Uncertainty Surrounds Newspaper Staff Shuffles

Senior staff at two major newspapers have been transferred or suspended this week, prompting widespread but unconfirmed speculation about political motivations. From Louise Ho at the South China Morning Post:

Lu Yan, publisher of the Oriental Morning Post, was transferred to head another division of the Shanghai-based Wenxin United Press Group that owns the paper, and deputy editor-in-chief Sun Jian was suspended, according to two sources at the newspaper who declined to be named.

On Monday, Guangdong’s New Express announced that its chief editor, Lu Fumin, had been removed from his post to head the political section of a sister newspaper, while its national and international coverage was slashed and its op-ed page eliminated.

A separate veteran Shanghai-based journalist said that municipal party secretary Yu Zhengsheng was unhappy with the newspaper’s stories. “Yu has criticised some of the newspaper’s reports in recent months, so the paper had to do something about it,” he said.

[…] Shanghai party boss Yu has been widely regarded as a front runner to enter the party’s top echelons at its national congress in the autumn.

Tania Branigan’s report at The Guardian brought together a range of perspectives on the shakeups:

“I think these can probably be read as the surfacing of tensions playing out on a daily basis across the country’s media. These are probably more egregious examples of the tightening of everyday control ahead of the 18th party congress [where the new leadership will be unveiled],” said David Bandurski of Hong Kong University’s China Media Project.

He stressed that the moves should not be seen as part of a co-ordinated crackdown and could be related to local as much as national issues.

[…] Li Datong, an independent commentator and former journalist, said he thought it was probably not a press freedom issue, adding: “It might be just be an internal issue among Chinese officials.”

At China Media Project, Bandurski stressed the uncertainty surrounding the moves. Two of the articles widely cited as triggers the personnel changes, he pointed out, are still freely available online.

In the most general sense, the two actions — though not in any way related or coordinated — can be read as stemming from an all-round tightening of press controls in China ahead of the crucial 18th Party Congress later this year. That simple reading, however, tells us very little about the specific mechanisms that are at work in these cases.

So what is really going on? The bottom line, we don’t know. As the Hong Kong paper The Sun summed the cases up in an editorial this morning:

Inside the mainland propaganda system, there is a way to die that can be called “death by uncertain causes”. This is when the propaganda department settles a score once autumn has passed [as they saying goes]. If the bosses of a paper are not regularly and dutifully talking [the Party’s] politics, they will be pulled down mysteriously. The New Express and Oriental Morning Post are both examples of this.

Right now, the reasons being given for these “deaths by uncertain causes” are themselves mysterious to media insiders.

Whatever the explanation, warned Madeline Earp at the Committee to Protect Journalists, the moves threaten to further chill China’s already wintry media climate:

Personnel changes can be an effective way to neuter a publication that pushes the boundaries in its coverage, according to CPJ research. So although we don’t know exactly why these two papers are under fire, and local journalists are unlikely to talk about it on the record, it’s safe to assume that the censors have decided it is better to be safe than sorry in advance of the sensitive political hand-off coming later in the year.

Our concern is that with sensitive periods occurring so frequently in China, and with crackdown the new normal for so many activists and journalists, there’s no knowing if or when the censors will loosen their grip. Meanwhile, fellow journalists in Guangzhou and Shanghai will likely be more circumspect for a while, lest the same fate befall them.