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

Chang Ping, Yaxue Cao, February 23, 2021

Reporting on sand storm and environmental degradation in Inner Mongolia, 2001.

Continued from Part One

Joining Southern Weekend

That was July 1998. When I arrived in Guangzhou, the weather was very hot. My friend helped me rent a house in the so-called urban village in Guangzhou. It was very dilapidated and could not compare with the housing conditions in Chengdu. But I was young and didn’t care about these things at all. When I met with the editors and reporters of Southern Weekend, although I already knew some of them, when I met them collectively, I felt that I had come to the right place. On the whole everyone had a kind of vigor and was younger than I had imagined. And everyone liked to drink, sing, and make jokes. Some were very hippies, others were bookish and nerdy. Still others were talkative and eloquent, of course there were quiet ones too. All told, they were a diverse and colorful group, nothing like the kind of oppressive state work unit culture in China, especially in the north.

The Southern Weekend was a subsidiary publication of the Southern Daily (《南方日报》), which was, and still is, the official newspaper of the Guangdong provincial committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Southern Weekend was launched in 1984, one of the earliest weekly. For that it had foresight. Some people say that it was because Guangdong was the frontier of reform and opening up, but it was also because there were talents in Nanfang Daily who were interested in innovation.

At the time, the government wanted to reduce the financial burden of raising newspapers, so it hoped that some newspapers could be responsible for their own profits and losses. That, or better yet, make a profit. So there emerged a large number of newspapers and magazines called sub-papers, that is, the party’s flagship newspapers must be kept the same, but you could start some subsidiary newspapers.

As a result, the management of these subsidiary media were one step away from the Propaganda Department, which in principle directly manages the Nanfang Daily. Censorship orders were directed to the Nanfang Daily, the latter would then transmit it to the Southern Weekend or the Southern Metropolis Daily, the Southern Rural Daily, etc., which were all sub-papers of the Nanfang Daily. Under this policy, almost all party newspapers across the country had their own sub-papers, and they adopted different policies for sub-papers. That is, these subsidiaries must have market targets, and they had to appeal to readers, had to sell  advertisements, and had to have big distribution. 

A common practice at the time was outsourcing the subsidiary papers or magazines to outsiders for a charge. That was the case of the first two publications I worked with — both were outsourced to us by an official newspaper. In the cases of Southern Weekend, Beijing Youth Daily, China Youth Daily, and the like, their parent newspapers had a greater influence and importance, or they had more talents of their own, so they assigned their own people to operate them. Or you can say, they outsourced them to their own employees, setting up a timetable for them to become profitable. After this goal was reached, they would be responsible for their own profits and losses, or make money for the mother newspaper. That was how most of the evening newspapers and metropolis newspapers emerged and competed in the marketplace.

As this was happening, a lot of people discovered that they could realize some of their aspirations through newspapers. Furthermore, many people discovered that, while realizing their aspirations, they could also make money. For a period of time, everyone hoped to enter such a positive cycle, and to a certain extent it had indeed been achieved.

When Southern Weekend was founded, there were only 4 pages, and then 8 pages. It had 16 pages when I got there. Shortly after I got there, it grew to be 24 pages, with about two dozens of people working there. But a couple of years later, it would double. 

Southern Weekend in early 1990s.

By the time I arrived at the Southern Weekend, it had gone through the transformation from a sensational tabloid to a paper focusing on exposing the dark side of the society and corruption. It had considerable circulation and influence.

And it also had some experimental things at the time. For example, for a while it published a   society page that would report on the miseries of people on the bottom rung of society, things the general media would usually avoid reporting or taking an interest in. It published serialized comics depicting methods of torture inside police stations. Later, because of the comic experiment, this page was terminated.

The one man instrumental to this transformation was Shen Hao (沈灏), the then News Director of Southern Weekend. He had implemented the changes, steering the paper towards more investigative reports.

