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

Chang Ping, Yaxue Cao, February 26, 2021

The entire masthead was removed.

(continued from Part One, Part Two, and Part Three)

An incubator for public intellectuals

Yaxue Cao: I left China in the early 1990s, and for years, I knew little about what was going on in China and its societal changes. Working on China Change over the last few years has been a steep learning curve. I’ve never actually held a copy of Southern Weekend in my hands, but I’ve come across on the internet articles that have entered the collective memory of a generation, such as its New Year Editorials from two decades ago and some landmark reports. I also noticed something else, that is, many academics penned commentaries for Southern Weekend, for example, law professor He Weifang (贺卫方) has became a celebrated public intellectual since he first published an essay titled “Discharged Military Officers Are Appointed Judges” (《复转军人进法院》) in Southern Weekend in 1998. A friend of mine who teaches literature at Beijing Normal University also wrote for Southern Weekend at one point. So I got the impression that Southern Weekend, for a period of time at least, was a venue for public discourse. Tell me more about it.      

Southern Weekend had consciously dedicated itself to ideological emancipation. It was not just a theme, a banner on the front page, for the anniversaries of Reform and Opening Up. It promoted, and participated in, some of the most important debates of ideas. Right around the end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, there was a sustained debate among the Chinese intelligentsia between the New Left and the Liberals. The debate was considered a rare event that occurred totally in the realm of civil society from the beginning to the end without any involvement of the Party. It first started in a couple of semi-academic journals, but because of the participation of Southern Weekend, it soon mushroomed into a public debate.    

Put simply, the New Left placed more emphasis on equality, and liberalism on liberty. Both sides cited western works to support their argument, making a number of western thinkers known to many members of the public, and the translations of John Rawls, Isaiah Berlin, F. A. Hayek became bestsellers in China. But in China, because of differences in background and political leaning, the debate inevitably turned into a debate with Chinese characteristics. The New Left, while stressing equality, had a strong nationalistic character to it. Given that the Communist Party’s ideology had its leftist origin, at least in the eyes of the liberals, the New Left to a large extent was defending the current ideology and regime, even the Maoist left wing. The liberals believed that liberty is the foundation of fairness and justice, and that China’s reform and opening up must move towards constitutional democracy politically, freedom and tolerance ideologically, and a free market economically.         

This debate made a slew of scholars stars in the public space. For example, He Weifang, Xu Youyu (徐友渔), Qin Hui (秦晖), and Zhu Xueqin (朱学勤) published many articles in Southern Weekend and became leading figures of liberalism. Their opponents, such as Wang Hui (汪晖), Gan Yang (甘阳), and Liu Xiaofeng (刘小枫) also became very well known.

The market-oriented newspapers, by and large, espoused liberalism at the time. At Southern Weekend, the editorial board put a lot of work into promoting the rule of law and a market economy. Against this backdrop, two kinds of people quickly gained public attention: legal scholars and lawyers on the one hand, and economists and entrepreneurs on the other. It should be noted, though, that such attention also had to do with the overall atmosphere of the time before and after China joined the WTO in 2001.

He Weifang’s article you mentioned talked about a strange phenomenon in China at the time: the government had assigned many discharged military officers to serve as judges. He Weifang asks: Why not assign them to hospitals to be doctors? He says, everyone understands that doctors have to be professionally trained and discharged military officers don’t have medical training. But don’t judges have to be professionally trained too? What makes a retired military officer qualified to be a judge?     

What He Weifang wanted to highlight was the Communist Party’s concept of law. For the Party, the court is a political vehicle to carry out the Party’s orders and functions. When called for, the court would be able to play the role of hitman.  

The press can set up topics to introduce issues, and turn them into public debates through publishing articles, responses, and reader discussions. 

Through these reports and discussions, Southern Weekend became an incubator for public intellectuals. It brought people, who were otherwise confined to their particular space at universities, work units, or courtrooms, to public square. In doing so, it played an important role in the emergence of civil activism and even the rights defense movement in those years.

Li Changping, Person of the Year, 2000.

The plight of the rural population

At the end of the 90’s through the beginning of the 2000’s, the issue of farmers and rural development and reform was a focus of top-down discourse.

