A rare protest by Chinese journalists at a leading national newspaper offers a window into the intensifying severity of information control in China and the sometimes sophisticated resistance to it by Chinese journalists.
A frank 19-page letter by Li Datong, a senior editor at China Youth Daily, details a struggle between the news staff and senior party officials over policies that the journalists say would encourage propaganda. The paper has been seen as a progressive organ within Communist Party media, tackling stories on corruption.
Mr. Li's letter, leaked Aug. 17, took issue with a new "appraisal system" introduced by chief editor Li Erliang. It would tie promotion and monetary reward to praise by party officials. In the new "pay for praise" policy, reporters would receive 50 pay credits for high reader response, but between 90 and 120 pay credits for stories praised by communist youth league officials. The youth league is the party group responsible for the paper.
"If you don't change this appraisal system, our paper will become a complete fake," Li wrote in the dissent, which received strong backing among many staff reporters who are too junior to survive making criticisms in the hard world of Chinese state-run media.
The larger backdrop is a nearly two year push by the powerful central propaganda department to more firmly control and limit expression.
News services are under orders not to quote Chinese intellectuals not approved by the party. Newspapers may not report events or issues in other parts of the country unless a regional party paper has first reported the news. Popular Internet discussion groups have been blocked. Cellphone text messages are filtered.
China Youth Daily itself has steadily been reshaped to be more of a party organ than a newspaper. In the past year senior editors at the paper have resigned, free exchanges between internal news departments have been banned, and Chinese political leaders have started being praised in language reminiscent of the brutal Cultural Revolution period. One story this summer described Chinese president Hu Jintao's words as being, "like a light house beacon, pointing out and illuminating the direction of China's students."
While many protesting journalists, including Li, praise President Hu for his genial persona and for understanding how modern media works, they are opposed to what appears to be a move in the central propaganda department to allow deification and worship of Chinese leaders. They point out that Chinese youth find such language old and silly, and that it actually decreases respect for the venerable paper.
"This is not only happening at our paper," says one China Youth Daily staffer speaking on condition of anonymity, "it is a problem at papers everywhere in China."
The Chinese government has argued that a strong, unchallenged hand is needed during a time of uncertainty and instability, as China undergoes a rapid economic expansion.
Li Datong's protest however did have an impact. Only days after his letter appeared on an overseas Chinese website and was reported widely in Asia, the leadership of China Youth Daily said it planned to abandon the appraisal policy. Staffers say it is too early to know if this is a sincere reversal of policy, or simply a tactical retreat.
Li Datong would not comment for this report. "He knows exactly how far he can and can't go," says one colleague. Li's fame and talent as a journalist allowed him to weather his association with the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen protest when he and many reporters carried signs saying "Stop Forcing Us to Lie." He is now editor of a special enterprise weekly section called "The Freezing Point" that has investigated influence peddling in the state sector, overcharging medical fees, fake college degree scams, and so on.
Yet Li has not gone untouched. On Monday, the editor in chief, Li Erliang, wrote a counterattack, which also got leaked on the Internet. Editor Li attacked Li Datong's journalistic skills and complained that editors should not write critiques that can be leaked.
Li Fang, a senior editor who resigned recently, says that dynamics inside party media were changing from professional ideas about proper content to a cliquish loyalty based on pleasing the party.
Sources say the problem dates to a new attitude by Communist Youth League officials to simply exert power and ignore traditions of respect, and a desire on the staff to push for greater press openness.
In 2004 a new youth league chairman gave a blunt lecture in the newsroom telling the staff they were to serve the youth league party platform, or leave. Columnist Lu Yuegang wrote a 10,000-word complaint that the underlying spirit of the paper was being eroded. Last December new editor Li Erliang impressed the staff by trying to mediate between the propaganda department and the staff. Yet in a few months he became a rubber stamp for the youth league officials,Li Datong argued in his letter. When a famous photo editor complained that a description of Hu Jintao sounded as if it came from the 1960s period, the editor in chief instructed a committee of editors to censure him for "expressing his ideas too freely. He is too liberal."
"He [Li Erliang] stopped listening and started a 'master-servant relationship on the staff.' He was too willing to please the senior officials," says one journalist close to the paper.
In a related event earlier this month, six top reporters resigned from a well-known China weekly, the Economic Observer. The journalist says the editorial direction of the paper was becoming wholly materialistic and lacked the idealism that at one point characterized the enterprise. Economic Observer editors described the collective resignations as a coincidence.