‘The Last Model Lumberjack’ — reporting on the 1998 flood

When I arrived at the Southern Weekend in the summer of 1998, China had what was called the once-in-a-hundred year big flood of the Yangtze River. At that time, Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) all went to the front to inspect rescue operations, and a large number of soldiers were deployed to help fight floods. Reporters from every outlet swarmed to flood zones to report the news. There was a joke saying that, apart from soldiers, the most people you saw on the front line were journalists. At Southern Weekend, we also sent a few journalists to where the spotlights were, but we sent more of our reporters elsewhere. To where? To the upper reaches of the Yangtze River, starting from the Tuotuo River (沱沱河), the source of the Yangtze River in Tibet, and all the way to the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River, to  explore the source of the flood. The idea Southern Weekend had was to explore why we were having such terrible floods. That was a pretty good idea.

I was assigned to Sichuan. The newspaper didn’t know where in Sichuan I should go to conduct interviews, so I went to the provincial Forestry Department to gather some basic information. It just so happens that Sichuan Province had been campaigning to restore forests after decades of felling and deforestation.

So I decided to go to Barkam (马尔康) in northern Sichuan to find out about the deforestation. I was quite shocked along the way. There was no forest as I imagined. You thought you had reached the depths of the mountain, but on both sides of the road, there was nothing but bare rocks. Only when I reached the most remote mountains would I begin to see some small, newly planted trees. It was nearly impossible to see virgin forest because, since the 1950s, Chinese loggers had been felling trees relentlessly. At that time, I had the feeling of trees continuing to recede, and no matter how deep they receded, the workers would find them and cut it down into logs.

Just as other reporters did, I sent back what I had seen on my trip and provided useful information. But I was dissatisfied. I felt that I needed to find a story, an individual, who would bring the story home. 

I asked around and heard that a legendary lumberjack was sick in the Barkam Hospital at the seat of the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture (阿坝藏族羌族自治州). So I went to see him.

He was a plain worker who worked hard all his life as a lumberjack and received a lot of awards. I told him why I was there. In the course of our interview, he said, “Does the Yangtze River flood have something to do with me?”

When he realized the correlation between deforestation and the flood, he looked guilt-stricken. He even thought that I, the reporter, came this far to seek him out to blame him. He asked me questions and told me his life story as though to confess his guilt.

From his story and my research, I learned that in the 1950s, when China selected national model workers, there would be more than 20 loggers, then down to a dozen, and a few later. I figured that, after this flood, the lumberjacks would no longer be elevated as model workers. So I gave my piece the title “The Last Model Lumberjack”.

My report, when in print, got quite a bit of traction. These stories of small people against the backdrop of large national events interested me deeply. 

Report on a gun crime in western Sichuan was nipped; the sense of empowerment as Southern Weekend reporters

The other notable story I did in the early days at Southern Weekend was a gun crime near Luding Bridge over Dadu River (泸定桥大渡河).

The case involved some debt disputes, about 600 yuan. A policeman shot and killed 9 people on the spot. Two more were injured and died later. So 11 people died because of 600 yuan.

That was the first time I went to that part of the country. It was truly far away in isolated remote mountains in western Sichuan. Luding Bridge, as you know, was where the battle to seize Luding Bridge occurred during the Red Army’s Long March, so it was an old revolutionary area, but locals were living in abject poverty. I went with a colleague, we stopped at a small town and found the only lodging in the town. After waiting for a while, the hostess came and greeted us. She said, each room had 6 beds, and each bed cost two yuan for a night. At that time, the accommodation standard for business travel at Southern Weekend was 300 yuan per night, so I said I would give you 20 yuan to have the room to myself.

“Ah, boss, are you in the medicine business?” The hostess asked. In that area, the rich people were the ones in the Chinese medicine business.

The families of the victims were distraught and desperate. They agreed to be interviewed, but they also didn’t believe it would be of any use, because they didn’t believe that any reports of police killing would ever be published in newspapers.

My colleague and I promised them: “We are Southern Weekend. Have you heard about Southern Weekend? We can report, and we will definitely publish this report.” So they cooperated with the interviews, we learned everything about the case. Then I wrote the report and sent it back to Guangzhou, only to be told that the newspaper had already received an order from the Ministry of Public Security banning us from reporting on this case.

