Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part One

Chang Ping, Yaxue Cao, February 23, 2021

Interviewer’s Note

I first interviewed Chang Ping in Toronto when he received the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award. We spoke for about two hours before I had to catch a flight back to Washington, DC. In the next few years, as I continued to interview and profile more people for China Change and began to see a common thread emerging from these divergent personal stories over the past thirty or even forty years, I more than once felt the need to revisit Chang Ping’s story. The following is my second interview with Chang Ping in February 2020 in Düsseldorf, his home-in-exile, and Berlin.

Chang Ping (长平)’s journalist career in China perfectly parallels China’s Reform and Opening Up era, beginning in Chengdu around the time of Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour in 1992 and ending in Guangzhou in 2008, “the most misunderstood year by the outside world.” By the end of the 1990s, Chang Ping, 31, was the News Director and columnist of the reform-minded newspaper Southern Weekend (《南方周末》) in Guangzhou, which regularly sold millions of copies at a time when Chinese society was going through its most hopeful and vibrant period since 1989.

Prior to and during the second interview, I repeatedly explained the aim of our conversation: to bring out a personal story against the backdrop of the era, as well as the story of an era through the lens of a personal story.  And I wanted it to be as concrete as possible.

We began from Chang Ping’s formative years. For brevity, I will sum up this part as follows: Born in 1968, he grew up in a mountain village in Sichuan. He went to Sichuan University in 1987, majoring in Chinese Literature. He was an avid reader throughout high school and college, consuming a lot of literature, both classical and contemporary, as well as translations that were rehabilitated after the barren years of the Cultural Revolution. While in college, he did odd jobs such as selling yogurt and designing movie posters to support himself, and joined a wide range of student interest groups. He was involved in the 1989 student movement, not a leader but nonetheless a notable voice on campus who wrote leaflets and made speeches. He witnessed the bloody confrontation between protesters (both students and city residents) and armed police on June 6 outside Jinjiang Hotel in Chengdu which is the subject of Louisa Lim’s “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.” He was detained for a month on campus after the crackdown.  

The interview went smoothly, with simple questions and minimal, functional prodding from me. For better flow, I eliminated most of the questions, retaining only a few necessary ones. The title is taken from Chang Ping’s namesake essay in 2015.

China Change will post the interview in five installments, beginning from Chang Ping leaving college in 1991, living a bohemian life in Chengdu.

— Yaxue Cao

Chang Ping at Sichuan University in late 1980s.

Chengdu, Lotus Business Consulting, Chengdu Economic Daily

In 1991 and 1992, there were a group of people in Chengdu who all more or less had some connection to the events of June 4th. In the aftermath of June 4th, these people either had no opportunity or no interest in associating with the government organs. Among them there was no shortage of people who worked at state-owned enterprises or other members of mainstream society. I was part of them. We often gathered to drink and chat. We were penniless at the time, but none of us thought ourselves down-trodden, because we were people who had chosen to be the outsiders.

Moreover, we thought of ourselves as harboring great ambition, so much of our discussion revolved around the future of Chinese society, what direction it should take. At the time I was living in a flat in the western outskirts of Chengdu, renting for 25 yuan a month. I was a shut-in, sitting at home reading and writing day after day.

A lot of us were writing poetry, painting, or doing odd jobs of commercial designing. The couple next door who used to work for Rural Daily (《农民日报》). They took part in the protests in Beijing, and after the crackdown, they fled to Chengdu.  

One of my university teachers introduced me to a book publisher, and I ended up working for it. The publisher was mainly focused on two categories. One was extracurricular readings for primary and secondary education. So I rewrote some historical stories and Tang Dynasty legends, and did some poetry appreciation. I wrote one about Nalan Xingde (纳兰性德)’s poems.

I also wrote a book called “The Rolling Tides of Commerce” (《商潮滚滚》). Because of it, I followed commerce developments closely and made a lot of newspaper clippings.

As a result of this book, a friend said he wanted to start a business consulting magazine and asked me to be the editor-in-chief. So my first media job was to be editor-in-chief, but I was the only person doing it. 

There was a big market in Chengdu, a bit like Xiushui Street (秀水街市场) in Beijing or Guangzhou’s Tianhe Road Market (天河路市场). It was called Lotus Pond (荷花池), so we called the magazine Lotus Business Consulting (荷花商情咨询). Soon I set up an editorial department with four or five people. We read all kinds of newspapers and magazines, cutting and pasting every day, sorting the info into categories: policies, law, news, overseas information, and then printing them in a thin magazine. At that time, we implemented a membership system, members would pay 300 yuan a year for the magazine.

