After months of silence, veteran journalist speaks out about the “death” of an independent journal

By David Bandurski — For two and half years veteran Chinese journalist and former CMP fellow Zhai Minglei (翟明磊) and others went quietly to work on Minjian (民间), China’s first magazine telling the stories of grassroots activists working for the betterment of Chinese society. They had no political or financial ambitions, but were driven only, says Zhai, by their belief in the principles of civil society. After cooperating with authorities since July in an effort to save Minjian amidst a government crackdown on “illegal publications”, including the China Development Brief, Zhai has decided to speak out in an open letter explaining the circumstances surrounding Minjian‘s “death.”

“Had it not been for Minjian’s closure, we would have worked forever in silence,” writes Zhai.

“Up to now no formal decision has been rendered concerning how to deal with Minjian, but we have already given up all fantasies [about its future], and as a public intellectual I must raise my own voice.”

minjian-cover-good-01.JPG

[ABOVE: Cover image of March 2005 edition of Minjian.]

Zhai’s letter depicts an NGO sector under increasing pressure from Chinese authorities, facing what he calls, alluding to periodic law-enforcement crackdowns, an “intellectual strike hard campaign.”

Zhai Minglei spoke at the recent Chinese Blogger Con 2007 in Beijing as a panel member on grassroots media in China [Blogger Con in Chinese]. His letter, distributed to friends and colleagues by e-mail on November 12, shows the extraordinary pressures facing grassroots media in China, and the tangle of confusing laws and regulations that can be used unaccountably by authorities for political ends.

Minjian‘s demise exposes yet again China’s growing crisis of information. Even as China’s economy is growing rapidly and media commercialization is intensifying, even as there is a growing appetite for real information in a changing society, party officials continue to push back against public interest news coverage.

As Zhai says: “China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games might demonstrate that Chinese people are physically stronger and sturdier, but the death of Minjian reminds us that the mental horizons of the Chinese people are limited to the child’s playground. While the market is glutted with mediocre, materialistic consumer fare, public affairs news materials are repeatedly pressured and bled out.”

Roughly half of Zhai Minglei’s 18-page letter follows:

—————

Minjian, she dies with a smile

Zhai Minglei (翟明磊)

Lately, a number of readers have phoned me to ask why they haven’t yet seen the Summer and Autumn editions of Minjian. For this reason, I feel I must offer readers an explanation.

Minjian has been cut down, and though we have covered the wounds on her chest, the bloodstains creep silently across the sheets. Minjian has worked mildly and delicately to build a civil society, but we cannot hold back from this earnest account:

On the morning of July 6, 2007, just as the Summer edition of Minjian had been delivered to Sun Yatsen University’s Center for Citizens and Development (中山大学公民与发展中心), and just a volunteers were preparing packs and parcels [for circulation], three people from the Cultural Inspection Brigade of Guangzhou’s press and publications office [the local GAPP office] including Wu Peng (吴鹏) stormed into the center. They presented a document with the official seal of the Guangzhou Publication Appraisals Committee (广州市出版物鉴定委员会). It said that the Spring edition of Minjian was an illegal publication because it did not have a publishing unit or publishing license. They then proceeded to confiscate 5,036 copies of Minjian’s Summer edition. At the same time, they ordered us to cease publication of Minjian.

This action must have been planned in advance and the documents prepared. It so happened that it was during these two days that the China Development Brief, which had been operating for 13 years, was shut down.

Several days later, Zhu Jiangang (朱健刚), an associate professor at the Center for Civil Society (公民社会中心), was ordered to cooperate with an investigation. The enforcement official told him that they did not know exactly what was going on, but that they had received orders from above. They were under a lot of pressure, the official said, and had been told to refer the case to police because the number of printed copies had been substantial.

Enduring much humiliation and hardship, Professor Zhu tried to reason with the authorities and salvage Minjian’s hopes. Thirty days later there was still no word on our case. They said it didn’t need to be referred to the police so long as we agreed not to publish Minjian.

They said that according to Article 55 of the [1999] State Council Statute on Publishing Management anyone “daring to set up a publication without going through approvals …. will be banned …. and will be liable to a fine of between 10,000 and 50,000 yuan for illegal business activities.” [NOTE_Bandurski: This text actually appears in article 45 of the Statute]. Minjian was shut down and ordered to pay a fine of 30,000 yuan. Minjian’s lawyer felt this was entirely unreasonable. First of all, Minjian had received approval from an academic institution and was therefore an academic publication within the law. Secondly, Minjian was a publication working for the public good, and had no business or income whatsoever, so there was no call for a fine [under the State Council statute]. Thirdly, Minjian’s content was of a healthy nature, without so much as a hint of content the government might regard as indecent or reactionary.

The authorities did not listen to our appeals, and made no adjustments.

