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

Chang Ping, Yaxue Cao, February 28, 2021

2008 was a very special year for me too, personally….

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

Under attack in 2008 for a FT column on Tibet

In 2005 I returned to Guangzhou and founded Southern Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》). In those years China saw the emergence of civil rights activities and NGOs, and new ideas thrived. Several publications under the Southern Press Group were very into these new developments, and Southern Metropolis Weekly’s reportage stood out in this area, even though the magazine’s initial focus was urban life and culture. As the editor-in-chief of the Weekly, as well as a columnist for Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily, I made a conscious effort to speak to readers about the concept of civil society. And we also organized panels and workshops on the topic, pairing with organizations outside the media.      

Soon it was 2008. 2008 was a very important year. China was to host the Olympics for the first time. In the eyes of the world, China would integrate with the world, further accepting and following the international rules. The people of China harbored another kind of hope, that is, that the year would help propel China towards democratization. Charter 08, born in 2008, was an important document crystallizing that hope.     

But in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, 2008 marked something different. Prior to  2008, the CCP’s philosophy was “hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time” (韬光养晦) and “join tracks with the world” (与国际接轨). After 2008, the CCP aspired to make itself the center of the world. Following the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, the Party found that it could tell the Chinese people that the system in China was superior to capitalism; that it allowed China to concentrate its capacities on accomplishing big things; that China was not only capable of hosting the Olympics, it also helped the rest of the world weather the financial crisis. So the beginning of the “China Dream” was in 2008, not 2012 when Xi Jinping took the reins in the Communist Party.     

So, 2008 is the year most misunderstood by the rest of the world.

The year was also very important for me, personally. One day in mid-April, I was eating in a restaurant and got a text message from a friend telling me to get online. I opened the link he sent, and my jaw dropped. An article I’d recently written that headlined a website had more than 400,000 views and 20,000 comments, about 90 percent of which were criticizing, condemning, berating, or even threatening me. It was a column I’d published in the Chinese-language edition of the Financial Times.

On March 14 that year, protests erupted in Lhasa, Tibet. The Tibetans wanted the world to hear their calls for their rights to be respected. This incident was widely reported in Western media. Some Chinese students abroad found inaccuracies in the CNN coverage, and condemned it for “distorting the facts and slandering China.” They started an anti-CNN campaign, but they didn’t  just criticize CNN, and they believed many foreign media outlets from the US, Britain, France, Germany engaged in anti-China reporting when covering the Lhasa incident.

I was a media professional, so naturally I thought I could weigh in on the subject of news reporting. I knew full well it was a dangerous subject in China, but in my career as a journalist, I’ve always believed that I should not draw a box on the ground and imprison myself in it. I’ve also believed that our freedom of speech is a cage that’s constantly changing; if you don’t make an effort to push it bigger, it would keep shrinking and keep restricting you.

Three days after the Lhasa incident, I wrote an article for FT Chinese titled “Tibet: Truth and Nationalism” (西藏:真相与民族主义). I cautiously made two points. First, I said, since everyone is interested in ensuring accuracy in reporting, we need to understand that the media isn’t perfect and can make mistakes. But in a society with free speech, we can openly refute it just as the Chinese students are doing. The more information is disseminated, the more likely errors will be corrected. We need to realize that control over reporting is a more serious problem than erroneous reporting. We face a more serious problem when foreign reporters are driven away and CCTV alone is allowed to report exclusively, and when the public is prohibited from refuting CCTV reports and also denied opportunities to seek the truth themselves.  

The second point I made was that, when ethnic minorities are protesting, we should not blame them, saying “we’ve given you so much money, why are you still not satisfied?”, but rather sit down and discuss on an equal playing field, actually listen to them. Even more so, we shouldn’t be referring to the Tibetans’ revered religious leader, the Dalai Lama, disrespectfully as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” The column just discussed these two points.

The article was placed on the top banner on several websites, and the websites that pushed the article the most were several so-called “patriotic websites” that peddle ultra-nationalism. They used this incident to attack liberal intellectuals and the Southern Press Group. But there were also many counter arguments from netizens, so it was a dueling confrontation.

I immediately sensed the threat, and hurried to log in online and delete articles I had written before that had some of my personal information, such as my family, birthplace, and etc. Meanwhile, I was glad to see that the article provoked debate. Unfortunately, I quickly saw that the two sides were not afforded equal platforms to speak.

I wrote a rebuttal, pointing out that being able to debate these things even-handedly would be a good thing, and I didn’t think that my supporters would have as weak a voice as they did; their voices were weak only because they knew that talking about this topic and supporting my views carried some danger. In other words, propaganda is backed up by terror. At that moment, I felt the truth of it.  