I was also very interested in the whole process from content making to factory print. At the time it was still letterpress print, I would go to the factory to watch typesetting. Typesetting was a real skill, workers had to quickly find and set the type blocks, and hold them in place with iron strips. They were very proud of their work. I witnessed their work becoming obsolete — by the time I worked on the next paper a year later, film printing came along replacing letterpress printing.     

Soon there were hundreds of subscribers and a lot of money was coming in. At that time, while this job was merely a matter of making a living, I was somewhat interested in figuring out how to run a publication, which was relatively new to me, and didn’t mind picking up some business and economic information. But on the other hand, what I really wanted to do when I got home was to read poems, read novels, and have discussions with my friends who, as I said, were all related to the Tiananmen Movement.

So I soon left this publication and went back to writing books for the publisher. In 1992, I wrote 7 books, none worth mentioning, including a 600K-word history of the Manchukuo (the state of Manchuria). I had never even visited Manchuria. And I also adapted Legends of Tang Dynasty (《唐传奇》), of which I wish I’ve kept a copy. I wrote it very conscientiously as a way of practicing writing. A book could earn me about 2000 yuan, and that was a lot of money in early 1990, and a friend of mine working at the radio station only made 95 yuan a month. 

Right around that time in 1992, Deng Xiaoping made his Southern Tour speech. When I was working on that magazine, I did feel that township and village enterprises were very active, and there were great hopes for development, and energy had already been simmering at the bottom of society.

Getting into the media scene

So to me the Southern Tour speech was news, but at the same time it seemed to be something very natural. I started to pay renewed attention to the media.

You can see their creativity at work. What’s obvious is that they didn’t want the look of the Xinhua style. I remember that I was squatting between the newspaper racks, the very tall newspaper racks, and going through all the racks, and saw a copy of China Youth Daily with the headline “A New Royal Banner Flies From the City Walls” (《城头变换大王旗》) which was about Clinton’s electoral victory. “How could they report using this kind of language?” I thought.

In fact, many changes in the Chinese media at that time started with international news, where things were relatively easier.

It so happened that around this time someone asked me to write for another newspaper called the “Market Herald” (《市场导报》) While writing for them, their editor-in-chief wanted to outsource the paper to me. It was a popular practice at the time — the state-affiliated owner would outsource a non-profitable publication in exchange for an amount of management fee, and you could run it, or even create a new one.

So I got some like-minded friends together, and we were very happy to have a newspaper of our own. We reported on some interesting topics. I remember we reported in depth the government’s Funan River Project that aimed at cleaning up the pollution and trash that had turned the river into an open sewage winding through the city. The municipal government was very pleased with our work. We also reported on social groups that few paid attention. For example, the parallel world of the blind people in China. They had their own dwellings, their own businesses, and their own networks. But after a few months of operation, we ran out of money, and couldn’t find investors in time, so we shut down.

Around this time, several people started a brand-new newspaper called “Chengdu Economic Daily” (《成都商报》) with He Huazhang (何华章) as its president. He Huazhang had been an editor at the Sichuan People’s Publishing House at the time. He had a strong professional ability, but during the June 4th protests in 1989, he and some colleagues took to the streets to support the student movement. After the June 4th massacre, they too lost hope in the system, so decided to set up this newspaper. It was initially run as an internal publication, and they borrowed 300,000 yuan, rented an office, and recruited reporters.

But their team mainly consisted of people in the book publishing and literary circles, and they had no experience in running a newspaper. They had some headaches with the print process and typesetting technology. By that time, there was already film printing and graphic overlay. Sometimes an image would be set wrong and end up hiding the headline. At that time, “Market Herald” was disbanded, but our team was relatively mature, so we joined Chengdu Economic Daily, and became an important pillar of the new paper. From typesetting, to topic selection, to management, we contributed a lot to Chengdu Economic Daily.

At Chengdu Economic Daily

One of the things that really excited me about Chengdu Economic Daily was that we publicly despised the Xinhua style.

Chengdu Economic Daily was consciously established to be a newspaper for the ordinary urban dwellers with a vernacular taste. 

As part of our experiment, we wrote a lot of news in Sichuan dialect in the newspaper. We got complaints from language teachers and language committees, schools also barred the paper, and we were questioned by the Municipal Party Propaganda Department. But we thought this was a very interesting practice. And most importantly, we discovered that once the language has changed, its meaning indeed also changed.

