COMMUNIST Party authorities have secretly dismantled China's most outspoken newspaper, the Shanghai-based World Economic Herald, as part of an ongoing purge of the Chinese news media. The closure of the bold semi-independent weekly underscores the party's determination quietly to crush dissent, despite recent public gestures aimed at softening its repressive image.
Once a leading voice for political reform in China, the Herald was abolished by an internal order of the Shanghai municipal party committee, Chinese sources say. The committee linked the closure to the government's nationwide campaign to ``rectify'' publications charged with ``political errors.''
During student-led democracy protests last spring, the party forced the Herald to suspend publication and fired editor in chief Qin Benli. It later accused the paper of ``spearheading'' popular attacks on senior Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping.
A number of Herald staffers detained after the Beijing massacre last June, including former Beijing bureau chief Zhang Weiguo, remain in jail, the sources say.
The party has made no public announcement of the newspaper's closure, which Chinese sources say took place in April.
But Shanghai authorities have stripped the Herald's Huaihai Road headquarters of computers, typewriters, tape recorders, and other gear, leaving behind only wooden chairs and tables.
The 100-odd employees of the Chinese-language tabloid are now ``waiting for work,'' said a former staff member interviewed at the Herald's deserted editorial department. Many Chinese organizations are afraid to hire those associated with the paper, sources say.
China's hard-line leaders have not announced the Herald's closure because it might further damage their image and provoke a new outpouring of support for the paper, Western diplomats and Chinese sources say. The Herald emerged as a pioneer of press freedom after its founding in 1980.
Communist Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin, who as Shanghai party chief was responsible for silencing the paper last spring, may not want to remind the public of his unpopular decision.
Similarly, Shanghai's current party chief, Zhu Rongji, who has striven to project a moderate image, may not wish to take responsibility for eradicating the Herald.
Compounding the leaders' worries is the deteriorating health of Mr. Qin, the former editor. Shanghai party officials have closely monitored Qin's health, according to the sources and Western diplomats.
``The Shanghai party committee shows great concern for him,'' said a source. The source said officials were especially attentive to Qin before President Bush announced his decision in May to renew most-favored-nation trading status for China.
Qin was dismissed last April for preparing to print articles attacking the party's treatment of Hu Yaobang, a pro-reform party leader who was ousted by Mr. Deng in 1987 and whose death sparked the student protests.
Overnight, the veteran editor became a rallying cry for millions of Chinese protesters demanding press freedom and other basic rights. The Herald's offices in Shanghai became a hub of demonstrations that continued after the June 4 massacre.
The dismantling of the Herald illustrates the continued behind-the-scenes repression of Chinese journalists and intellectuals, despite the party's efforts to appear benevolent toward dissenters.
In March, a month before the Herald was closed, the party published a speech by Mr. Jiang in which he emphasized the need for strengthening party control over the media.
Jiang said ``newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations will never be allowed to disseminate bourgeois liberalization'' - the party's term for the influence of Western liberal ideas. leadership, so as to deal heavy blows to the hostile forces,'' Jiang said.
In April, Hu Jiwei, a staunch proponent of press reform, was stripped of his official posts. Mr. Hu, former editor in chief of the People's Daily newspaper, advocated making China's press a watchdog against official abuses.