On April 11, Beijing Evening News (《北京晚报》) published an article, “Southern Metropolis’ Chang Ping Exercises ‘Freedom of Rumor-spreading’” (“造谣自由的南都长平”). In China, everyone understands that, when a Party mouthpiece attacks a lone individual, especially putting the person’s name in the title, is an extraordinary occurrence, and that its purpose is most definitely not to participate in the ongoing debate, but to signal a political weathervane.

The article said that my “freedom of speech” was not just shocking but horrible. The article was signed off with the pseudonym “Wen Feng” (文峰). A few months later, Mei Ninghua (梅宁华), director of Beijing Daily Group, proudly said that he was “Wen Feng” in an interview with another Party mouthpiece in Beijing, and that he had personally penned the article. It was political intimidation and I felt it.

I also started receiving large numbers of phone calls from anonymous people. These calls fell into two categories: either cursing me in the most vehement manner, or threatening my safety, even threatening to kill me.

There was another incident making rounds on Chinese internet regarding the Lhasa protests. At Duke University in the U.S., freshman Chinese student Wang Qianyuan (Grace Wang, 王千源) was attacked by Chinese students abroad and Chinese netizens for supporting the Tibetans’ rights movement. Some issued calls to kill her. When her family address was doxed, people were called to attack her family. Terrified, her parents hid in a hotel, and someone piled feces at the door of their home.    

Freshman Wang Qianyuan (Grace Wang) on Duke campus in 2008.

A reporter from the English edition of Global Times claimed on his blog that, for writing the FT article, I had received US$400,000 from the American government, and the author directed readers to find out more from Wikileaks.

At the time, Wikileaks had posted some information regarding Chinese dissidents. My name, along with several others’ names, appeared in one of the cables marked as “Level 2 Protection.” The truth of the matter is, the US Embassy in Beijing did meet with some people at different points of time, including myself, He Weifang, and others. From their perspective, they were doing their job to understand the Chinese society. In my meeting with them, I told them straightforwardly that there is nothing I said to them that could not be said in public. Nothing is secret. I have always been an advocate for freedom of expression and open information. But somewhere in their procedures, they marked the document mentioning our names with “level 2 protection.” You see, they had never protected us, nor did we need their protection; not only did they not protect us, they couldn’t even protect their own files, which were leaked by Wikileaks.

On the Chinese internet, there were also appeared photos purportedly exposing my private life — my pictures were laughably photoshopped with Japanese porn stars. 

But for the Southern Press Group, it was no laughing matter. As far as the Propaganda Department was concerned, this was a political incident. Soon after, I was once again removed from frontline journalism, and transferred to the Southern Metropolis Communication Institute (南都传播研究院) as the chief researcher.

A visit from national security agents; forced out by the Southern Press Group

In January of 2009, I traveled to India, along with a group of known public intellectuals. Our plan included a visit to the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala. But as soon as we arrived in New Delhi, one member of our group received a call from China, asking us not to visit Dharamshala. So we changed our plans and travelled elsewhere in India instead.

In May 2010, two national security agents in Guangdong met with me, and spoke to me for more than an hour. They told me right away that they were here to carry out a work order, as well as state some policy information. They said they hoped that I would understand the Party’s policies, comply with journalistic disciplines, and think twice before writing any more articles. They said I must understand our country’s difficulties; I should watch out for overseas anti-China forces. They made threats, saying that I should be thankful I was in Guangzhou; if I were in Beijing or Shanghai, they would not be sitting here talking to me.

I reasoned with them. The two agents, a man and a woman, then said, “We are here to carry out our work assignment, and we have done that,” meaning that it wasn’t a matter for discussion. 

As they took their leave, they once again said that they were just fulfilling their duty, that they’d already given me the message. They then asked me, “have you received our message?” I said I did. The whole meeting was conducted orally, no words were written, nor my signature on anything. Then they left.

By the summer of 2010, Southern Metropolis’ office told me that I was being asked to leave the Southern Press Group entirely, because, based on a national security investigation, I had travelled to India in 2010 and met with the Dalai Lama. Right on the spot, I took out my passport and showed it to them: in 2010 I had never gone to India. A few months later, at the beginning of 2011, the management found me again and told me that, per the order of the relevant organ, I could no longer work at the Southern Press Group, and they wouldn’t be renewing my contract.