I remember a very clear example. The National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference held meetings, also called the Two Sessions. At that time, the newspaper headlines were not allowed to refer to them as “two sessions,” and the standard headlines should be “The nth Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Was Solemnly Held in Beijing,” or “The nth National People’s Congress Was Solemnly Held in Beijing,” accompanied by a drophed and subheadings, which must have a red theme.

But our headline simply used the everyday street language, and read: “The NPC and CPPCC Held Meetings” (《人大政协开会了》).  As a result, the National People’s Congress and the CPPCC were furious because they deemed us not appropriate and serious.

What I realized was this: By changing the way the words were presented, they had taken on entirely different meanings. So this spurred us to make more conscious attempts, and of course we took a lot of criticism for doing that.

Later, thanks to He Huazhang’s efforts, the Chengdu Economic Daily grew bigger and bigger. Through cooperation with other newspapers, it became an official publication. Later, it was listed on the stock market through a shell organization and became the first public traded, market-oriented newspaper in the country.

But following the paper’s success, the provincial and municipal propaganda departments that had criticized Chengdu Economic Daily repeatedly and threatened to shut it down, now took credit and hailed it as their accomplishment in “constructing spiritual civilization”. In other words, it was accepted back into the Party establishment. After that, contradictions began to appear. Topic selection, reporting methods, and even the layout became more mainstream; there were more times when it was willing to accommodate the instructions from the propaganda organ.

As that happened, I wanted to leave. But the newspaper management retained me again and again, despite my trying to quit several times. I stayed on because the income was pretty good. Still, I felt that it was not a place I wanted to stay. Its business was very good, the paper moved into a new building and acquired a lot of new employee housing. We all lived in very spacious flats. We upgraded a few times, from an 80-square-meter flat to 120 square meters, and we enjoyed a good income. But I was greatly conflicted. At the time, I didn’t want to go back to the book publisher either. So what would I do instead? I had some experience with media work, but how could I put it to good use?

When I was with the Chengdu Economic Daily, I began to seriously follow other publications across the country.

At that time, we subscribed to a lot of newspapers, mainly those published in Beijing and Guangzhou, and one or two in Hong Kong.

I saw great changes occured in both the southern and northern newspapers. The weekend papers at the time were most popular.

The “Southern Weekend” was quite prominent. The style was basically to have a large feature on the front page. Most common were stories about police, crime, and celebrities, the easiest kind of news for good sale. But even at the very beginning, it had a very serious section — at the bottom of the front pages was the “Weekend Teahouse.” They invited some well-known writers like Wang Meng (王蒙) and Jiang Zilong (蒋子龙) to discuss some social issues in the form of essays. These pieces were very influential.

And then in the north, the most famous was the weekend edition of Beijing Youth Daily (《北京青年报》). The Beijing Youth Daily weekend edition also had big features on the front pages, some of them quite long, with a broader selection of topics than the Southern Weekend and was more urban in taste. And then there was the weekend edition of a Beijing newspaper called China Business Times (《中华工商时报》), which had a very fresh and refined design. And then there was China Youth Daily (《中国青年报》). For many years, the China Youth Daily was actually the vanguard of reform.

China Youth Daily had several weekly magazines, Social Weekly (社会周刊), Economic Column (经济栏讯), and also one called Youth Today (青年时讯), Youth Reference (青年参考) and Bingdian Weekly (冰点). They were all very distinctive, and some of those reporters were excellent with either deep historical knowledge or strong investigative ability.

All in all, after a few depressing years, it was true that there was at least a sense of reviving  after Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour.

Many government departments were outsourcing their industries to contractors. State-owned media outlets were also doing it. Private companies were thriving, and village- and town-based enterprises were seeing more opportunities too. Especially in the south, along the coast to Shenzhen and Hainan, development happened very quickly and many people headed south for new opportunities. Many of my friends went to the south, and I also considered going, but I knew they went to invest in real estate, or do businesses related to the real estate industry. I was not interested in any of that.

Talking to Chang Ping on a rainy day in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Going against the grain

At Chengdu Economic Daily, I was in charge of the front page for a while. We used to be able to run anything that interested us, and the general public, on the front page, now we could only run reports about the provincial Party Secretary, the governor, the mayor, or major political events of the province. The front page had to increasingly conform to the demands of the propaganda department, to emulate the mainstream media more and more. The mainstream at that time was the Party-run orthodox evening newspapers, the metropolis dailies. I was not interested in it anymore.

