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Signs of China (1)

China Change, September 16, 2018

 

Unsettling news from China has been emerging in a constant stream for some time now, in news, on social media and from our own sources in the country. Not every new development is suited to a fully fleshed-out analysis, and as with so much to do with China, many reports and developments cannot be immediately confirmed or properly evaluated. Nevertheless, while each individual brush stroke may not be decisive, upon stepping back a fuller picture begins to emerge. China Change today inaugurates a new, regular series titled ‘Signs of China,’ where we catalogue and contextualize what might otherwise have been forgotten as ephemera. What are these signs pointing to? Our discerning readers will know. — The Editors

 

Sign series 1, 卸磨杀驴

Kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill (卸磨杀驴).

 

Urgent Call to Watch ‘Operation Thunder 2018’

According to a variety of sources brought to social media by netizens, Chinese authorities sent out an urgent notice on September 14 to work units, companies, government departments, universities and more, across the country, demanding people to watch the September 15 nightly Network News Broadcast (《新闻联播》) on CCTV, as well as CCTV’s September 15 and 16 “Focus Talk” (《焦点访谈》) programs, and also the detailed reports due to be published on September 16 on Global Times online, as well as its the September 17 print edition. This hurried propaganda scramble is called ‘Operation Thunder 2018’ (2018-雷霆行动), and is an anti-espionage operation focused on ‘exposing Taiwanese spies.’ As state media reports, it’s about “increasing the anti-traitor and spy-prevention consciousness of the entire population, preventing online phishing and other harms to national interests and security,” as well as “firming up… the national security People’s Line of Defense.” At the same time, a similar Weibo announcement by Yibin Cable Television in Sichuan Province was censored. (More links on the operation are available here.)

Those familiar with the workings of Chinese Communist Party propaganda will recognize that yet another mass terror campaign is likely in the offing. 

Is the Private Sector Still Safe? 

Recently, a certain Wu Xiaoping (吴小平), self-identified as a “senior finance figure,” published a mere five paragraph article that has attracted significant attention. In it, Wu writes that “private companies would be ill-advised to continue blindly expanding; a completely new state of public-private mixed economic control — more centralized, more united, at a larger scale — will become an increasingly important part of the economy in the future,” and also that “the private sector in China has already completed its task of assisting state sector economic development, and it should now gradually diminish in importance.” His article argues that “in a battle between superpowers, China must concentrate its financial, material, and human resources, and must follow a planned development strategy.”

As might be expected, the article caused an uproar. Some observers suspected that it represented a trial balloon by Party Central; others thought the author was a nobody attempting to guess at what the higher-ups in the regime would like to hear, and curry favor by making the suggestion; while still others thought he was communicating the coded message that private enterprise should try to save themselves while they still had the chance. The independent historian Zhang Lifan (章立凡), based in Beijing, posed the question on Twitter as to whether the authorities were going to “kill the donkey once it’s finished pulling the stone mill.” The original essay was subsequently refuted by the People’s Daily, and appears to have been purged from domestic Chinese websites.

Whatever the case, the CCP’s plans of asserting control over private companies are already well underway. According to economist He Qinglian’s (何清涟) analysis of a key set of ‘Guiding Opinions’ about state-owned enterprise reform promulgated in 2015, private enterprises in China are going to be the main target for SOE reform. She wrote that the Chinese authorities hope to roll out a ‘mixed ownership system,’ in which “private companies can make cash purchases of shares in SOEs and become shareholders. But since the equity allocation ratio is based on the state-owned capital being the controlling party, private companies can only remain in a subordinate role, without any decision-making power or right to a say in matters.”

On September 16, the Chairman of the National Laboratory for Finance & Development (中国国家金融与发展实验室) Li Yang (李扬), speaking at an academic forum commemorating the beginning of reform and opening up in China, pointed out that as the economy declines, private companies will come under enormous pressure. Their “way to save themselves is to find a state-owned company as an ‘umbrella,’ and if they don’t do that they can’t get financing, and they can’t lower their costs. If they do that, the enterprise will survive, profits will be there, and employment will be maintained. It’s an outcome that should leave everyone satisfied.” Li Yang thinks that such a scenario would be an opportunity for state companies to buy out their private enterprise counterparts.

Over the past few years the CCP has already been hard at work establishing Party cells in private companies in order to exert control. If anything, the outsize reaction this short article received is a telling indication of how anxious and insecure the Chinese public feels about this trend intensifying.

Xinjiang University Professors Sent to Concentration Camps

sign series 1, uighur professors

Left, Professor Arslan Abdulla; right, Professor Abdukerim Rahman.

News continues to emerge of Uighur academics in Xinjiang being sent to the re-education camps. Twitter user @Uyghurspeaker tweeted in both English and Chinese from a Radio Free Asia report that “Personnel from Xinjiang University’s Overall Management Command have verified that the dean of the humanities department, Professor Arslan Abdulla (the former director of the consultative office of the government of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region) as well as Professor Abdukerim Rahman have been sent to re-education camps ‘for the same reason’ that Rahile Dawut (a folklore scholar) was. Rumors say that at least 56 professors and teachers at the university have been taken away.”

