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

Chang Ping, Yaxue Cao, February 24, 2021

The 20th anniversary of reform and opening up — what is it that we commemorate?

(continued from Part One and Part Two)

The 20th anniversary of Reform and Opening up

I encountered a big event soon after I arrived at Southern Weekend, that is, the 20th anniversary of China’s reform and opening up, December 18, 1998. Twenty years ago, on December 18, 1978, the Communist Party opened the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee in Beijing’s Jingxi Guesthouse (十一届三中全会). It was considered to have made important decisions and set the tone for reform and opening up. It became a historic day that is considered to be the anniversary of the reform and opening up. So every 10 years is a very important anniversary, and Chinese media would commemorate it. Of course, the main job is to sing praises of China.

So at Southern Weekend, we held a planning meeting, but what was it that we commemorate? The words “reform and opening up” were half-truths to a large extent. There had been a considerable degree of reform and a considerable degree of openness. However, from the beginning, the Party had also decided that there were aspects of China that were not subject to reform or opening up. The Party’s rhetoric up to that point had been “gradual reform and gradual opening up,” but in fact, looking back 20 years later, when it came to the part that could affect the stability of the regime, it had never reformed or opened up. So we decided to avoid the term “reform and opening up.” We believed that reform and opening up was a mixed concept of authenticity and falsehood. Ideological emancipation was incomplete either, but as a historical fact, it was closer to the truth than reform and opening up.

The editorial board believed that ideological emancipation was the most important issue in the so-called 20 years of reform and opening up, so the theme of our commemoration issue is called “the 20th anniversary of ideological emancipation.”

The task I received was to write a commemorative editorial to be published on the front page, because at that time Southern Weekend had already been regarded as a bridgehead for reform and opening up, an advocate of freedom and democracy, and its influence reverberated far and wide. To write the front-page editorial showed the kind of trust and expectation the editorial board placed on me at that time, and it was also expected that the article be a piece with grand historical perspective and lofty rhetoric worthy of the occasion.

By that time, I had been a columnist for over ten years and they were all familiar with my writing. I had also done a lot of investigative reporting, and was a published author of short stories and books. The editorial board probably believed that I was the right person for the task.

Though the task of penning it was assigned to me, it was a task of the whole editorial board. A dozen or so editors and reporters were assigned to provide support for writing this editorial. Some were assigned to looking for materials in different categories, others to digging up party history, still others to gathering information from overseas sources. Anyway, soon, a large table in the reference room was piled up with materials. Then everyone left, leaving me behind to read them all. I remember a colleague looked at me sympathetically and said, “so we are leaving you all by yourself.”

But what I felt then was that there was no need to graze through that vast ocean of records and discussions for a magnificent view of the reform and opening up. So, without discussing it with the editorial board, I made a decision myself. I wanted to write a different kind of article, an article about the lives and fate of the small people at that historical juncture.

But I didn’t have time to go out conducting interviews anymore. Then I remembered that the Southern Weekend had received submissions from hundreds of readers for our call for essays titled “The Last Twenty Years and I” (《我与20年》). So I got all the submissions and started reading them. It was a rich mine. I didn’t get to read them all, but I picked the stories that interested me and also left contact information. I also asked colleagues to gather from newspapers around the country everyday life details from twenty years ago. Then I did an array of telephone interviews.

In the end, I wrote a very short article titled “December 18, Twenty Years Ago”. It wasn’t what anybody had expected. So it was a surprise when it was published.

“Dec. 18, twenty years ago”

The article listed the movies showing at the theaters, the weather forecasts, what meals people in the north, the south and the middle were eating, how much a haircut cost, and etc. It described the activities of some well-known people, as well as that of ordinary people, on that particular day twenty years ago.  

For example, I wrote about Ma Licheng (马立成), editor of the Thought and Commentary Department of the China Youth Daily, who was at a dinner party with a few friends at the apartment of one of them. The wife of one participant had been arrested for her activities in the Tiananmen protests on April 5, 1976 to commemorate the death of Zhou Enlai (周恩来), known as the April 5th Movement (四五运动). Ma Licheng recalled that a napa cabbage stew was on the table, and beer was nowhere available in stores. But they had a good time and the party didn’t disperse until one o’clock in the morning.

I described that, as the historical meeting was held in Jingxi Guesthouse, 50-year-old barber Yang Ben (杨奔) was busy at work, 25 cents for a child, 30 cents for shaving head, and 35 cents for the rest.

A teacher at a factory’s school recorded in her diary that day’s meals and she read it to me: water-soaked rice with pickle for breakfast, cabbage and tofu for lunch, stir fry eggs with pickled cucumber for supper.