The two years I worked at Chengdu Economic Daily were by all means successful. I received a lot of recognition for my reports and other articles I wrote, and I had a lot of professional authority too. But many people didn’t know that I also felt very lost during those two years.   

I was certainly one of the senior members of Chengdu Economic Daily, but the more it profited, to the tune of hundreds of millions of yuan a year, the more I felt irrelevant. Out of my own accord, I chose to be sidelined — I asked to run the weekend feature article department. We had a lot of budget, had our own vehicles, and could travel anywhere we wanted in the country.

Among things we did, for example, we interviewed Cui Jian (崔健), the earliest and biggest rock & roll star in China before the issuance of his new disc called “The Power of the Powerless”. We did an in-depth interview with him. And I asked the reporter to focus on his sense of suppression and resistance against establishment through music. The interview received some criticism, yes. For another example, a few reporters and I got on train rides to track the experience of the migrant workers returning home during the Chinese New Year. Some reports we made at this time were noticed by Southern Weekend.

In 1995, I bought a computer. It was for watching DVDs. I watched a lot of foreign movies:  Oscars, and other Hollywood movies and European films. I also started practice typing. I had to learn how to type to prepare for my future writing. To practice typing, I typed articles I liked, sometimes twice. I typed a lot of articles from a two-volume set of books called “Selection of Excellent Foreign Journalist Works”, which were good in-depth reports of Western media outlets, especially the Pulitzer Prize winning works. Those two books were quite good. They also taught me how to do investigative reports and other types of in-depth reports. It also selected articles that focused on good editing.  

At the time, Southern Weekend had a practice: it invited reporters from all over the country to  work with their reporters on certain stories.

Report on the Sun Xiaoguo case in Kunming, Jan. 1998.

Around 1997 to 1998, there was a case in Kunming, which later was known as the Sun Xiaoguo case (孙小果案). A local journalist tipped a Southern Weekend reporter, and the latter invited me to join him. So the two of us went. Once there, we found that the case was indeed a big one, but the locals did not dare to touch it. This man named Sun Xiaoguo was a triad boss. He had a gang of gangsters who rampaged nightclubs, blackmailing, beating, humiliating, and raping the sex workers, including a number of minors. This Sun Xiaoguo had actually been sentenced before, but he had not been in jail for a day, and he was still at large terrorizing people. Some officials in the judicial system were also very angry at him. His stepfather was the deputy director of a district public security bureau in Kunming, and his mother was also an official of some kind. We did interviews, and received collaboration from a few police officers.

But what impressed me the most was those escort girls whom we finally located and who had been his victims. These girls and their families were very miserable. On the one hand, they were bullied and beaten so badly. But on the other hand, because of their status as sex workers, they also felt ashamed themselves. When we were interviewing one of them, her family members would curse her on the side: Shame on you! You deserved it!

So we wrote the report. That was the first work I published on Southern Weekend. It got great traction nationwide. After that, Southern Weekend wanted me to join them, and I decided to make the move.

Continue reading:

Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part Two. February 23, 2021.

Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part Three, February 24, 2021.

Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part Four, February 26, 2021.

Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part Five, February 28, 2021.

11 responses to “Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part One”

  1. […] Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part One […]

  2. […] safeguard and transmit the history of the 1989 protests have a new life online at the 8964 Museum. Chang Ping, the award-winning journalist and commentator who now serves as chief curator of the digital […]

  3. […] safeguard and transmit the history of the 1989 protests have a new life online at the 8964 Museum. Chang Ping, the award-winning journalist and commentator who now serves as chief curator of the digital […]

  4. […] safeguard and transmit the history of the 1989 protests have a new life online at the 8964 Museum. Chang Ping, the award-winning journalist and commentator who now serves as chief curator of the digital […]

  5. […] safeguard and transmit the history of the 1989 protests have a new life online at the 8964 Museum. Chang Ping, the award-winning journalist and commentator who now serves as chief curator of the digital […]

  6. […] safeguard and transmit the history of the 1989 protests have a new life online at the 8964 Museum. Chang Ping, the award-winning journalist and commentator who now serves as chief curator of the digital […]

  7. […] safeguard and transmit the history of the 1989 protests have a new life online at the 8964 Museum. Chang Ping, the award-winning journalist and commentator who now serves as chief curator of the digital […]

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