Professor Duwat, the scholar of Uighur folklore at Xinjiang University, disappeared last December and has not been heard from since. No one knows why.

Apple Hurts the Feelings of the 1.4 Billion Chinese People

Apple held its new product launch in California on Wednesday (September 12), with Phil Schiller, senior vice president of Worldwide Marketing, unveiling the new model of iPhones as well as when and where they’d first be sold. The background screen prepared for the event showed the individual flags of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and used the flag of the Republic of China for the latter.

Predictably, the China Youth League and Global Times immediately began expressing their displeasure, accusing Apple of having a double standard: “Apple, what are you trying to say here in your press event?” and “Given that you can put ‘United States’ before ‘Virgin Islands’ in order to differentiate it from the British Virgin Islands, why don’t you put ‘China’ before ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Taiwan’?” Some Chinese netizens have called for a boycott of Apple phones and other products.

Following the public displays of contrition from Marriott and Mercedes Benz for similar grave insults, will Apple also apologize for hurting the feelings of the 1.4 billion Chinese people?

Uneasy Disappearance of a Popular Website

Letscorp.net, going by the Chinese name 墙外楼, which translates literally as ‘Over the Wall,’ is a popular Chinese news aggregation website, primarily focused on maintaining an archive of the news, posts, and commentaries that are censored inside China. The website uses RSS and mail subscriptions to propagate its content. Its Twitter handle, @letscorp, has been around for nearly eight years, and it boasts over 70,000 followers. Most of the time the Twitter handle has simply pushed out new content from the letscorp website automatically, but over the last year or so, the actual person behind the account has also become opinionated. He or she appears to be an astute observer of Chinese politics and society. Because of the website’s name (‘Over the Wall’), most everyone (including China Change editors) took it for granted that whoever runs the site lives outside of China.

Beginning on September 5, however, Chinese Twitter users noticed that the @letscorp account had stopped tweeting, that the website was down, and newsletters were no longer going out, and concerned users now feared that the website operator, likely based in China, had been identified by the authorities. “In the future, it will be more and more difficult to get valuable Chinese-language content even outside of China,” one Twitter user lamented.

We at China Change can’t help imagining the scene of that person being taken away, probably from his or her home, though we may never know, in the end, what has happened. Many Chinese Twitter accounts have similarly disappeared over the past few years. We recently subtitled and re-published a video of six police in Shenzhen forcing their way into the home of a young woman in the middle of the night simply for what she’d posted on social media.

Activist Barred From Traveling by Train

Ms. He Peirong, from Nanjing, is a Chinese activist who became very well-known during the Free Chen Guangcheng movement in 2012. Over the last few years she has been working on various public interest projects. On September 13 she tweeted out: “My liberty has been severely restricted; I can’t go out to buy train tickets, I can’t travel where I want in China. No department has officially notified me as to why I’ve been restricted and who is punishing me. I was preparing to travel to Shanghai yesterday, but only at the train station did I find out that I couldn’t purchase a ticket. I want to know which level of government made this decision. What is the legal basis for it?”

The ‘legal basis,’ it turned out, is likely China Railway’s May 1, 2018 policy of restricting the travel rights of individuals who have ‘seriously breached trust’ (《限制铁路旅客运输领域严重失信人购买车票管理办法》). It seems that Ms. He is now also marked as such an individual.

This and other incidents of the like are yet another indication of how the Chinese authorities appear to be planning to impose sweeping limitations on personal liberty as they deploy the national ‘social credit system.’

Cellphone Inspections in Hangzhou 

We made a mention of this elsewhere before but would like to draw your attention to it again: a Twitter user witnessed police in a Hangzhou subway station checking citizens’ cellphones. Similar incidents were reported in Beijing too. It looks like the Chinese government is conducting a trial of this practice in cities. The amended Police Law expected to pass during the Two Sessions in March 2019 will make such searches legal and therefore a common practice.

Date and time: August 23, 2018, 3:55 p.m.;

Location: Safety check at the entrance of the No. 1 Line subway at the Fengqi Road station, Hangzhou (杭州地铁1号线凤起路站); [the police were] checking the phone of every passenger waiting in line to enter the station;

Apparatus: They were using handheld scanning equipment;

The number of police: 6 to 7.

Crackdown on Christians

In Henan, the government has been conducting an intense crackdown on Christians, burning/removing crosses and dispersing congregations, forcing believers to sign pledges to quit the church, or closing down churches altogether (here, here, here, here). On September 9, the largest house church in Beijing, Beijing Zion Church, was shut down by the authorities who said it was not registered and “disrupted the order of civil organization management.”

Zion Church’s pastor, Jin Mingri (金明日), told Voice of America that religious repression has intensified since the 19th Party Congress. After the Congress (held in October 2017), the government has gone about strengthening both ideological and managerial control in all sectors of society. Then again after the ‘Two Meetings’ in Beijing in March of this year, there were further changes, in particular in religious policy.

Overall, the new policies indicate a shift from tolerating some non-official denominations of Christianity to heavily restricting them, as a greater number of religious populations are seen as ideological competitors to the Party, or even hostile forces.