What you see is people were craving for change, but at the same time they were helpless and resigned to their fate in the clutches of totalitarian rule.    

From this example you can see that editors and reporters at Southern Weekend were given a lot of freedom. You were given an assignment, you could follow your own ideas and do what you wanted with the materials you gathered and the interviews you conducted. There were no propagandic requirements, nor stylistic restrictions. It was free reign of creativity, which satisfied my needs for free expression as a reporter and a writer, also my growing feeling for individual lives and destinies. At the time it was still a hidden feeling that would become clearer and clearer in my consciousness.

Propaganda Department ordered that three journalists be removed: news director Shen Hao, editor of consumer page Cao Xihong, and columnist Yan Lieshan

At Southern Weekend, I enjoyed my career as a reporter very much. I travelled all over the country, and really got in touch with all aspects of it. My plan was to cover every part of China. My colleagues and I planned a multi-year series, but that plan was soon shut down because Southern Weekend was shaken by a major change.  

It was severely criticized by the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department. Since its transformation which I had spoken of, Southern Weekend had regularly been criticized by the Propaganda Department of the Provincial Party Committee and the Central Propaganda Department. But this time, in January 1999, the Central Propaganda Department specifically ordered that three editors be expelled from Southern Weekend. One was Shen Hao (沈灏), the then News Director, another was Cao Xihong (曹西弘), the editor of consumer page, and the last was Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山), a columnist.

Shen Hao was big on anti-corruption reporting. Cao Xihong’s consumer page fought for the rights and interests of consumers — the earliest of its kind in the country. It repeatedly fought against the practices of China’s monopolistic state-owned enterprises, such as China Railway, China Telecom, and China’s banking industry from the standpoint of consumer rights. For example, why mobile phone service providers charge both sides of a phone call, and why is the cost so high? It demanded that China Railway explain the reason for the price hike, and why the regulators only protect the interests of the railway sector at the expenses of consumers?

Yan Lieshan wrote a lot of articles on current affairs with a critical bend. At Southern Weekend at that time, it was very clear throughout the organization that our goal was to work for the people, to expose corruption, advocate for freedom of the press, and promote political reforms. To that end, these three members had made a huge contribution.

The consumer page edited by Cao Xihong.

The newspaper executives wanted to do what they could to protect them. Of the three named, Shen Hao, as the News Director, must leave. His “protection” consisted of allowing him to leave temporarily and work in other departments of the Nanfang Daily. Yan Lieshan was asked to work from home, not coming to the office, and sign off his articles with a pen name. Before long, readers became aware of a new columnist at Southern Weekend named Liu Youde (刘友德) who wrote just like Yan Lieshan.

Cao Xihong’s work could not be done from home. A big part of his job was to direct reporters to places to cover stories, read and handle a large number of readers’ letters, as well as edit and publish reports. He had to work in the office. The solution we came up was to let him sleep during the day and work at night, like a sex worker.

That was how Southern Weekend dealt with an order of the Central Propaganda Department.  You can see that the newspaper was very courageous in protecting its journalists and editors.

So Cao Xihong came to the office at night and slept at home during the day. Other departments, like computer entry and typesetting, had to accommodate his reverse work schedule. He was also assigned an assistant who worked during the day in the office to deal with things and also pretend to be the new editor.

It was common that readers would come to the newsroom looking for the consumer page editor. More importantly, we were afraid that the propaganda authorities would send minions to conduct random checks to see who was in charge of the page. We had to have a pretend editor.

One day a stranger came to the newsroom looking for the consumer page editor. Cao Xihong’s assistant said I am the editor. The man said, I’m looking for Cao Xihong. The assistant said, I am Cao Xihong. The man said, No, you are not Cao Xihong, I’m his middle school classmate. So we had some comedies like that.

After more than a year, Southern Weekend brought back Cao Xihong and Yan Lieshan.

Appointed the News Director

After Shen Hao was forced out, the vacancy of the News Director needed to be filled.

I was considered one of the suitable candidates, because I had been writing about current affairs for more than 10 years. At Southern Weekend, I had done some reporting that was recognized by readers and colleagues, and I also penned some editorials. But there were two obstacles. The first was that, after all, I had been at Southern Weekend for barely six months. I was a newcomer. The other obstacle, a bigger one, was that, like most media organizations in China at that time, Southern Weekend had two categories of employees, one was internal employees (编制内人员), the other was external hires (聘用人员).

