China's media censorship rattling world image

The deposing of an editor is part of a two-year campaign to control public debate.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At 5 p.m. on Jan. 24, Li Datong's status went into a deep chill. Mr. Li, a Tiananmen protest veteran and a rare crusading editor still allowed to work, learned that "Freezing Point," his weekly magazine, had been closed.

The proximate reason: a lengthy article smashing official history of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, when a peasant cult killed more than 230 foreigners in a spasm of xenophobia. Li ran the story to ask why, in modern China, children are learning to praise the Boxers for being antiforeign.

Freezing Point will reopen March 1, without Li, following an unusual storm of protest that included retired party statesmen. Yet the episode highlights a censorship campaign here that is wide-ranging and whose opposition seems ineffectual.

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For two years, the crackdown on virtually all media expression has played out through arcane ideology sessions and micromanagement of newsrooms.

More broadly, the war on liberal ideas is starting to alter the image of China overseas. For a decade, the country has been seen as a rambunctious marvel of manufacturing and export, of developing infrastructure, and a major source of cash reserves. It has managed to outflank human rights agendas, and enjoys an image as a safe, traditional society that is emerging into the international mainstream. Beijing won its 2008 Olympics bid in the midst of a brutal roundup of Falun Gong practitioners in 2001 - many of whom remain disappeared.

"China's deteriorating international image is impacting its ability to achieve its foreign policy goals, and could well affect its ability to stage a successful Olympics in 2008," argues John Kamm, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, who now runs Dui Hua, a nonprofit human-rights group in San Francisco. Mr. Kamm says the State Department report on human rights in China due next month will be far tougher than in recent years.

"Maybe the Olympics will help change China in the right direction, was the main idea," argues a Beijing scholar. "But at present what we see ... is an old-style party reaction of 'no debate' - meaning no discussion, no democracy, just hunkering into a political survival mode."

Indeed, the outspoken Bishop Joseph Zen, the chief Roman Catholic authority in Hong Kong who was made a cardinal on Wednesday, was warned by Chinese officials this week to not participate in social and political movements.

In a way that surprises even many experts, the repression campaign by the powerful Communist Party propaganda department here, including decade-long prison terms for Web bloggers - has again raised the image of China as seriously lagging in rights and liberal values that much of the world takes for granted. It has awakened a moral language of justice and condemnation, as seen last week on Capitol Hill when members of Congress berated Internet company officials for complicity with Chinese security police.

China's prohibitions on livelier, more authentic news are growing stronger, sources say - and extend to radio, TV, newspapers, and the Internet. On Wednesday, China Workers website (www.zggr.org) was shut. The forum allowed sharp criticism of peasant and laborer policies. A Mr. Chen, spokesperson of the Website Propaganda Management Department at the Beijing Municipal Propaganda Office, said he was unaware of the site and had no comment.

China leads the world in jailed journalists, with 39 detained. This week, Mo Shaoping, lawyer for jailed New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China that Mr. Zhao, who has been in jail for a year, will probably be in court in March. Zhao faces 10 years in prison. While the charges against him are for "endangering state security," a wide net used by police, the specific charges remain unclear - though appear to be based on anger in high political circles that the New York Times learned a day ahead of the event that former leader Jiang Zemin was to retire.

The role of overseas Internet companies in complying with Chinese police seized the moral imagination of the US Congress in hearings last week. The most serious cases relate to Yahoo's help in helping identify and convict journalist Shi Tao to 10 years in jail. Two weeks ago, a new case appeared to put Yahoo in cahoots with state security forces regarding Li Zhi, who got eight years in jail for trying to query and join a democracy group from his home in Sichuan.

Since December, the editor of a relatively feisty new tabloid, Beijing News, was fired after stories on why it took 11 days for Chinese officials to acknowledge a major benzene spill in a river flowing through northeast China to Russia. The firing hit the staff hard, bringing one of the first collective protests in memory at a state-run media outlet.

Last week, Chen Jieren, editor of the small Public Interest Times, was sacked. he went public this week in a 10,000-word essay after his employer said he was fired for poor management skills. Chen said he was ousted over stories investigating corruption, among others. The journal aimed to "report the truth with a conscience," he wrote.