Since the CCP established its rule, it practiced what was called “city-rural price scissors” (城乡剪刀差), meaning that industrial products were priced higher than their value while agricultural products were priced lower than their value. Then there’s the rural and urban apartheid of the household registration system, forcing farmers to support workers, agriculture to support industry, and rural areas to support cities. That had been the policy direction for decades.

By the beginning of the 2000s, China had a population of over 1.2 billion, of which 800 million were farmers. As China began to develop, farmers were not only the driving force for hard labor in cities, but also had to bear high agricultural taxes. Millions and millions of migrant workers left home to earn money in factories and construction sites, they sent money back, not to build houses or support parents, but to pay agricultural taxes, even though they didn’t farm anymore.

In 2000, a township party secretary in Hubei Province named Li Changping (李昌平) wrote a letter to Premier Zhu Rongji, saying that the lives of farmers were extremely harsh, the countryside was very impoverished, and that agriculture was a dangerous endeavor. He then discussed these three aspects in detail. The letter, first published in the “China Agricultural News” (《中国农业报》), did not attract much attention. Later Southern Weekend reported on it. At the end of 2000, we selected Li Changping as the Person of the Year, with a big front page photo, and I wrote a commentary to go along with the selection.

I emphasized his conscience and sense of responsibility as a rank and file official, and stressed the urgency of rural reform to improve the status of Chinese farmers. After that, we continued to organize a series of in-depth reports on rural issues.

Other media outlets followed suit. Later, Li Changping moved to Beijing to work on agricultural issues, and became a national news figure known for his advocacy on behalf of farmers. 

‘A critique of the Zhang Jun case’

Between 2000 and 2001, one of the criminal cases that seized national attention was the Zhang Jun case. Zhang Jun (张君) was born and raised in rural Hunan. When he was an adolescent, he went south to work as a laborer like millions of rural youths in China, and like many of those millions, he suffered repeated setbacks. After losing job again and again, he participated in some criminal activities, including robbery and theft. He was in and out of police custody many times. He later described how each time he was taken in, he became a worse person after release. First of all, his prospect of livelihood became bleaker. Secondly, he was tortured every time he was held by the police, which made him hate the police and society more and more. He became a triad boss, robbing banks and killing cops, committing major crimes.

In April 2001, he was captured in Chongqing. Wen Qiang (文强), the then deputy chief of the Chongqing Public Security Bureau, became a star police chief, a hero of the “strike black” (打黑) crackdown, for capturing Zhang Jun.

Yaxue Cao: The irony is — as a footnote to our readers — that 10 years after Zhang Jun was sentenced to death, Wen Qiang was sentenced to death for “providing protection for gangsters” during then Chongqing mayor Bo Xilai’s “strike the black” campaign in 2010.

All of the national media was reporting on Zhang Jun’s case every day: the murders, the robberies, the five lovers and love letters, the dramatic capture, and etc. CCTV was given an exclusive opportunity to interview Zhang Jun face to face in the detention center. The main thrust of the media’s coverage was that it was a tortuous, suspenseful crime and gangster story, and with bravery and brilliance, the police force succeeded in eliminating a public scourge.   

But some important aspects of the case were left out, namely, how did it come to this? It was an inevitable question on the part of Southern Weekend as we had paid sustained attention to rural life. I sent reporters to Zhang Jun’s hometown in Hunan to investigate his history. We also sent reporters to Hunan, Hubei and other places to track his activities. In the end, we wrote a series of reports, the leading piece on the front page was titled “A Critique of the Zhang Jun Case” (《张君案检讨》).

The critique focused on two main aspects. One was how he went step by step from an innocent rural youth to becoming the leader of an extremely violent triad. The second was our judicial system. Why do some criminals become more antisocial after they come out of jail? What effect does corporal torture and severe punishment have on social order?

That issue sold 1.35 million copies in retail alone, and was the second highest record following the issue on the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy.

The response from the authorities was swift. The Hunan Provincial Party Committee and Provincial Government were infuriated, and so was the Chongqing Public Security Bureau. They wrote to the central government. They said, we did not expect such a good thing for public safety, a great accomplishment by our police force, would be used by Southern Weekend to slander our Party and the Party’s rural policies, and tarnish the image of our police force.

The Central Propaganda Department conducted review of Southern Weekend; my termination as the News Director in March 2002

The Central Propaganda Department was also very angry, so it conducted a review of Southern Weekend and singled out four articles, demanding that Southern Weekend discipline the relevant editors and reporters.