Back then, Southern Weekend was already a very famous, even iconic, media outlet, but some of its internal mechanisms were still very rigid. Before I went, the permanent staff’s salary was twice that of the hired staff, but the hired reporters were really the ones who brought the paper its reputation and beat the drum for change.

As hired staff, I could not be appointed as a manager. It was the system’s mechanism to screen and control cadres. But there was no other suitable candidate at that time, so the management appointed me and another editor, also very young, named Chen Juhong (陈菊红) to be the deputy news directors. We worked in this title for almost a year.

However, I should mention that, by 1999, Southern Weekend was undergoing internal reforms, and one of which was “equal pay for equal work,” meaning equal treatment for permanent staff and hired staff. Editors and reporters were very vocal. During the annual meeting in late 1999, a group of them demanded that I be appointed the Director of the News Department. They confronted the editor-in-chief and threatened strike. The editor-in-chief, after getting permission from the Nanfang Press Group (南方报业集团), subsequently announced my appointment as the News Director.

It was of course a great honor for me. To this day, I’ve been the only middle-level cadre to come from the hired staff in the history of Southern Weekend, or the history of other newspapers in the Southern Press Group for that matter. I was the only exception.

Reports of Southern Weekend when Chang Ping was the news director.

Editorial on the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade

Starting January 1999, I was responsible for the management of the news department. I was responsible for the planning of news topics, assigning work to reporters, evaluating editors and reporters’ work, and overseeing the editing of various pages. Just about every aspect related to the news production of Southern Weekend. Meanwhile I was still interested in reporting, so I would go out almost every weekend to report.

There are a few things worth mentioning during this period that were either planned by me personally or by my colleagues. In any case, they reflect the state of Southern Weekend at that time.

One was our coverage of the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in May 1999. It was a landmark event that sparked a wave of nationalism across the country. It was the first time since 1989 that Chinese were allowed, probably arranged by the government, to take to the streets en mass to protest. Some young people later liked to refer to themselves as “the generation of the FRY embassy bombing,” believing that this event impacted the thinking and behavior of college students at the time, with the effects lasting many years. Before them was the Tiananmen Generation, a generation that wanted to promote freedom and democracy in China. During the decade in between, the CCP adopted new methods and content in its ideological indoctrination, which, combined with China’s economic development, produced a nationalist generation.

The bombing by the U.S. aircraft under NATO happened so suddenly that it was truly shocking. Three journalists were killed. The media coverage pretty much centered on the shock and the anti-American sentiment that came with it. Anger, tears, blood! We must never forget! The sentiment on the internet was that of a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye.

At Southern Weekend, besides being shocked, we were on the one hand worried about the risk of conflict in the peace following the Cold War; on the other hand, we saw that the Party was taking the opportunity to strengthen nationalist sentiment and patriotic education, and that there were some irrational voices and actions among the people. So we cautiously ran a set of reports under the front-page headline “A Force More Powerful than Missiles,” and our editorial headline read “a Monument without Height.”

“A Force More Powerful Than Missiles”, “A Monument Without Height”

In this editorial, we expressed our sorrow and condolences for the loss of three journalists and condemned the violence. But at the heart of this set of coverage was a call for reason and peace. The editorial read, “We should raise the banner of peace and humanity. Peace must be built on the earth, and it must also be rooted in the hearts of men. There is a greater force in this world than cruise missiles and high-explosive bombs, and that is justice, conscience, and reason.”

The editorial quotes Pascal: “Why do you kill me to benefit yourself? I am not armed. — What! Do you not live on the other side of the water? My friend if you lived on this side I would be a murderer, and it would be unjust to kill you like that. But since you live on the other side, I am a brave man and it is just [to kill you.]” When Pascal speaks of this strange justice with the river as the boundary, he means that he wants the readers to judge by justice, conscience and reason, and not to define the enemy using a country, a nation, or a river as the boundary.

Among the national media coverage of this event at the time, this group of reports by Southern Weekend was unique from its style to its sentiment. The readers sensed the difference and embraced it. The issue sold out rapidly after it hit the streets, selling 1.5 million copies, the highest retail sales I know of in the history of Southern Weekend. The circulation figures of Chinese newspapers were all padded, but our sales of 1.5 million copies were real.

After the paper came out, I went to a newsstand on a street in Guangzhou. I saw that while other newspapers incited nationalism and even hatred, Southern Weekend stood out in sharp contrast. Deep down I was very proud of Southern Weekend.


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 Two, February 23, 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.

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

  1. […] Freedom in a Cage: An Interview With Chang Ping, Former News Director of Southern Weekend, Part Thre…, February 24, 2021. […]

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