Li, a party member, had been editor of Freezing Point for 11 years. He represents a liberal intellectual tradition in contemporary China that was crushed during the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. That event was a watershed that put China on its path of aggressive economic reform - while disallowing political change. Prior to the "June 4 incident," China was peppered with liberals, including leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Today, they are a tiny, fragile minority.

While the Boxer reappraisal upset officials, Li was the real target. Anger at him reached a peak late last August. In a 19-page protest letter to the new editor of China Youth Daily - that was sent out over hundreds of websites and blogs to avoid being blocked by China's sophisticated technology - Li ostensibly attacked a new policy that would link reporter's pay raises to praise by party officials. "Under this unreasonable system the editors and reporters will go out of their minds instead of worrying about the media's role to monitor," argued Li.

But the actual subject of Li's protest was the broad direction of China's media under the powerful propaganda department, recently renamed the "publicity department." Journalists trying to sort truth from propaganda were being discouraged, and under party edicts media were beginning to use language not heard since the Cultural Revolution - undermining readers' trust.

The Boxer story was not the first time that Freezing Point crossed swords with official history. Last June, Li published a lengthy analysis showing that, contrary to official history, during World War 2 the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek bled and died in at least equal proportions with the forces of Mao Zedong's communist army. In the official version of history, the Nationalists are often in hiding in Sichuan during the fighting.

Monitor interview with Li Datong

Why push so hard for press freedom?

Under the strict conditions of the propaganda department, all Chinese people are used to restraining themselves. They live under a threat that they haven't articulated to themselves, but which they feel. And this permanent feeling of fear they have turned into a way of life. By our behavior with "Freezing Point" we want to say to people that fear is not a normal state of existence.

We feel that a legal state of resistance is the only normal approach to take.... Our activities may have no direct benefit to ourselves, but we feel that advocating freedom of press pushes things along, helps our history as Chinese. Thanks to international press and to those of us in China who are trying to raise questions, the times we are living in move ahead.

I've received many hundred e-mails, mostly supportive.... We feel we are on the high moral ground, we feel the heart of the people is with us. Chinese have traditionally trusted the leader, the emperor, to rule. All rules, good or bad, must come from the ruler. But these times are gone. We feel every person should ... think for themselves.

You say the propaganda department acted illegally to shut down Freezing Point.

The attempt of the propaganda department to exercise unlimited power has no ground in any legal document.... The constitution entrusts every citizen with the right to speak freely. And freedom of press. The constitution is empty paper but needs to be hard reality. We have legal ground in the constitution, but we have no way to enforce laws. The constitution is like a heaven, but we have no ladder to heaven now. The propaganda department has the power. It is a party organ. We can sue a government office. But we can't sue the party. The party has no legal status... and you can't pull it into the legal system. The party is above the law....

The party's legitimacy must now be followed all the way to the writing of official history. But ... huge parts of the past [are] missing. Between 1959 and 1962 we had an epic famine. There is nothing about that in the history books, to speak of....

The power to write history, until this moment, has been kept ... within the party. The moment this right is taken, the moment other versions of history are allowed, the legitimacy of the party will be questioned. The first question will be: What government could allow 40 million people to starve and die, never tell about it, but still survive? The main issue is - who holds the ... authority to say what history really means.

How many Chinese agree with such liberal views?

Among intellectuals, the vast majority are for greater freedom of press and speech. A poll last year among local officials suggests that 60 percent think the problem in China is a lack of political reform. Among ordinary people, the understanding is weak.... However, we have seen again and again that when their interests are violated, they want the political system to change, and to provide channels to defend their interests.

A big issue is that peasants are not allowed to organize into any group that would allow resistance, or defend their own rights. Because it's forbidden, eventually the government will have to face illegal groups that will form to defend themselves.

What about official fear of instability?

I'm not saying we don't want stability. We do. But our understanding of stability is very different from communist officials. We want a calm river of society that continually flows. The part officials' idea of stability is a dead body of water. Eventually it starts to stink.

A generation like mine, we may resist and rebel once, in Tiananmen, and see how it is. But we are rational. There is no way we are going to the streets. But what we will do is conduct a nonstop debate. Debate is the heart of our approach; it will not stop.

There is hope. Ten years ago, Freezing Point would stay closed. I would be expelled from the party, kicked out of the newspaper. Now I'm not allowed to publish, but I keep a salary. For us to gain press freedom, if the truth is told, it will change things. The Berlin Wall looked like a very real wall, but it collapsed and disappeared quickly.

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