The first was “A Critique of the Zhang Jun Case.” The second was a commentary on the Middle East peace. The title of that piece was “Dictatorship Is the Root Cause of Regional Unrest.” The Central Propaganda Department said it was an obvious allusion to the communist party. Just like the USSR joke says, “Everyone knows who you are talking about.”

The third article was about an explosion in Shijiazhuang in 2001. One hundred eight people were killed and 38 injured. The Propaganda Department had slapped restrictions on reporting, but Southern Weekend did a detailed investigation, also questioning the local government’s failure to ensure public safety.

The fourth article was about a period of history in the Cultural Revolution. During the factional violence, the Chongqing Red Guards, 17- or 18-year old young people, suffered many deaths. They were buried in a cemetery called the Chongqing Youth Cemetery (重庆青春墓园). This report was considered to be exposing a scar in the history of the CCP.

The Central Propaganda Department concluded that these four articles demonstrated a serious problem in guiding public opinion, and ordered “severe punishment” of the responsible editors and reporters and “a complete rectification” of the editorial team.

As the News Director, I was considered to be directly responsible for all of the four problematic articles. To comply with the order of the Central Propaganda Department, I was removed from the editorial department in March 2002. In response to the Central Propaganda Department, Southern Weekend said Chang Ping had been removed from the editorial department and would no longer be allowed to engage in any editorial work.

However, the Central Propaganda Department was not satisfied, demanding further rectification. A few months later, the Southern Press Group, at the request of the Central Propaganda Department, removed the editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping (江艺平) and the deputy editor-in-chief Qian Gang (钱刚) as well. All told, this incident was the most serious blow Southern Weekend had suffered up to that point, a turning point in its history when its entire masthead was removed.

After I was removed, the positions of news management and editor-in-chief underwent great changes. First, the merit-based competition for promotion was ended. From that point on, the news director must be appointed by the parent newspaper Southern Daily and must be a politically trusted person.

I was transferred to the Distribution Department. For a while I was idle. The Distribution Department said to me, you are being exiled here, and you don’t have to do much.

A brief stint at the CCTV  

By that time, enough media outlets were market-oriented, and editors and reporters at Southern Weekend enjoyed the highest respect in the trade, and on top of that, I had the aura of the News Director. Many outlets sought after me even though I was directly targeted by the Central Propaganda Department. In Hunan, an organization planned to start a new urban newspaper and wanted to hire me as the editor-in-chief, providing a very generous package. But I didn’t feel it was right for me, so I declined the offer. 

In 2002, the CCTV launched a new channel, Channel 12, and a producer asked me to be the chief editor of a news program called “Nightly Discussion of the News” (新闻夜话). I was interested in learning the operation at CCTV as well as TV production, so I took the job. We designed the programming, recruited hosts, and rehearsed the shows. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that the culture and the censorship mechanism at CCTV was very different from Southern Weekend.

Around that time, censorship was tightened to an even more extreme due to an incident at Changchun TV (长春电视台). On March 5, 2002, a group of Falun Gong practitioners successfully sneaked into its program a 40-minute documentary exposing the truth about the seven “Falun Gong practitioners self-immolating at Tiananmen Square” in 2001. The central government, shocked and infuriated, treated it as a major TV news accident.

At the time our office, as well as many other programs, were housed outside the CCTV building which had already been fully occupied. To deliver each and every pre-recorded tape into the CCTV building, several armed policemen accompanied the vehicle. That’s how serious and tense it was.

During editorial meetings, censorship orders from the Party’s Propaganda Department were read aloud with utmost severity. At one such meeting, the man reading the order was someone I had met before at a dinner gathering. He had expressed his admiration for Southern Weekend and myself. But he was a completely different person when he nearly shouted those orders. I sat in the audience and burst out laughing. That was how we were at Southern Weekend. The man stopped in the middle of his speech, and spent the next two minutes reprimanding me, which made me wonder which version of him was real.

Yaxue Cao: It’s perhaps an irrelevant question, I’d say. People are shaped by their environment and conform to what is expected of them, knowingly or not. If Southern Weekend was the norm rather than an exception, he probably would be the dinner-table version of himself. Having conviction is rare; acting by conviction is rarer.

