Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 14

By Arnold Zeitlin

Editor in chief Jin Minhua proudly escorted a visitor through the offices of his Chinese-language Shenzhen Weekly. The newspaper is located high in the forty-two story tower erected by the Shenzhen Special Zone Newspaper Group to demonstrate the prodigious profits it has earned in the boomtown on the south China border with Hong Kong.

For last, he saved his favorite exhibit–the proof of a cover that never was published.

The cover was a photo of a dimly lit, sinister alleyway of a traditional village around which Shenzhen had grown wildly over the past decade. The village had become synonymous in Shenzhen, said Jin, with crime and vice, including prostitution, drugs and smuggling–much of it taking place with the compliance of local police and other authorities.

The cover and story were to be an expose, produced in the spirit of the reform that has seized the Chinese news media and proved profitable because it has attracted both readers hungry for genuine information and, subsequently, advertisers.

Jin had approved the cover and the story, sent his issue to the printers and left for Guangzhou, an hour further north by train.

In his absence, he said, the group editor called his office on deadline to notify him that the municipal authorities had decided the layout was too negative. When Jin returned to Guangzhou, he discovered his magazine had been altered behind his back. The cover was now graced by the charm of the new Miss Shenzhen; the village story never made it into print.

Jin had been in trouble before and he laughed off the problems he had run into on this occasion. The man who had crisscrossed the United States on holiday by Greyhound bus the year before said he believed he was allowed at least three strikes.

His sense of humor bubbled over after Hu Jintao was elected party general secretary at the National Party Congress last November. Jin ran a satirical piece on a mythical news conference lampooning the new leader and his links to his successor, Jiang Zemin. The story was strike three.

When Jin was next heard from he was hunting for a job as a school teacher in his rural home town miles from the glitter of Shenzhen. He had paid the price of his independent mind with his job.

Jin is now back in Shenzhen after a six-month exile, still working for the Shenzhen Special Zone Newspaper Group. Said a friend: “His current job is about business; he is not permitted to do editing work.”

This scenario is a common one in a China, where news media control and censorship are growing uncommonly complex. The news media is struggling with apparently conflicting demands–such as the need to make a profit by responding to audience demands for information while at the same time bending to the will of the party and the government. Control is imposed, not so much for ideological reasons as to protect the self interests of officials or to ensure that the party does not find itself embarrassed over its failures.

This journalistic dilemma arose after editors of a leading Guangzhou daily, one of the country’s largest, decided this past spring to investigate the impact of SARS on the rich Guangdong province economy. What follows is a glimpse of what it is like to work under such constraints.

The experienced economics reporter assigned to the task, together with his editor, knew the stories on page one in their popular daily would receive close government and party scrutiny. They wanted to avoid trouble.

“As you know, SARS affected many aspects of the society,” he said, “but media dare not cover the negative effection [sic] because of the government’s warning.

“How shall I cover it?” I asked myself when I received the task from my boss….In China, it is dangerous to directly cover something that government warned not to cover. So we have to use some indirect way. Have you understood my meaning?

“I decided to cover the negative effection [sic] by oppositive way,” the reporter explained, adding, “It’s not quite easy for me to express exactly in English. Doesn’t it sound inconsistent? Yes, it does most of the time, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

He meant whatever the bad news, he had to report it in a positive way. He discovered that electricity use by industry in Guangzhou declined from January through April, indicating a slowdown during the height of the SARS epidemic. He noticed that the slowdown was lessening, and it was on that positive aspect that he concentrated. He used the same technique in reporting an increase in internet e-commerce as people stayed home.

“I not only covered the negative effect,” he concluded, “but…the keynote of the article is positive and encouraging…we received very good reaction…from government.”

Much of the control and censorship effort is carried out by underlings in the provinces and, as in the case of editor Jin, in the municipalities.

This past February, in Guangdong, the provincial party secretary, Zhang Dejiang, an economist trained in no-nonsense North Korea, banned news media reporting about the SARS outbreak–despite pleas for openness in Beijing from President and Party Secretary General Hu. By April, Zhang Dongming, an official in the provincial propaganda department, was named deputy chief editor of the Nan Fang Daily group in Guangzhou. He was also appointed editor of the group’s highly aggressive and popular mainstay, the Southern Weekly, further reinforcing control over the province.

A Guangzhou journalist declared that Zhang Dongming “cared more about turning newspapers into docile party organs [rather] than improving their ability to make profits by offering news people want to read.”

At the top of the national control pyramid is Li Changchun, 58, the senior official in charge of propaganda and a member, since last November, of Hu’s standing committee of the party politburo. Li is a former party boss in Guangdong province. Until Zhang Dejiang took over, the news media there generally had been ahead of the curve in reporting the news. Li is said to be in charge of privatizing the news media, forcing it to live on its own profits instead of on party and government subsidies. He is said even to be allowing foreign private direct investment in the industry.