Xu Zhiyong, in response to a video of burning cross, wrote on Twitter addressing the Party: “What wrong has Christianity done to you? You’ll suffer retribution for this! In this life, in this world, it will come to pass. On many occasions making a curse is the only weapon of the weak. If the curses are sufficient in number and people lose heart, the retribution will then arrive.”

10th National Assembly of Representatives of Overseas Chinese and Relatives is Held

A major convocation of overseas Chinese, overseas Chinese returnees and their families, was held in Beijing from August 29 to September 1. It must have been a significant event for all seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee to attend the opening ceremony. State media highlighted the fact that nearly 1,300 returnees from over 110 countries, as well as 700 (still) overseas Chinese, attended. Zhao Leji (赵乐际, China’s anti-corruption chief) made remarks that included this memorable exhortation for overseas Chinese: “Always remember [how] the Party and the People have entrusted you; spread good news about China; assist the development of the fatherland; safeguard the virtue of the Chinese people; promulgate Chinese culture; make new contributions to the realization of the China Dream of the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese people and promote the construction of a Community of Shared Human Destiny.”

Observers should not think of statements like this as mere empty rhetoric — the Chinese government’s ability and readiness to organize, mobilize, and use overseas Chinese has reached an impressive level of scale and sophistication. For instance, following the CCP’s 19th Party Congress, the Chinese Embassy-controlled Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) at Harvard University, as well as a number of Hometown Associations on both coasts, organized discussion forums. In 2016, when the ethnically-Chinese police officer Peter Liang was being sentenced in New York City, the mass protest of Chinese and Chinese-Americans was suspected of having been at least in part mobilized by Communist Party agents, according to WeChat communications. And the Party’s Federation of Overseas Chinese, which operates on all levels of the government, regularly award membership in its “Overseas Chinese Committee” (海外委员会) to overseas Chinese who are in important positions in Western society, including many American university professors and scientists. China Change previously reported on the case of the Wellesley professor Charles Bu serving on one such commission.

Professor Xu Zhangrun, Author of Famous Lament, Forced to Return to China Early 

The author of the widely celebrated, lengthy reflection on the parlous state of affairs in contemporary Chinese political life published in July, Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun (许章润), was recently called back to China early from his visiting professorship in Japan. Rong Jian (荣剑), another Chinese scholar, saw Xu in Japan on September 7 and reported that Xu told him that “he was forced to go back on the 14th of the month.”

Xu’s essay, ‘Imminent Fears, Immediate Hopes,’ a portion of which was translated by China Change, and translated in its entirety by Geremie Barmé, was the subject of widespread public discussion in China and abroad, and was featured in a New York Times article for capturing the essence of concerns about China’s current political direction.

 

 


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As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’

By Chang Ping, July 18, 2017

 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a welcome ceremony for Chinese panda bears Meng Meng and Jiao Qing at the Zoo in Berlin

While Liu Xiaobo lay dying in China, the jolly “panda diplomacy” unfolded in Berlin.  Photo:  REUTERS

 

On July 7, the German professor Markus W Büchler, Chairman of the Department of Surgery, University of Heidelberg, traveled to Shenyang to take part in diagnosing the condition of Liu Xiaobo. Media reports noted that it was the first time in almost a decade that Liu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, had seen a foreigner. When I read this line I felt full of grief. The visit of a doctor isn’t anything like that of a friend calling in. Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned for his speech and thought, and apart from the small number of family members who’ve long been under house arrest, no one has been able to see him for all these years. Until he got late-stage liver cancer, when his days on earth were numbered, the only people he was able to see — apart from the doctors, nurses, and a few family members — were the police who had been ordered to keep him under close guard. On July 13, he left the world completely cut off from it.

A group of 154 Nobel Prize laureates signed a joint statement hoping that the Chinese authorities would let Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia freely see their family, and that Liu be allowed to receive treatment anywhere he wished. UN human rights officials, politicians from around the world, human rights organizations and numerous Chinese citizens have said the same thing. The Chinese government pretends they don’t hear it — like a black hole that swallows everything that enters.

While silencing dissidents and shutting up their supporters, the Chinese government has also started projecting its voice on the international scene. Xi Jinping has been more assertive and bolder than any previous leader in boasting in international fora; Chinese state media has even suggested that he’s going to point toward the future direction of mankind. Buying up media, suppressing foreign journalists, and changing global public opinion have become the Chinese government’s undisguised combat strategies. Angela Merkel is content to chat with Xi Jinping for a long while about pandas at the zoo, but when it comes to a dying Liu Xiaobo, she won’t say a word in public. It’s clearly not that she doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care for Liu Xiaobo, but that she’s being stifled by the Chinese government.

Publicly humiliate the Communist Party, or let the Party publicly humiliate you?

Last week, the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a hearing on human rights conditions in China, which included the remarks of Terence Halliday, co-director of the Center on Law & Globalization at the American Bar Foundation. Halliday said that “At this moment from our longstanding research I have no doubt that when the world speaks out loud and publicly, China listens. China has a very thin skin” (video, 1’33”).  Some may see this as publicly shaming to China — but in fact, it’s the Communist Party that has been shaming human rights and democracy. The most Western nations can do is stop or lessen this dishonor.

