Unhappy Guangdong Journalists Protest New Year Meddling

Wang Yang, father of the “Happy” Guangdong Model and formerly mooted counterweight to Bo Xilai, was last month replaced as Guangdong Party chief by rising star Hu Chunhua. Having failed to win a seat on the reduced 7-man Politburo Standing Committee in November, Wang is now widely expected to become a vice premier in the spring. On New Year’s Day, at the South China Morning Post and on his own blog, Chang Ping argued that despite Wang’s reformist reputation, he left the province’s media wearing a tighter muzzle than it had previously:

Wang has become the poster boy for the reformist camp in the party and a darling of the media. His image as a reformer has endured even as the reputations of both Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao have taken a beating: over the past decade, Hu has shown himself willing to use repression to “maintain social stability”, no matter the damage to society and the political and legal systems, while Wen’s image as a clean and upright politician has suffered after the devastating media reports on his family’s wealth.

There’s no doubt Wang stands out among senior party officials for his quick mind and lack of affectation. He was expressive, and knew how to dress up bureaucratic rhetoric to make it more palatable. He should also be credited for creating some room for debate on reform with his call to “liberate people’s thinking” and his push to strengthen civil society.

But as a member of the Guangdong press, I saw how Wang set back the media during his five-year rule. Freedom of speech is the foundation of all political and democratic reform. From this perspective, we can hardly give his performance a good appraisal.

One of the strikes against Wang, Chang argues, is the appointment during his tenure of Tuo Zhen as provincial propaganda chief. Tuo’s alleged conservatism and inflexibility are said to have taken hold gradually during his thirty-year climb from a start as a “crusading” reporter documenting the plight of the poor. From Teddy Ng at South China Morning Post:

Tuo, 52, started his career as a reporter at the Economic Daily in 1982, and went on to become the newspaper’s chief editor in 2005. In 2011, he was made a vice-president of Xinhua, and he moved to Guangdong in May last year.

He gained early fame for an award-winning story he wrote in 1983 about an engineer who lived in a dilapidated home and worked for a boss who owned four apartments.

Tuo was named one of China’s 10 most outstanding young people in 1993 and was made a senior reporter for the Economic Daily in 1994.

During his time at the newspaper, Tuo was involved in a series of reports on reforms launched in Tongling , Anhui province, when former Guangdong Communist Party chief Wang Yang was the city’s mayor.

He once said the fairness and objectivity of journalists should not be challenged, and the trust bestowed upon journalists by ordinary citizens should be a strong motivation.

By the time he reached Guangdong last year, the transformation appeared complete. At South China Morning Post’s Locustland blog, John Kennedy translated a Weibo post from a purported employee of the Nanfang Media Group, owner of the wayward Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekly, or Southern Weekend) newspaper:

Rumour has it when Tuo arrived in Guangdong, he called up the heads of each newspaper for one-on-one chats, saying the party has entrusted them to hold the line on permitted speech together, that any lost ground will be lost for good.

Then he came out with a series of mortal blows: forbidding Guangdong media from reporting on corruption in other provinces, banning any commentary on negative news in far-off locations, constantly requiring that only the People’s Daily or Xinhua version of news be allowed to run. Southern Weekly in particular has been ordered to get prior approval for every story from the provincial propaganda department, which won’t let each issue go to print until it’s seen all major reports.

This week, Tuo apparently vindicated Chang’s comments by rewriting Southern Weekly’s traditional New Year greeting, without so much as informing the newspaper’s editors. The original article, Dai Zhiyong’s strident call for fulfilling “the dream of constitutionalism in China”, was replaced with anodyne sentiments about how close to fulfilling its dreams China had come. From David Bandurski at China Media Project:

Only if constitutionalism is realized and power effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently, and only then can every person believe in their hearts that they are free to live their own lives. Only then can we build a truly free and strong nation. . .

According to chatter on Weibo, there were three versions of the letter. The first was the original by Dai Zhiyong, from which the above translation comes. The second was the draft from editors at the newspaper. The third, the version that eventually went to print, contains further changes now being attributed to Tuo Zhen (庹震), Guangdong’s provincial propaganda chief, as well as an introductory message from Tuo Zhen.

[…] The full story here is not yet clear. But it looks as though two egregious violations of propaganda protocol are involved here. First, Tuo Zhen seems to have single-handedly made changes to the second version of the “New Year’s Greeting” after editors responded to his objections to the original. The result is Tuo Zhen’s version three. Second, Tuo Zhen seems to have added his own separate text unilaterally to the paper by penning the “Pursuing Our Dreams” message.

While the original editorial is strongly worded, voicing the hope that China’s Constitution will “cut its teeth” and become the real foundation of freedom in the country, the final version is entirely toothless.