The incident made the news immediately, the New York Times, the Guardian, and other outlets reported on it.

iSun Affairs; denied work permit by Hong Kong authorities

At the beginning of 2011, I received an invitation from Hong Kong Baptist University as a resident reporter and a visiting scholar. Shortly after I got to Hong Kong, China detained scores of people known as the Jasmine mass arrests. What happened was that, following the Jasmine Revolutions in the Arab-speaking world, there appeared on Chinese social media calls for mass gatherings in different cities with specific dates and locations. That put the Chinese government on edge. They couldn’t identify the person or persons who had posted the calls; instead they detained lawyers, human rights activists, artists, and public intellectuals, including Ai Weiwei (艾未未), Ran Yunfei (冉云飞). They were disappeared, secretly held, and later on we were to learn that each one of them was severely tortured. 

One day I received a call from someone and was told that I too was on the list of people for arrest. The person told me not to come back to the Mainland. I didn’t really believe it at the time, because I thought I hadn’t done anything other than writing; I certainly didn’t have anything to do with the Jasmine Revolution.

At the time I would go back to my family in Guangzhou on weekends — my wife and daughter were in Guangzhou, and my daughter was just over a year old. As I was hesitating whether to heed the warning, I received an invitation from an organization in France for a cultural event. So I went. Yu Hua (余华), Zhan Jiang (展江) and Yu Jianrong (于建嵘) also attended that event. While in Paris, the police went to my parents’ home in Sichuan. That was when I realized the warning call was real, and I couldn’t go back to the mainland. So I decided to stay in Hong Kong.

Two issues of iSun Affairs, 2012.

While in Hong Kong, several journalists and I founded a new magazine called iSunlight Affairs (《阳光时务周刊》).  Several editors and reporters from the mainland obtained Hong Kong work permits, but I, the editor-in-chief, had not received mine. The magazine made repeated inquiries with the Hong Kong immigration authorities, sending a letter each week. Each week we got a letter in reply, saying the same thing: It is still being processed. After a while, the reply we received had something new: the Hong Kong authorities were investigating whether my visiting scholar status at Hong Kong Baptist University constituted illegal work, because I’d taken a stipend of HKD 6,000 from the university.

The investigation seemed endlessly slow. My China passport would only allow me to stay in Hong Kong for a week, and without a work permit, I had to exit Hong Kong every weekend and come back in for another week. So on and so forth, very costly. Once, a Border Inspection officer said to me that I couldn’t come in from Malaysia and then go to Malaysia again. He said that’s not transit. He was right, so I asked him whether I could go to a third country, say, Cambodia. He said I could do that. So the following weekend, when I was exiting Hong Kong to go to Cambodia, I was intercepted. The Border Inspection told me that I couldn’t come back to Hong Kong anymore; I must return to mainland China. I said to them, since you are telling me so, I know I can’t go back to the mainland anymore.   

Then they slashed two Xs on my passport. I left Hong Kong and went to Cambodia. I stayed there for a month before receiving an invitation from the German Heinrich Böll Foundation, and then left Cambodia for Germany.

I spent a year at the Heinrich Böll House, an artists residency, and stayed in Germany afterwards. I’ve been a columnist for Deutsche Welle. During my residency, the Chinese national security agents thrice sent intermediaries to meet me and asked me to go back to China. When declined, they sent words saying that they understood why I didn’t want to go back to China, since it was not convenient for them to come to Germany to meet me, they hoped to meet me in a third country, Singapore. I said no to their messenger, a known commentator living in both Hong Kong and mainland.

While in Germany, I continued the role of editor-in-chief of iSun Affairs until 2013. Not long after, the magazine closed down after its publisher was attacked by two men with baseball bats on the street in Hong Kong.

Spent 2011 in the Heinrich Böll House.

Scrubbed clean from Chinese internet

Between 2004 and 2010, I wrote regular columns for a number of publications, including China Newsweek (中国新闻周刊), Xiaoxiang Morning Post (潇湘晨报), News Morning Post (新闻晨报), FT Chinese (FT中文网), in addition to Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily. I also wrote occasional columns for New Beijing News (新京报), Times Weekly (时代周报), Southern Media Studies (南方传媒研究), Tianya magazine (天涯杂志), and Mingpao (明报) in Hong Kong. 

During those years there were several Chang Ping blogs on various Chinese online platforms, most of them were run by the platform editors or even volunteer netizens. Starting 2008, my writings began to meet with restriction online, but after 2010, the authorities scrubbed clean from the Chinese internet everything I had written. Today you search “长平” (the characters for Chang Ping’s name) in China, you will only find places called Changping, or Princess Changping (长平公主).    

In recent years, there have been former colleagues at Southern Weekend writing memoirs. I noticed that when they wrote about the people and the incidents of the time I was there, even when referring to the reports that I wrote, they would never mention my name, as though I never existed. 