Would publicly criticizing China have any use? Some would defend Merkel’s failure to publicly mention Liu Xiaobo — that she is making a compromise and getting things done in a low-key manner. Whether it’s getting the Nobel Peace Prize laureate on the brink of death released, or changing China’s authoritarian political system, many people think that “private dialogue” is the most effective path. They even suppose that public pressure will have the opposite of the result intended. Over the past twenty years, the European Union has been holding dialogues on human rights with China quietly, and it is termed “quiet diplomacy.”

But in fact, those who are provided succor are those who have been reported on in the media the most — those who make dictators truly feel the pressure of international public opinion. There are countless unknown victims who have received no lenience since they are so “low key.” In fact, they’re often subject to the most cruel and brutal treatment.

This is not limited to only individual cases. The German scholar Katrin Kinzelbach’s 2014 book “The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits,” traced the development of the EU’s rights dialogue with China from its founding in 1995 until 2010, relying on internal memoranda, a vast array of documents, and extensive interviews with officials from over 20 member states. She spoke with former chairpersons of the dialogue committees and traced the institutional changes in the process. The conclusion of her research was that “quiet diplomacy” exerts almost no positive impact at all on human rights in China. Not only did the dialogue fail to achieve the hoped-for outcome, but it led to the Chinese government holding human rights in more contempt, turning the dialogue into a perfunctory affair and an occasion for them to rebut all questions, criticisms, and suggestions.

China points the world in a dark direction

Two weeks ago Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Initiatives for China, International Campaign for Tibet, Human Rights in China, International Society for Human Rights, and Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) made a joint statement calling on the European Union to suspend human rights dialogues with China. Their reasoning was that this sort of quiet diplomacy, on a particularly low-level this year, hasn’t improved the circumstances of China’s human rights in China, but instead has become a shield for the EU to avoid a thorny issue.

In her book, Kinzelbach writes that the “quiet diplomacy” strategy of human rights dialogues has shown itself to be weak and ineffectual, and that the only effective policy that Europe had on the issue was the prohibition of weapons sales to China after the June 4 massacre. If it wants to change human rights in China, the EU needs to summon up the courage, truly persevere, and support the immense significance of the human rights cause.

When politicians are laughing together about how cute the pandas are, and silent and unmoved while China’s most prominent dissident is dying in isolation, perhaps what China’s official propaganda mouthpieces have said is entirely accurate: In fact, Xi Jinping is pointing to a new direction for mankind, that is, abandoning the painful development of a political culture that safeguards human rights, democracy and liberty, and instead focusing on success in advanced economics and high technology, establishing an even more barbaric, darker, and despicable society that operates according to the law of the jungle.

 

 

长平Chang Ping is a Chinese media veteran and current events commentator now living in political exile in Germany.

 

 

 

 


Related:

The Path Forward in the Wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Passing, Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017.

Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.

 

Also by Chang Ping:

One Belt, One Road, Total Corruption, May 18, 2017.

China’s ‘Freedom’ Cage, by Chang Ping, 2015.

We’d Be Satisfied With Any Government!, October, 2015.

Chinese Students Studying Abroad a New Focus of CCP’s “United Front Work” , June, 2015.

Tiananmen Massacre not a “Passing Lapse” of the Chinese Government, July, 2014.

 

A China Change interview with Chang Ping:

The Fate of Press Freedom in China’s Era of ‘Reform and Opening up’:  An Interview With Chang Ping, December 15, 2016

 

 

 

 

The Fate of Press Freedom in China’s Era of ‘Reform and Opening up’:  An Interview With Chang Ping

December 15, 2016

Yaxue Cao spoke with Chang Ping in Toronto on December 2, 2016.

 

chang-ping-1

 

YC: You used to be the director of the news department of the famed Southern Weekly and a columnist there, and you belong to a community of journalists who distinguished themselves in the 25 years of “market-oriented” media that coincided with the period of soaring economic development from early 1990s until recently. I’ve been wanting to hear your story, because I sensed that your trajectory as a journalist has also been the trajectory of China’s “market-oriented media.” So I’m very happy to see you. First of all, congratulations on receiving the CJFE International Press Freedom Award. They made a great choice.

Chang Ping: Thank you.

YC: I knew you were a 1989er, but I only learned yesterday, from watching the CJFE video, that you were detained for a month after the June 4th Massacre. Tell us a bit about your experience in 1989. Where were you?

Chang Ping: I was a sophomore at Sichuan University, majoring in Chinese Literature. In Chengdu, as in Beijing, college students took to the streets to protest, staged hunger strikes in the public square downtown, and held dialogues with the provincial government. I was involved in organizing some of these activities. After the crackdown, I was detained for a month and severely disciplined.

YC: How did you become a journalist?

