold" - it would not warrant that definition in a Western setting. The thick daily tabloid is a subtle blend of eye-catching photos, pop culture, and real-life stories about the good, bad, and ugly. Interspersed are full-page ads for clothes and credit cards that appealed to an aspiring urban middle class.

Editor Yang, who cut his teeth in the looser commercial media climate of south China, brought a professional ethos that captured the imagination of staffers. As one put it, "He asked us to be responsible, accurate, and true. He is a model for me and a man with high standards. I would hope that some day I could be like him."

Yet Beijing News was mainly quite moderate, not crusading - and many Chinese journalists say the real message behind Yang's removal is that even slight divergences from moderate norms may be punished. This discourages testing the boundaries of free expression, they say, since any paper could lose its license or leadership.

The sudden move on Beijing News is part of a systematic effort by the central propaganda department in Beijing to more-closely police speech and expression. In the past year, the party initiated the broadest ideological education campaign in a decade. In part, that campaign discourages liberality and freedom of expression. The official news service Xinhua this week, in fact, selected this party campaign as its No. 1 story of 2005, calling it "a massive political and ideological education drive among more than 68 million CPC members to maintain their moral and socialist ethical superiority, a new, great project to promote Party construction."

As a result, in the past year "public intellectuals" that spoke out on social welfare or the environment have been curbed from doing so in state media.

Last summer a set of editors resigned from the Economic Times citing a loss of the paper's core values. A plan by China Youth Daily to tie reporters' salary bonuses to the degree of praise by party officials was narrowly scotched. Last week the monthly magazine Bai Xing, whose readership is similar to that of Beijing News, was told to remove its interactive web commentary, its investigative news department, and the magazine's slogan, "recording China in change."

Bai Xing editor Huang Liangtian was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying that "we are required to focus more on culture and lifestyle topics."

Blogs, college message boards, and cellphone text messages have been censured or shut down. Just Monday a new policy was announced that will require some 200 million Chinese to provide proof of identity before buying prepaid cellphone cards.

The controlling share of Beijing News is owned by a conservative southern media group whose flagship is the conservative and often cash-strapped Guangming Daily. Editors from that paper took control after Yang and at least one other top deputy editor were forced out. Beijing Daily staffers worried that the unusual combination of letters to the editor - a rarity in Chinese papers - and stories about official corruption and official apologies, would sour the public on their paper.

In the past 10 days, two Chinese journalists in prison for alleged violations of state security laws are reportedly being prepared for trial. The cases of Zhao Yan, an assistant for The New York Times, and Ching Cheong, a veteran Hong Kong reporter, have languished for months, but now may be heard within six weeks. Numerous press freedom groups, including the Foreign Correspondents Club of China, have vigorously protested the charges, as well as the chilling effect it has on the work of ordinary news gathering. Mr. Ching was arrested in China while on a trip to procure manuscripts from the late premier Zhao Ziyang, who until his passing a year ago lived under house arrest after opposing violence at Tiananmen square in June 1989.

"The Communist Party leaders have a strange way of celebrating the end of the year," noted the Paris-based Reporters without Borders. "After announcing that Zhao Yan and Ching Cheong are to be tried, the Beijing authorities have decided to kill off one of China's most popular and liberal newspapers. We affirm our solidarity with the staff of the paper."

Beijing Daily staff members, mostly ordinary reporters, tried to mount a serious strike at the paper, something almost unheard of in the obedient ranks of Chinese journalists.

But after the new editors threatened immediate dismissal, there was not enough cohesion to sustain the effort. Instead, reporters phoned and e-mailed friends and colleagues, with one writing with traditional Chinese heroic fatalism, "There is no way to retreat, so we won't retreat. The butcher's knife is already raised ... we're going to die so let's make it a beautiful death."

A more artful and indirect protest statement came on the weather page of the paper Friday, in the form of a photograph of birds flying into the distance. Underneath were the words, "A bird leading its flock flies across the sky. Although the sky is not so clear, they fly far away, carrying their goals in their hearts."

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