The decline of Southern Weekend

A few years ago a book published in Taiwan about the Chinese media during the reform and opening up era quoted an anonymous source saying that 1996 to 2002 were the best years of Southern Weekend, and the editors and reporters during that period were a “golden generation.” That group of journalists either resigned or were transferred between 2001 and 2004.

In 2002, after then editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping, deputy editor-in-chief Qian Gang, and I, the news director, had all been removed, the new editor-in-chief was Xiang Xi (向熹) who came from Southern Daily. Xiang Xi worked very hard, but his values were at complete odds with the Southern Weekend before him. During his leadership, a dozen or so reporters resigned en masse in 2005 protesting drastic pay cut and draconic management. The sales figures of Southern Weekend also became a secret after my departure, not shared with employees.

But even Xiang Xi was not good enough for the Party. He too was transferred at the end of 2009. His successor Zhang Dongming (张东明) came directly from the Party’s Guangdong provincial propaganda department, and had served as the director of the propaganda department’s news office.

In 2012, Tuo Zhen (庹震), deputy director of Xinhua News Agency, was appointed the chief of the Guangdong provincial CCP committee’s Propaganda Department. He managed the media much more strictly, and implemented focused control of Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily. At that point, Southern Weekend, a lowest unit on the administrative structure, had already been treated differently for more than 10 years. That is, as a ke-leval unit (科级单位), it should have been managed by its parent newspaper Southern Daily, but in Guangdong, Southern Weekend was subjected to direct review by the Party’s provincial propaganda department. In Beijing, the bureau chief of Southern Weekend had often been called to the Central Propaganda Department for meetings.  

By the time Tuo Zhen became head of the provincial propaganda department, censorship at Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily was further upgraded, changing from after-publication review to before publication review. A team of censors, called the “two Nan group” (两南小组), was formed to specifically review and approve reports and commentaries of the two newspapers before their publication. In 2013, the reporters and editors of Southern Weekend protested the rewriting of the newspaper’s New Year Editorial per order of Tuo Zhen without the consent of the editorial board.

The incident attracted international attention, and protests by members of the public and free speech activists. Unfortunately, it was probably also the last instance in which Southern Weekend’s journalists and editors opposed the censorship regime.

Two years later, Tuo Zhen was promoted to deputy director of the CCP Central Committee’s Propaganda Department. In 2018, he was again promoted to become the editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily and an alternate member of the CCP Central Committee.

In China, the media management system is multi-faceted. On one hand, editors and reporters who violate the orders from the Propaganda Department are punished or fined for minor violations, removed or even imprisoned for the major transgressions. But in general, news management cadres would have been removed way before things got severe enough for them to be imprisoned.

On the other hand, compliant media workers are rewarded. One way this happens is through promotions, another is by providing monetary rewards. As new media has developed, there are more and more ways for financial rewards. Through the control of licenses and occupancies, those who cooperate with the Propaganda Department could be rewarded greatly. Among my past colleagues, some have become billionaires.

I’ve never stopped writing for all these years. In my acceptance speech at the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award ceremony, I said free speech is the beginning of everything, and speech is freedom itself. Life in exile is very hard. But as a writer, I also reflect on the idea of homeland: A homeland is not just the place where one is born, nor is it the mother tongue; for someone who writes, homeland is what he or she can freely utter in speech.

P.S. My interview trip with Chang Ping ended at the Berlin Wall where we went to see an exhibit called “Berlin 1933-1945, Between Propaganda and Terror.” Unfortunately, it had recently rotated out, so I settled for a copy of the catalog. “Orwell said all writings are propaganda,” said Chang Ping as we milled along the Wall among student groups and tourists. “That may be so. But without the force of terror lurking behind it, it’s just free speech. Lies prevail when they are enforced by terror.” 

— Yaxue Cao, the editor of China Change


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 Four, February 26, 2021.

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

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

  2. fgsjr2015 says:

    Before any nation might effectively challenge the abysmal human right record of China — a mighty military nation with almost 1.5 billion consumers — the former first must have a significant trade-export/import bargaining chip.

    I can imagine that a large enough number of world nations securely allied, however, likely could combine their resources and go without the usual China bully-nation trade/investment connection they’d all prefer to abandon, instead trading necessary goods and services between themselves (and perhaps other, non-allied countries not beholden to China).

    Yet, maybe such an alliance has already been proposed and discussed but rejected (behind closed doors) due to Chinese government strategists knowing how to ‘divide and conquer’ potential alliance nations by using door-wedge economic/political leverage custom-made for each nation.

    Each nation placing its own unbending bottom-line interests first may always be its, and therefore collectively our, Achilles’ heel to be exploited by huge-market nations like China.

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

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