Chang Ping: I wanted to be a novelist, and never thought much about journalism. I didn’t have a job after the June 4th protest, nor did I care for a career in the system. I stumbled on my first media job by accident: in Chengdu, a boss and I, just two of us, started a business intelligence magazine. That was 1991, the year before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour. With scissors and glue, I cut out what I thought was useful business information and arranged it in categories such as policy, law, overseas information, etc. Back then it was still hot metal typesetting, and I had to go to the factory to set the characters with workers. In Chengdu region, small and medium businesses really needed that kind of information. Very soon we had a lot of subscribers. I had first-hand knowledge that, before Deng’s Southern Tour, the commercial impetus at the bottom half of society was already bubbling up. So for me, it wasn’t a surprise at all when, in 1992, the economy kickstarted after Deng’s tour. I also edited a book with the title “The Swelling Commercial Tides.”   

After a while I quit the magazine and wrote short stories that were published in a journal called Young Writers. Some were recommended to the then-famous literary magazine Harvest. An editor asked me to revise my story, but I was so proud back then that I told him I wouldn’t change a word. At the same time I also compiled historical storybooks for young readers.

After 1992, the government began to push for market reforms. Some government-owned publications were outsourced. I leased a paper called Market Herald (《市场导报》), I was the deputy editor-in-chief, but the de facto editor-in-chief. But I loved reporting on everyday life, so I went out and wrote about, for example, Chengdu’s river channel improvement project, the living conditions of the blind, etc. The paper wasn’t making any money, so after two months it couldn’t go on. Right around that time, Chengdu Commercial Daily (《成都商报》)  was founded by He Huazhang (何华章), and I joined as part of the earliest team, in charge of social reporting. Later I also edited the front page, and was one of the editorial managers.

Chengdu Commercial Daily pursued a vernacular style. Our reports, even some headlines, were written in everyday Sichuan dialect. When reporting the annual Two Sessions in Beijing, all newspapers had the same headlines as the People’s Daily, something like “The National People’s Congress Solemnly Opens in Beijing,” while our headline was simply, “NPC Held Meeting.” We were criticized for being not serious.

YC: Indeed, revolt often begins from aesthetics and taste.

Chang Ping: Chengdu Commercial Daily was an immediate success and made a lot of money. A year later, the municipal Party propaganda department took it into their hands as their own cultural achievement. Later, the paper formed a media group by consolidating with the Chengdu Evening News, which had been the leading paper of the city, a radio station, a TV station, and literary magazines, and was listed on China’s stock exchanges.

As Chengdu Commercial Daily became more and more mainstream, meaning more and more like the Party’s mouthpieces, my difference with other editors widened. I remember in early 1998 when the rock singer Cui Jian (崔健) issued “The Power of the Powerless,” I sent a reporter in Beijing to interview Cui and he talked about the difficulty of revolt. The propaganda department was very unhappy about it and chided me harshly. My commentaries were also criticized for “promoting a capitalist view of the press.”     

Another event was the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997. We had never experienced anything like that and didn’t know how to report it. But all Chinese held the wisdom that you can’t mess around with this, and you must do whatever People’s Daily does. You have to use the standard script issued by Xinhua News — but how do we design the page? We studied how papers reported Mao Zedong’s death, what font and what size of font were used for headlines. As the Party’s mouthpiece in Sichuan, the Sichuan Daily had no pressure; they simply waited for the phototypesetting of People’s Daily that was sent to all over the country — at that point it was phototypesetting printing. Our pressure came from the market. We wanted to publish early. So the editor-in-chief came up with an idea. He went to the printing factory and cheated out the phototypesetting of the People’s Daily. The next day, Chengdu Commercial Daily was the first paper in the city with the news. We were so happy about our cleverness!

About a week later, I saw a weekend paper from Guangzhou. On the left it was a large photo of Deng Xiaoping, on the right the headline was simply “Mr. Deng Passed Away.” The text below was also Xinhua’s standard announcement, the same as everyone else. I was rather shocked: what we thought was creative and smart was really nothing; we were just toadying.

I didn’t want to stay in Chengdu anymore. I met with Shen Hao (沈灏), the news director of Southern Weekly (《南方周末》), who was in Chengdu on business. He wanted me to join the rising Southern Weekly. So I did.

YC: Shen Hao was sentenced to four years in prison last year and paraded on CCTV giving “self-confessions.”  

Chang Ping: He Huazhang has also been also detained. He was working at Sichuan People’s Publishing House in 1989. His career stalled because he joined the protests. He left the state system to found Chengdu Commercial Daily. The success of the paper catapulted him to hero status in China’s market reforms. He returned to government and became head of the municipal Party propaganda department and deputy mayor. He was taken into custody by the CCDI, the Party’s disciplinary committee, following the fall of Zhou Yongkang (周永康). He’s been in detention for a year or two already without trial. Many Party officials are in the same situation: no legal procedures are applied to them, and there’s no news reporting on them.

YC: Southern Weekly attracted a lot of young and idealistic reporters.