Speaking of Falun Gong, I like to add a few words about Southern Weekend’s coverage of Jiang Zemin’s crackdown on it during the years I was there. Per the Party’s Propaganda Department’s requirement, media coverage across China must use Xinhua News Agency’s standard reports on the subject, but Southern Weekend boycotted it and had never used Xinhua’s reports. It so happened that, before Falun Gong was under attack by the Party, our well-known columnist Yan Lieshan had actually criticized it, but when the brutal nation-wide crackdown began in 1999, we stopped writing anything about Falun Gong and refused to toe the official line, something we were very proud of.

The overall pride, not specific to one subject or the other, even extended to our distributors, advertisement salesmen, and copy editors. They were proud to be working for this distinct newspaper, and everyone at Southern Weekend despised the absurd and reactionary propaganda orders.

I left the CCTV after a few months. I was offered a fellowship at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, but I didn’t make it — my wife suffered a serious car accident which left her with sustained brain and leg injuries.               

Bund Pictorial’s SARS Special Issue in 2003 with Chang Ping’s editorial: Fight SARS with Dignity.

Bund Pictorial

By the end of 2002, a few former colleagues from the Nanfang Press Group and I founded a newspaper in Shanghai called Bund Pictorial (《外滩画报》), and I was the deputy editor-in-chief. Shanghai is the largest city in China, and altogether with permanent residents and migrants it has a population of 20 million. But at the time it didn’t have a market-oriented current affairs newspaper.

Around that time, to expand the market, the Nanfang Press Group had begun to launch new newspapers in other urban centers, such as Xiaoxiang Morning Post (《潇湘晨报》 2001), Oriental Morning Post (《东方早报》 2003), Beijing News (《新京报》 2003) that have remained very popular to this day. All of these papers were founded by former editors and reporters at Nanfang Press Group. The driving force behind these initiatives was that we had gained experiences in opening up media markets, and we believed that there was a market, an appetite, for the kind of news reports we provided based on our free press values. That was also how a few friends and I founded Bund Pictorial with investment from a Hong Konger and through affiliation with Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House (上海文艺出版社).

You would be surprised but in Shanghai, media censorship was more severe than other cities. It has always been so. Shanghainese like to say “We are a city of modern fashion and we are not interested in political news.” But the fact is, their indifference is a result of strict suppression of the press.

The first thing we discovered after setting up shop was that there were more censorship orders in Shanghai than in Guangdong. In Guangzhou, we would receive from the Propaganda Department anywhere from three or four orders a week to daily order; but in Shanghai, there were three or four orders almost every day. Most of them forbade reports on social disturbances and disputes, big and small, others banned coverage of corruption and bribery.   

There was a Propaganda Director in Shanghai in the 1990s who would personally assume command at Xinmin Evening Post (《新民晚报》) when there was a big event going on. He would draw the page layouts himself, deciding which line to use red and with what font. I had seldom seen this kind of thing elsewhere.

In other cities, the Party’s Propaganda Department wouldn’t pay too much attention to a startup outlet but keep eyes on the ones with influence. But right from the beginning, Bund Pictorial was closely surveilled, censored, and suppressed. 

There was a company whose products had safety issues, and we sent reporters to investigate. That company asked us not to publish our report, offering 400,000 yuan in advertisement. Similar things had occurred at Southern Weekend, our editor-in-chief once rejected an offer of 3 million yuan in advertisements by China Telecom (中国电信). At the time Bund Pictorial was very short on money, but after emergency deliberation we decided to decline their offer and publish the report. Then the next day we received an order from the municipal Propaganda Department directly banning us from publishing the report. All of a sudden we understood what was going on. Someone must have taught that company what to do, or it figured it out itself: They didn’t have to spend 400,000 yuan to get us to back down; they could bribe the censors with probably a tenth of that amount. We would never know the corruption behind it.   

Later on, the Propaganda Department forced the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House to sell Bund Pictorial to Shanghai Wenxin Group (上海文新集团), the largest press group in Shanghai that ran Wenhui Daily (《文汇报》) and Xinmin Evening Post. Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House didn’t want to sell; they wanted to keep this publication to themselves. At the same time, Shanghai Wenxin Group had no interest in acquiring us, because it was a source of trouble for them. But the deal had to go ahead per the demand of the Propaganda authorities. The leaders of the Wenxin Group were very draconic on us, but regardless, we still managed to cover some of the things that we wanted to cover. At the year end, because of our defiance, the entire Wenxin Group was fined by the Propaganda Department, and everybody in that organization suffered some financial loss. 