So as the villagers believed, no report. I felt awful about the promises we made to the villagers. 

Yaxue Cao: Let’s stop here before we move on. Now, I’m a little surprised by your confidence when you told the villagers that “We are Southern Weekend. We can report, and we will definitely publish this report.” You asked them whether they had heard of Southern Weekend, as though it was some kind of invincible power. But Southern Weekend was no stranger to censorship and even punishment from very early on. So, where did that confidence come from? You obviously weren’t trying to make false promises to the villagers.

Southern Weekend by then was known for its courageous reportage of social ills. People sent us story leads, and there was a fax machine in our newsroom that almost never stopped humming. At the time, the paper’s motto was Justice, Conscience, and Love. It attracted a group of idealistic journalists who said, we work here in order to report the truth, and you can’t stop us from doing just that. Southern Weekend was not the only outlet with a sense of mission and dedication. At Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》), another subsidiary newspaper of the Southern Daily, there was an incident where the middle management collectively boycotted censorship orders. At Southern Weekend, this happened often, and editors and reporters would have heated arguments with the editor-in-chief. Gradually it became a culture. At weekly meetings, while the top leaders would read orders from the Propaganda Department, everyone would laugh and make fun of them, forcing the leaders to shrug these orders off.

Another thing we had learned is that the truth had its market. At the time, Southern Weekly had fabulous sales, making a lot of money for the parent paper. Any given issue of the paper would sell from 1.2 million copies to upward 1.3 million or even 1.5 million at RMB1.5 yuan a copy. So the parent newspaper  didn’t really wish to shut it down.

The editor-in-chief at the time was Jiang Yiping (江艺平). She was very respected in the profession and also very idealistic. She respected the team very much, and would shoulder pressure from above and protect us.

So our overall sense was that it was unlikely that Southern Weekend would be shut down, but it was possible that the management could be changed. Looking back, we were way too optimistic. In fact, the management could be replaced any time.

All considered, Southern Weekend at the time was without a doubt the conscience and the standard bearer of journalism in China. We were motivated by a moral imperative, and we also felt that there were things that had to be promoted and acted on. When doing field reporting, Southern Weekend’s journalists were very respected and to some degree endowed with the power of media. Local government officials dreaded exposure by the paper.

The first report on the tragedy of the father and son, two vegetable farmers, near Xi’an.

An ‘Outstanding CCP Member’ in Xi’an

I did a report about a large state-owned farm outside Xi’an (西安) that left me a deep impression and prompted me to think about a lot of issues. The head of the farm, ranking equally to the head of a large state-owned factory, was a very influential man, a long-standing recipient of Outstanding CCP Member (优秀共产党员) awards and Progressive Individual (先进个人) prizes.

He was actually a local thug. That year he sent his people and stole the produce of a tenant vegetable farmer, because the farmer didn’t send him presents as tribute. The produce was worth thousands of yuan, and could have been the family’s source of income for a whole year or more than a year. So the tenant farmer sued the Head, and the judge ruled against the farmer. The farmer kept visiting the judge begging for justice. One day, the farmer and his son again visited the judge, and the judge said, “whatever you do, you can’t possibly win this lawsuit.” The farmer and son took out a bottle of pesticide they had brought with them, drank it right in front of the judge, and died.  

The follow-up report on the farmers’ case.

Their deaths did not win them justice, and the case made progress. The grief-stricken family became more desperate, two more members committed suicide. So there were four deaths. Villagers were enraged and collectively petitioned to the government, with no avail. Southern Weekend sent me to report it. I met with the victims’ family and villagers, then I was going to visit the Head of the farm. The villagers tried to stop me, saying, Please don’t go. Don’t. You can’t afford to stack up against that man.

I thought, “then I must go. I’m a journalist.” So I rented a van and drove to the farm which was about 20 miles north of Xi’an. It was 3 or 4 p.m. when we got there. I stealthily talked to a couple of workers at the farm, and then headed to the office of the Head.