Chang Ping: At Southern Weekly, I reported on local government corruption, and environmental degradation. In 1998, there were floods across China. Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Zhu Rongji (朱镕基) stood in the Yangtze River and reporting abounded. Southern Weekly made a plan to investigate the cause of the flood along the Yangtze River, beginning from the Tibetan plateau. Most of our series were observations: deforestation and soil erosion. I wrote similar things too, but I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to look for stories. In Barkam (马尔康), northern Sichuan, I found a tree feller who had been honored for years as a model feller. He told me, “Now I feel the flood has something to do with me.” I wrote a report titled “The Last Model Feller,” because my sense was that there would be no more model fellers anymore, and it was a big success.    

But soon Southern Weekly was “rectified.” Shen Hao was removed, and columnist Yan Lieshan (鄢烈山) and editor Cao Xihong (曹西弘) were censored.

YC: Why the rectification?

Chang Ping: Shen Hao organized a lot of reporting on the dark side of society — for example, publishing illustration of the varieties of torture police used to extract confessions. Yan Lieshan was an essayist well known for incisive criticism. Cao Xihong was the first to investigate the dark secrets of the railway and communication industries that the state monopolized.

After the rectification, I was appointed first the deputy director, and then the director, of the news department. I was responsible for news planning, page layout, and the deployment of reporters and editors. I also edited the front page, the Reporter’s Observations page, and the investigations page. Almost every weekend, I’d go out for stories, and I reported on judicial corruption, pollution, women’s rights, gay rights, and more.  

At the time we tried to record changes in Chinese society using methods from anthropology and sociology. For example, we chose a village, a township, and a street in the heartland, the West, and the coast respectively — our plan was to revisit the same place at the end of every year for ten years to record its changes. I was forced to leave Southern Weekly three years later, but the editors and reporters continued and completed the plan. Ten years later, they published a book titled Here and There: A Report on the Transformation of Grassroots China (《这儿与那儿:中国转型期基层调查》).

YC: I’ll find that and take a look.

Chang Ping: I’ve always wanted to be an independent voice. At that time the majority of the journalists and commentators with dissenting views went about it by latching their own ideas onto those already in the air. For instance they’d take the “Three Represents” (三个代表) and try to explain the positive aspect of the theory, and then add in their own understanding: “Only by moving towards democracy, rule of law, and liberty will the will of the people be truly represented.” But I look at things differently. I am extremely sensitive to language. Words are not just a means of expression, they are the expression in and of itself. So if you even use “Three Represents” or similar slogans, you’re doing propaganda for it, no matter how much you try to smuggle in your own stuff. Also with Falun Gong — we were required to write about it as a political task, but we stubbornly resisted. We basically didn’t do any reports, whether good or bad. I got accused by some people of “rejecting the mainstream.”

In the spring of 2001 there was the case of Zhang Jun (张君), who for a while was a notorious triad boss. He robbed banks, killed cops, and had a record throughout Hubei, Hunan, and Chongqing, and of course had numerous mistresses. It had all the ingredients of a Hollywood movie. He was caught by Chongqing Public Security Bureau led by Wen Qiang (文强). In a photo, Wen had him on the ground, one foot on his face, and announced: “Zhang Jun is under my foot.” Wen Qiang, of course, was later executed by Bo Xilai (薄熙来) for protecting the mafia.

YC: And then Bo Xilai was himself jailed by Xi Jinping. In the Communist Party’s autocratic politics, anyone in the system can just be peeled off like a layer of cabbage — no one’s safe. Who’s to say that, in a few year’s time, Xi Jinping won’t be the one in jail?

Chang Ping: The capture of Zhang Jun was a big grand achievement for Chongqing public security — a chance for them to really bignote and back-slap themselves. They organized a lot of interviews, and a CCTV crew also went to interview Zhang Jun face-to-face in the detention center. I was mulling over how we should cover the case at Southern Weekly. Media around the country were running the story front page every day, and we were a weekly publication, so we were already a bit behind. I sent journalists to write a piece about how Zhang Jun grew up. It was titled: “Exploring the Zhang Jun Case: The Rise of a Brutal Syndicate” (《张君案检讨 – 一个极端暴力集团的成长》). It traced the story of how a simple village kid who left home to become a migrant worker in the end became the head of a triad group. It also scrutinized the operations of China’s criminal justice organs. As Zhang Jun himself put it, every time he entered prison, he came out worse. The article sent shockwaves through Hunan and Chongqing. Party bosses there wrote a letter to the Central Propaganda Department, saying Southern Weekly could even turn such a monumental achievement of law enforcement into a smear against socialism, against rural policies, and against the public security agencies.

In the autumn of 2001 Southern Weekly was “rectified” once again, after four articles we published were specifically called out and criticized. Editors and journalists were moved on and sacked. One of the four was the Zhang Jun investigation, and of the other three, one was about a cemetery for Red Guards who died in the Cultural Revolution, called “A Chongqing Cemetery Buries the Cultural Revolution’s Young Warriors” (《青春墓地埋葬重庆文革武斗》). Another was about a massive explosion in the city of Shijiazhuang, where the censors thought we’d just reported too many details. The last was a commentary about the situation in the Middle East, which made the key point that dictatorship is the source of turmoil in that region.