It’s like how China used to implement the one-child policy: if one family in a village gave birth to a second child, the entire village would be fined or even detained. So the employees of the Wenxin Group — there were at least over a thousand of them — absolutely hated us. They believed that they suffered the consequences of our “attention grabbing” behaviors. This of course put us under tremendous pressure. 

At Bund Pictorial office.

Visits from domestic security agents 

But worse than censorship, the domestic security police, or Guobao, began to visit us. Without notifying the management, they frequently summoned our reporters and editors to “drink tea.” Usually the reporters who were interviewed by the Guobao would tell me after the event, but I imagine that some reporters did not. They were very scared. We had one editor who was repeatedly “invited for tea” by Guobao agents who asked him to act as their informant. The editor was very troubled and told me about it. I said, I hope you would refuse, but I don’t want to get you in trouble. These agents on the surface can be congenial, but you never know what will happen to you if you refuse. They didn’t have to use force to summon you, but you don’t dare to miss the appointment. You have to go. In theory, you can say no when they ask you to be an informant, but when you say no, you don’t know what their next step will be. That editor of ours, very scared, didn’t want to work for the Guobao. Later he opted to leave Shanghai to get away from it.

One day, the Guobao came for me. Although I’d been criticized by the Propaganda Department before for what I had written, that was the first time I was interviewed by the Guobao. They came twice for me. The first time they came to my office, and the second time they asked me to meet them at a tea house. Both times two agents came, but each time with a different set.

I found their style pretty comic. They wore all black, one of them wearing sunglasses. I thought they were trying to mimic the policemen in Hong Kong movies. 

So what brought them? In 2005, a Cultural Revolution Museum appeared in Shantou, Guangdong (广东汕头). That was the only memorial to the Cultural Revolution in China so far. I sent a reporter to report on it. At the same time, I also wrote a column for Southern Metropolis Daily.

Writer Ba Jin (巴金) had repeatedly called for a Cultural Revolution museum. Although the Party had officially rejected the Cultural Revolution, it had not founded such a museum. Still not to this day. The Cultural Revolution museum in Shantou was a private endeavor by a retired deputy mayor of Shantou who raised funds from private sources and launched such a museum. Many people expressed disappointment: Why is it not established by the state, but by the private citizen? So I voiced my support for the museum in my column, and I said that the establishment of a Cultural Revolution Museum by the people is a good thing and why it is so. The next day, I posted my column on my Sina blog as well.

A visit from domestic security agents.

The Guobao agents sat down in my office and cut to the chase. “We are on an assignment to see you. We are investigating reports regarding the Cultural Revolution museum in Shantou.” They asked me a number of questions, and I answered them one by one. The Guobao told me that, after an extensive investigation, they discovered that we were part of a conspiracy. Three parties, Southern Metropolis Daily, Shanghai Bund Pictorial, and, conspired and cooperated to set off this storm of reactionary public opinion, and the editors at these three platforms were all previously associated with the Southern Press Group.

I thought, this is ridiculous. I explained to them that there was no such conspiracy. They spelled out some policy precepts, and then made some threats, soft threats, saying that we were outsiders and didn’t understand Shanghai, and probably didn’t understand the law in Shanghai either, meaning that Shanghai was different from elsewhere and more strict. They said, If you want to survive here, you must have the ability to know what you can do and cannot do.

There was a little argument in the course of the exchange, but I mostly held back. I found that they clearly felt they had power over me, but at the same time they were also thin-skinned. One of the Guobao agents told  me, “I know what you think of us.” I said, “I didn’t say anything.” He said, “Don’t you think that you intellectuals know better than we do. We understand how to defend our country better than you do.”

I didn’t want to incense them. The conversation ended and I saw my guests out of the door.

After about a week, a copy of a report was delivered to our editorial department and to our editor-in-chief. It repeated the conspiracy theory the agents told me. So it had become an official domestic security document.

(Note: The Shantou Cultural Revolution museum was fenced off in 2016.)


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 Three, February 24, 2021.

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

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

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

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

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

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