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China's media censorship rattling world image

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

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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.

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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.