After those four articles were specifically named as problematic, I was removed, the editor-in-chief Jiang Yiping (江艺平) was transferred, and the deputy editor-in-chief was also transferred out. That was also the biggest turning point for Southern Weekly. I was transferred to be the deputy general manager of the circulation department — so I hadn’t actually been fired. They gave me a job title and salary, but no work.

YC: So it was just about two years after the previous “rectification.”

Chang Ping: Right. It was a time when independent voices won an unprecedented level of prestige for Southern Weekly, and it brought so much space for the imagination in freedom of speech and political reform in China. The paper also became a model that journalists and editors around China aspired to emulate. Many pro-reform scholars and lawyers were also very supportive. But it was all along also a target of repression.

YC: How many pages was the newspaper then?

Chang Ping: At the beginning it was 8, then we doubled, and then went to 24 pages. Sometimes we also added pages, and there were also experimental pages. On the professional side, Southern Weekly was really at the vanguard for trying new things, and it brought together so many people in the industry who had ideals, in particular many brilliant writers in the field. Our reports were very carefully done, and the writing was always well-crafted. Layout was exceptional, too — when I became the director of news, I put a lot of energy into photography and page design.

I left soon after I lost my editorial position. CCTV had just begun a new channel, 12, and I was invited to be the editor of a talk show. I did that for two months, so I gained some understanding of CCTV. But I simply couldn’t stand the culture there. I had to get out. In 2002, with friends from Chengdu and Guangzhou, we founded The Bund (《外滩画报》) in Shanghai. Shanghai is a city with extremely strict ideological controls — there’s a certain lifelessness about it. We hoped to inject some vitality into the place, but from the beginning we were put under strict monitoring and control. We hardly had space to operate. In 2003 I accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, for a one year visiting scholarship. After I returned I went back to The Bund as deputy chief editor. In 2005 the propaganda department was unhappy with the job our official supervisor, the Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House (上海文艺出版社), was doing keeping us in line, and they forced them to sell us to the Wenhui Xinmin United Press Group (文新集团). They didn’t want to buy, and we didn’t want to sell, but the deal went through regardless.

YC: It sounds similar to what happened recently with Yanhuang Chunqiu.

Chang Ping: Right. The Bund is still around, though it’s now turned into a fashion magazine. In 2005 I returned to Guangzhou and rejoined the Southern Group, running Southern Metropolis Weekly (《南都周刊》) as the deputy chief editor in charge of daily operations.

Southern Metropolis Weekly is a magazine of urbanized China — it focuses on civil society, the environment, women’s rights, and issues related to rights movements, ideas, culture, and so on. It’s relatively moderate in tone compared to Southern Weekly, but it’s still been hit with a lot of criticism by the authorities.

In the midst of all this, I also started writing a syndicated column, commenting on current affairs and culture. In April 2008 I published a commentary in the Chinese version of Financial Times titled: “Tibet: Nationalist Sentiment and the Truth” (《“西藏:真相与民族主义情绪”》). This was after the March 14 unrest in Tibet, where official media failed to carry any substantial reports, while social media and a number of websites let loose with a barrage of criticism against CNN, BBC, and other foreign media, accusing them of false reporting. In the piece, I wrote that if their concerns were really about news values, they shouldn’t be exclusively focused on exposing the misreporting of the Western press, but should also be calling into question the information found in the Chinese media, and the strict controls over the press in China. The latter deals far greater damage to the media environment than the former, the column argued. I also suggested that the narrow-minded Han nationalism common in China should be carefully examined. That article stirred up a tempest, and websites like China Online, KDnet, Utopia, and a few other Han nationalist sites pinned it on top of the page, and went into overdrive hyping it up. Just a single one of these forum posts got several hundred thousand hits, with tens of thousands of comments, most of them attacking me. Some people even threatened that they’d harm me and my family.

At the time too there was a Duke University student, Grace Wang (王千源), who during a campus demonstration was accused of supporting Tibetan independence. She was attacked by Chinese students at Duke, and her parents in China were attacked too. Her parents had to move into a hotel for their own safety, after attackers left feces at their door.

Beijing Evening News (《北京晚报》) took the rare step of publishing an article directly attacking me, called “Chang Ping Is a Rumormonger” (《造谣自由的南都长平》). The author, Mei Ninghua (梅宁华), writing under the pseudonym “Pen Spear” (文锋) was the president of Beijing Daily [the official mouthpiece of the Beijing municipal propaganda department]. His article caused an uproar. This dispute was the opening volley in a five year-long running debate about universal values, which Xi Jinping shut down in 2013.

Because of this I was again removed from my post, and prohibited from doing any work in the newsroom. They transferred me to the Southern Media Group’s research institute. But I kept writing columns for Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily (《南方都市报》). After six months those columns were also brought to a halt. They told me that if I agreed to stop writing, I might be able to keep my job. I refused, and kept publishing current affairs commentary in other outlets. At the end of 2010 the propaganda department demanded that the Southern Media Group completely cut off all association with me.