Because this policy is reportedly favored by Hu, he and Li have the reputation of supporting liberalization of the news media.

The reality of their stand is untested, but that hope is reflected in a New York Times editorial published in the wake of the huge demonstration that took place in Hong Kong on July 1. The participants were demonstrating their opposition to passage of a restrictive Article 23 to the territory’s Basic Law.

“Is it possible that instead of Hong Kong’s becoming more like China, with dissent increasingly suffocated, the mainland could become more like Hong Kong, with its news media less tightly controlled and its people free to discuss politics without fear of retaliation?,” The New York Times asked. It added that there are “…tentative grounds for optimism…[which] center around Hu Jintao….he has shown surprising, though limited, signs of a more modern outlook and a willingness to respond to new challenges….Mr. Hu and his allies have also encouraged greater openness in state-controlled media…”

Also high on the propaganda pyramid is another official, Liu Yunshan. He is director of the party’s propaganda department and a close ally of Jiang Zemin. Jiang stepped down and was replaced by Hu as party secretary general in November and as president of China in March. Jiang, still chairman of the powerful military commission, favors keeping tighter controls. Foreign reporters quoted Chinese journalists as saying that Liu had warned top editors at a recent meeting that foreign enemies of China were exploiting divisive topics to undermine the government. They cited recent remarks by Mr. Jiang to that effect.

Liu has reportedly led a campaign to restrict coverage of sensitive issues, resulting in the closure of the 21st Century World Herald and the Beijing Xinbao. The magazines Sanlian, Caijing, News Week and Strategy & Management have been censured or threatened with closure.

In recent weeks, The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Reuters news agency have published articles speculating that Hu and Jiang are in conflict over news media policy. Each article contained a different idea as to which leader was winning.

The topic that remains untouched, however, is China’s continued censorship of the internet.

In a study disclosed last December, Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School tracked 204,012 websites. They found that 19,032 of them (including many news sites, as well as the sites of the University of Virginia, the Learning Channel and the Asian American Baptist Church) were on a number of occasions inaccessible from China though they remained accessible from the United States.

They concluded that “blocking systems are becoming more refined even as they are likely more labor- and technology-intensive to maintain than cruder predecessors….”

The filtering can be sophisticated, allowing Chinese readers to access The New York Times online, for example, but not allowing them access to any stories in the newspaper carrying a reference to Falun Gong.

At the same time, the internet remains an important outlet of unfiltered information for the Chinese.

When a reporter for the Chengdu Business News in Sichuan province was ordered at the end of June to drop her coverage of a scandal–one in which a 3-year-old girl allegedly died of starvation at her home while her mother was in police custody–she posted her unpublished story on the internet. According to the Los Angeles Times, “it provoked a huge outpouring of support.”

Although the censorship apparatus does function in this totalitarian, one-party police state, it remains full of holes. These gaps run the extremes, from bloody beatings of journalists to subtle warnings, from the comical to the devastating.

One particularly serious example was the beating endured by ABC-TV News correspondent Todd Carrel in June of 1992. He was one of several foreign journalists attacked and detained by Chinese police while covering the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square. Carrel, who lectures at the journalism school of the University of California at Berkeley, was never able to return to full-time reporting and still suffers from his injuries.

Norwegian correspondent Kjersti Strommen and three others were arrested last July while covering a demonstration by sacked employes of Beijing’s Friendship Store. Strommen said: “There is a law saying that reporters have to apply to be allowed to interview people three days beforehand and journalists are breaking this rule all the time. The police simply did their job….The Chinese are often quite un-rigid and the whole thing was solved on a good note over a cup of tea.”

On the other hand, in May police in Guangzhou chased a reporter for a foreign newspaper up the fire escape of a hotel to prevent an interview with the family of Sun Zhigang, a Wuhan University student and graphic designer who allegedly was beaten to death while in police custody. The reporter was not arrested, but the police, the reporter’s minder–or official contact at the propaganda office–and even the family of the dead student all warned against reporting the story. The newspaper ran stories, but without a byline.

Efforts to control the news media in this age of text messages and thousands of proxy internet sites may not only fail but ultimately boomerang.

In testimony before Congress, Kenneth Berman, manager of the Internet Anti-censorship Program of the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of American, Radio Free Asia and other external U.S. government broadcasters, noted the SARS clampdown “has been a boon….the VOA and RFA Chinese language traffic has doubled and has allowed Chinese citizens free, unfettered access to the wide range of previously uncensored information.”

Arnold Zeitlin, a former correspondent and executive with The Associated Press and United Press International, was director for three years of the Freedom Forum Asian Center in Hong Kong until it closed last December 31.