He was very, very angry. “Who sent you here?” He demanded. “Has someone paid you to come here?” Then he shoved me into a big, empty building that looked like a warehouse. Four or five muscular men followed in.

He closed the door behind him. I have to say I was very scared. The Head said, “Do you know who I am? I’ve been an Outstanding CCP Member for many years. You think I’m a thug?” I said I didn’t.

He grabbed my notebook and recorder, hurting my wrists.

Then he asked me, “Did I take your notebook?” I said, yes. Then he asked the other men, “Did you see me taking his notebook?” The men said no.

So he showed me the process of turning facts on their head.

Then he handed me a newspaper report and asked me to read it. I actually read a part for him. “What did it say?” he asked. It was a report on the case, it touted him and was all false.

He kept asking me who had sent me. At that point I began to realize that he suspected me being a rogue reporter. He asked me to call my newspaper. But there was no signal on my cell phone. So I said I had to go outside to make the call. He didn’t block me. Once outside, I refused to go back in again. A crowd of his workers were looking on. I did get hold of the office and told them about my situation. I decided to leave but my van was nowhere to be seen. It was getting dark, and I kept walking. Some distance away, my driver jumped out of the bush, said they had chased him away, and he had been waiting for me hiding in the bush. 

I wrote the report after I returned and published it. I have to say that Southern Weekend really was very influential because the report produced an immediate response.

The deputy governor of Shaanxi province asked to meet with me, and an investigation team was quickly dispatched by the provincial government. So indeed, this is the power of media. In China, the Communist Party controls all media, but as long as certain reports escape suppression and get published, there is nothing they can do to deny the truth that is made public.

The adventure of meeting the head of the state farm, an “Outstanding CCP Member”.

I soon went to Xi’an for a second report. I met with the deputy governor. He talked with me at length, got very emotional. He even shed tears and didn’t look like he was faking it at all. He said how he loved the people and how sorry he was that this tragedy had happened.

Per their investigation, the situation was actually even worse. The judge received a money bribe, as well as a truck load of watermelon, from the head of the farm. Then he used whiteout to change some of the key details of the case file. That’s what the judge did, blatantly applied whiteout on the file!

I went to Xi’an the third time when the head of the farm was tried. He sat right there, and our eyes met across the room. I sat there, felt no joy but sadness: this should never have happened.

I had never thought that reporting could come with such personal risk or that a judge could be so blatant. Then there was the deputy governor who didn’t have any problem before the media exposure, but once it was brought to light, he could be brought to tears.

So there were many stories behind each and every Southern Weekend report that held up a mirror to the many folds of problems in the Chinese society.

At one point, a reporter and I entertained an idea for a TV drama series about two reporters who, in each episode, investigate a story and each story points to a problem of the society, just like in a detective series two detectives go off to solve a case with different plot and twists in each episode. What would the last episode be? The two reporters, having braced danger and hardship, finally get the story. They call the news editor to report their progress only to be told that they need not to write it because the newspaper has just been shut down. This is not fiction. At another newspaper, this really happened.

The “incantation of the Golden Hoop” is always there.

Southern Weekend had in fact faced such a fate more often than is usually known. Once, that was before I got there, their reports infuriated the Ministry of Public Security who threatened to close it down. The provincial Party Secretary, a Cantonese by origin, took steps and shielded the paper. He did so by arguing that Guangdong was the vanguard of reform and opening up; rectification of Southern Weekend was in order, but he insisted that the paper be kept running.  

As a matter of fact, employees at Southern Weekend all shared the same feeling: Foreign media was always reporting that China was tightening control over the press; but for us in the profession, as one reporter said to me, there was never been a day going by without us feeling the pressure, there had never been a day when we did not feel “the incantation of the Golden Hoop” (紧箍咒). There had never been a time when the control was lax; every day was a nervous day with possible remonstration waiting around the corner. Each time you were faulted, you never knew how deep in trouble you were, nor whether or not you would be able to squeeze by this time around. All we could do was to bear it with all our strength each time it struck.


Related:

Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part One. February 22, 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.

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

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

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