A reference to legendary ruler Yu the Great added insult to injury, suggesting that he tamed disastrous floods not 4,000 but 2,000 years ago. A group of former Southern Weekly journalists expressed their anger in an open letter, accusing Tuo of undermining the central government’s credibility and urging his forced resignation. From a translation at China Media Project:

It is our view that Minister Tuo Zhen’s actions overstep the bounds (越界之举), that they are dictatorial (擅权之举), that they are ignorant and excessive.

It is our view that in this era in which hope is necessary, he is obliterating hope; in this era in which equality is yearned for, his actions are haughty and condescending; in this era of growing open-mindedness, his actions are foolish and careless; in this era that cares for learning and refinement, his actions are crude and thoughtless.

In recent days, the general attitude at home and overseas following the 18th National Congress has been one of optimism over China’s prospects. This optimism is grounded in the outlook and policy direction of the new leadership. That policy direction includes: Unswervingly pushing ahead with reform and opening, persevering in exercising power under the sunlight [i.e., in an open manner], firmly insisting on the basic principles of the Constitution, and resolutely opposing corruption and bureaucratism (官僚主义).

The actions of Minister Tuo Zhen, in Guangzhou and on the very front lines of reform and opening, are entirely contrary to this policy orientation.

By Saturday, South China Morning Post’s Teddy Ng reported, similar letters and statements had come from Southern Weekly’s editorial staff, more than fifty former interns, and Nanjing University’s journalism school. From Keith Richburg at The Washington Post:

Media experts said the demands for Tuo’s ouster set up a challenge that will be difficult for the government to ignore. “There is little room for the two sides to negotiate,” Zhang Lifan, a political commentator, wrote on his weibo account Friday. “The incident will testify to the direction of political reform.”

[…] Asked about the Southern Weekly controversy Friday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not know the specifics of the situation, which she noted did not pertain to foreign affairs. But she added: “In China, no so-called news censorship system exists. The Chinese government protects journalistic freedom according to the law.”

Discussion of the case on Weibo has been suppressed by blocks on relevant search terms already documented at CDT. In addition, some current Southern Weekly staff have seen their Weibo accounts suspended, according to the former employees’ letter. Both central and local authorities have sought to rein in media coverage of the issue: a Central Propaganda Department directive obtained by CDT ordered:

Urgent notice: Upon receipt of this message, controlling departments in all locales must immediately inform all reporters and editors that they may not discuss the Southern Weekend New Year’s greeting on any public platforms. (January 3, 2013)

The Chinese-language Global Times did comment on Thursday, urging cool heads. From a translation at Fei Chang Dao:

The truth be told, many media outlets have had the experience of taking certain opinions from the government on important reports. Having the government provide certain specific instructions on important reports is one device that is woven into the fabric of China’s news management. Overall, China’s reporting is increasingly open, and the general trend is a gradual reduction in the specific instructions from the government, but at the same time, there has been no change in the larger structure of media management.

The Chinese-language editorial was swiftly deleted, but a similar one remains on the English edition’s site:

The reality is that old media regulatory policies cannot go on as they are now. The society is progressing, and the management should evolve. Traditional media is integrating intimately with new media in China, resulting in frequent migration of professionals and different ways for them to pursue their personal interests. All these means the traditional regulation mechanisms no longer fit the new environment

But no matter how the Chinese media is regulated, they will never become the same as their Western counterparts. This should be the basic judgment of Chinese media professionals. China’s political system differs from the West’s, and the media cannot separate itself from a country’s political reality. The only way that fits the development of Chinese media is one that can suit the country’s development path.

While the controversy continued to rage, The Economist’s James Miles commented on its Analects blog on the constitutionalist current to which the original New Year greeting was intended to contribute.

The appeals for the party to respect the constitution’s provisions are part of what appears to be a new tactic by Chinese liberals to push for faster political change. On November 16th, a day after the party’s new leadership was installed, Yanhuang Chunqiu and academics from Peking University jointly organised a meeting in Beijing of around 100 intellectuals as well as a sprinkling of retired officials to discuss the constitution and the importance of upholding it […]. At the meeting a draft was circulated of what was called a “Proposal for a Consensus on Reform”. The thrust of its message was that if only the constitution were to be respected, China would become far more democratic. The document was made public on December 25th, with the names of 72 academics and lawyers attached.

The liberals’ decision to appeal to the constitution is likely to gather wide support among intellectuals, many of whom fear that any more overt challenge to the party could provoke a backlash. A petition for radical political reform issued four years ago resulted in police harassment of many of the thousands of people who signed it, as well as the sentencing of its chief author, Liu Xiaobo, to 11 years in prison. This time the authorities will find it harder to crack down. Thanks to the rapid growth of social media, especially microblogs, in the last couple of years, the liberals’ message is likely to spread.