Newspapers, websites, and publishing houses around the country were from that point on prohibited from publishing or printing my articles or books, and websites were ordered to delete my previously-published articles and author information. At that point I had a large number of readers, and a lot of websites syndicated my blog, even real estate websites carried my column. It wasn’t me updating them. I saw myself disappearing from the internet before my own eyes — they weren’t only not publishing me, but erasing my existence. For a while, it was hard to even find my name online.

YC: It’s terrifying when you think about it. As long as they want to do it, they can make someone disappear. They can also make history, or reality, disappear. Even a journalist such as yourself can turn into such a nightmare for them, so much so that they want to expunge you completely.

When the wave of arrests in spring 2011 took place during the so-called Jasmine Revolution, what were you doing?

Chang Ping: I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University, and like a lot of mainlanders who came to Hong Kong to study, I went home on the weekends. Someone said to me at one point: You shouldn’t go back. Apart from writing my columns, I don’t do anything else — so should I follow this instruction and not go home? I didn’t want to be intimidated. It just so happened that right at that time I received an invitation to go to France for a forum. A number of others, including Yu Hua (余华), Zhan Jiang (展江), and Yu Jianrong (于建嵘), also participated. When I was in Paris, police in China came to my home to arrest me.

When I went back I remained in Hong Kong and helped found iSun Affairs (《阳光时务》.)

YC: iSun Affairs was a publication with serious ambition, and it brought together so many talented people, including yourself and Cheng Yizhong (程益中), who also worked for years in the Southern newspapers. iSun’s reporting on Wukan (乌坎), in particular, left a deep impression on me. You were chief editor at the time, but a lot of people may not realize that you were in Germany and had turned your schedule upside-down to work remotely. What happened there?

Chang Ping: I never expected it, but the Hong Kong government dragged out the approval of my work visa for two years (and in the end, rather than say that they  had “rejected” it, they simply said that they “were no longer processing it.”) They came up with all sorts of reasons for investigating me, including an absurd attempt to establish whether or not I had taught illegally when I was a visiting scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University. As soon as they did this, it was clear that I couldn’t return to mainland China. With a PRC passport I could stay in Hong Kong for seven days at a time, so every weekend I flew to neighboring countries for “vacation,” including Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. After two months of that, Hong Kong immigration personnel told me that I couldn’t stay in Hong Kong like that — I would have to return to China or else the next time I arrived, there’d be trouble. So I never went back. After I received an invitation from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, I went from Cambodia to Germany.

Thanks to the support of my Hong Kong colleagues, I was able to stay on as the chief editor of iSun Affairs, working from Germany, for the next two years. But it also was extremely difficult, and the magazine was banned in China. In the end, we parted ways. I stayed in Germany and continued writing commentary for publications in Germany, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and continued to address the Chinese authorities’ repression.

YC: So in that case you haven’t been able to return to China since 2011. iSun Affairs had to shut down after a little over a year; one of the main investors, Chen Ping (陈平), was violently attacked in Hong Kong, Cheng Yizhong relocated to the United States, and you went to Germany. Later you wrote a column for Deutsche Welle and South China Morning Post, and got into an intense debate with another Deutsche Welle columnist, Frank Sieren, about the June 4 massacre. After SCMP was sold to Jack Ma, they immediately shut down your column. Earlier this year when the letters urging Xi Jinping to resign came out, your family in China was harassed.

Of course, the storied Southern Weekly is no more after the “Southern Weekly Incident” in January 2013. A great experiment has ended. 

In 1999 “Southern Weekly” published a very famous New Year’s dedication, titled “There is a power that moves us to tears,” which said in part: “May the powerless be empowered, and may the dispirited continue forward.” This line inspired a generation of aspiring media figures. Now in 2016, press freedom in China has not only failed to progress, but has regressed dramatically. Please share some final thoughts for our interview today.

Chang Ping: Many years ago we were very optimistic. At that time I believed that every step made in the news field would promote progress in Chinese society, and that every word we wrote contained power — even if it could only be measured in milligrams. Looking back now, I often feel quite dejected. China is going backwards in so many areas. But I have never doubted the value of fighting for freedom of expression. Even if there’s no tomorrow, we still need justice today. It’s just as I put it in my acceptance speech for this award in Toronto: freedom of expression is not merely necessary for all other freedoms, but speech itself is freedom.

I made the following line the signature for my blog and social media accounts for many years: “If criticism is not free, praise is meaningless.” A friend and I translated it from  the French: “Sans la liberté de blamer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.” It became popular and widely quoted in China, and made many people come to see how meaningless the Chinese government’s self-flattery is once it has gone around crushing all dissenting views. It makes us also see the value of critique, which was the goal of my being in the news and commentary field for so long. Now, I could disappear, but these ideas are already deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the Chinese people.

 

 

Chang Ping (长平) lives in Germany. Follow him on Twitter @chang_ping

Yaxue Cao (曹雅学) edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @YaxueCao

 

 


Related:

China’s ‘Freedom’ Cage, by Chang Ping, 2015.

‘Speech Is Freedom Itself’ – Chang Ping’s Acceptance Speech for the CJFE 2016 International Press Freedom Award, December 1, 2016

The Virus of Censorship, by Cheng Yizhong, 2012.