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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 February 2006, 13:57 GMT
China's censored media answers back
By Tim Luard

Young Chinese reading newspapers in Beijing - archive picture
Newspapers are looking to please readers, not the censor
The media scene in China has come a long way since the days when revolutionary slogans blared from loudspeakers in paddy-fields.

But today's Communist Party bosses are as determined as ever to maintain control over every word published or broadcast in the world's most populous country.

A media clampdown - the latest of many over the years - has seen a string of journalists disciplined, dismissed or even jailed for violating official guidelines.

Some of the campaign's targets, however, are refusing to be silenced.

And they have found plenty of supporters - some in unlikely quarters - willing to speak up on their behalf.

"There is now an unstoppable wave of demands for more freedom of expression and resistance to the old propaganda policies," said Jiao Guobiao, who was forced to resign his post as a journalism professor last year after accusing the government of handling the press in a manner worthy of Nazi Germany.

The row over the extent of people's right to know shows that the Communist Party's authority is ebbing away, he said.

But without censorship, the party could not maintain its rule for a day, he added.

Climbdown

The international storm over the self-censorship of Google and other internet companies in China has probably caused little more than a ripple of amusement in the corridors of Beijing's propaganda department.

Among 10,000 horses, there was only one left - and now its throat has been cut
Lung Ying-tai, on the closure of Bing Dian

Far more embarrassing, not to say ominous, has been the chorus of domestic protest over the closure in late January of Bing Dian (Freezing Point), a weekly publication noted for its cutting-edge reporting on sensitive topics.

In an apparent climbdown, it was later announced that the magazine would reopen on 1 March, but without its two chief editors.

Unlike most journalists punished in the past, the two editors loudly disputed the move to censor them.

In comments widely aired on the internet, they called it an "illegal abuse of power" aimed at preventing the growth of a civil society.

The reopened magazine would be an empty shell of its previous self, they said, and had been ordered to print a full rebuttal of the article on historical censorship which triggered the closure.

Among those who have rallied behind the editors are a group of former senior party and media officials, including Mao Zedong's secretary and a former editor-in-chief of the People's Daily. The Taiwanese-born columnist Lung Ying-tai, whose controversial articles for Bing Dian may have been the real reason for the closure, has sent an open letter of protest to President Hu Jintao.

"Among 10,000 horses, there was only one left - and now its throat has been cut", she wrote.

It's such an information age. There's no way anyone can block everything
Jiang He

She believes the move against the influential magazine was a calculated one made by the president himself. His power base lies in the Communist Party Youth League, whose newspaper, China Youth Daily, publishes Bing Dian as a weekly supplement.

The decision to reopen the supplement was an attempt to ease the anger about the closure, she told the BBC.

"Freezing out the two prominent and courageous editors", she added, was designed to "warn all other journalists to behave".

Force for change

Propaganda officials have also faced other public challenges to their authority, including a rare strike by reporters in support of three editors dismissed from a leading daily, the Beijing News, late last year.

But what really worries them is that those now pushing for a lifting of censorship include not just journalists and activists, but also people in business, government and law who believe media reform is a necessary part of China's modernisation.

Beijing News at a newspaper stand - 30/12/05
Campaigning publications like the Beijing News have been targeted

"It is not good for the Communist Party to keep to its old ways", said Jiang He, who runs a hi-tech company in the western city of Chongqing.

China's rapid economic growth is proving a strong force for change, he said, pointing out that the media was already far more open in many ways than in the past.

"It's such an information age. There's no way anyone can block everything," he said.

China's 11,000 newspapers and periodicals, along with its 600-plus radio and TV stations, are more intent these days on satisfying the demands of the market than the state censor, who no longer pays their bills.

"People are not interested in reading politically-correct communiques in their newspapers," according to John Kennedy, a Canadian journalism graduate based in the southern province of Guangdong.

"The media have seized upon pushing harder and digging deeper, writing about corruption and Communist Party scandals as ways to sell more papers," he said.

China's leaders are faced with a dilemma. They need the media to help keep a rein on local officials, whose abuses of power are already causing unrest.

But they worry that too much exposure may cause still more unrest.




SEE ALSO
Party elders attack China censors
14 Feb 06 |  Asia-Pacific
China defends internet regulation
15 Feb 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Top Chinese press editor sacked
29 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific
China's breakneck media revolution
19 Aug 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Breaking down the Great Firewall
30 Apr 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Chinese newspaper editor freed
31 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific

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