After we were prevented from publishing, the electronic version of Minjian started appearing online. At this point (August 20) the Web Police appeared at our office, demanding that we stop our production of the online version of Minjian. We replied that that the ban on publishing applied to published materials but did not prevent online dissemination, and besides our content was entirely legal. The police simply waved this aside. We were reminded at this time of the old idiom: “Controlling the common people is more important than controlling the bandits”. [NOTE_Bandurski: Here Zhai is making a play on words, as the idiom contains the first character, "min", of the publication, which means “common people.”]

Simply because he introduced the contents of the summer edition of Minjian [on his site], Peng Weifeng (彭微风), manager of the Mumian Huakai (木棉花开) web forum, was taken in for questioning by Web police, who said he was “under suspicion of publicizing an illegal publication.” It was for this reason that the Mumian forum was closed down.

After this several blogs excerpting Minjian content were closed . . . The Minjian website [hosted overseas] was blocked.

A screening at the Pudong Shimin Center (浦东市民中心) in Shanghai of our film “Country Teacher”, done according to a Minjian report, was notified a day in advance that it was to be cancelled. After this, two alternate venues, citing strange reasons, refused screening.

I’ve truly never heard of such methods being used to target a small publication.

As it stands, we’ve exhausted all possibilities for ensuring Minjian’s survival in whatever form. We’ve received great support from many friends. We’ve worked so hard for the survival of the magazine not out of resistance but because of our belief in the principle of civil society. A civil society abides by the law, but it cannot take orders. We abide by national laws, but only when we need not obey such “orders” as these will we truly have an independent civil society.

Up to now no formal decision has been rendered concerning how to deal with Minjian, but we have already given up all fantasies [about its future], and as a public intellectual I must raise my own voice.

We have kept entirely silent over these past two months for two reasons. First, because as law-abiding citizens we felt confident that we were clean, and we wanted to give the authorities confidence that we were cooperating before there was a clear result. Secondly, even as foreign news media turned their attention to our case we had no desire, as people doing real work [rather than causing trouble or seeking publicity], to exploit the opportunity. Now that the ripples have subsided, I feel empowered to write as I wish.

[Birth and Beginning]

[Scholar] Li Shenzhi (李慎之) once said that if he had another life he would spend it as a citizen teacher (公民教员). My colleagues at Sun Yatsen University’s Center for Civil Society wanted to achieve Old Li’s ideal in their own lifetimes. Minjian’s core phrase was: “Acting to transform existence” (行动改变生存). The stories we told were about people in China working together for the public good.

Launching Minjian was a simple idea. One teacher involved in the launch talked about how when they were in America on a fellowship they discovered that their old landlord was a member of scores of civic organizations — reading clubs, choral groups, etc. Teacher Liang said that whenever China could reach such a developed civil society that would be great. She paid special attention to the capacity of Chinese to organize themselves. My own involvement stemmed from interviews I had done with more than 300 evictees. I became weary with the way these people placed their hopes in the government and benevolent leaders. One phrase during the launch spoke to my deepest convictions: “All of these years we’ve looked to the heavens, and forgotten to look to one another.”

I could utter ten-thousand words, but the words “civic enlightenment [awakening]” probably best sums up [our impetus for launching Minjian].

And what do civic teachers use to teach? Our thought was to use the stories of the people themselves. Minjian’s style was direct and earnest. We told things how they were. It was a publication with a heartbeat and a body temperature. Reporters for Minjian endured many hardships over the last two years. They often returned from reporting stints covered with fleas and bites [Note_Bandurski: The reference to insect bites, or hongbao (红包), literally “red envelope”, is a play on words suggesting that Minjian reporters were dedicated to fighting the good fight, unlike many establishment journalists in China for whom it is routine to accept envelopes of cash in payment for positive publicity]. It was in this way that we came back with the most living stories of the people. Ordinary intellectuals, we are a bit bookish in our own way. The only think we knew was to foolishly pour our hearts into this little publication. One editor I respect very much grew farsighted laboring over the pages. One of our female reporters came back from the field with 28 flea bites. My own eyes have yet to recover from fatigue.

The first year we did the magazine from our homes. Eventually we had more than 200 volunteers working to get the magazine out to readers . . .

Minjian was China’s first public welfare publication telling the stories of grassroots activists. It was completely independent, telling stories from the vantage point of the common people. It covered such issues as environmental protection, rights defense, relief for the poor, and rural development.

[Reasons]

One reason Minjian did not have a publishing license is because under China’s current publishing environment, publishing licenses are held and controlled by publishing organs designated by the state. Individuals cannot obtain publishing licenses, and even academic bodies like the Center for Civil Society do not have the right hold publishing licenses. For this reason, publishing licenses that should be obtained freely have become a kind of resource, and licenses for monthly publications can be sold on the open market for over 200,000 yuan. As a resource for the public good promoting action on public welfare, Minjian had no aims to profit in the marketplace, nor did we want to bear this unjust cost. Even more important was the sponsoring institution and press censorship that would come with the publishing license. [Note_Bandurski: In China all licenses for publishing are held by sponsoring institutions, or zhuguan danwei (主管单位), that are responsible for ensuring party propaganda discipline at publications under their watch.] Minjian had no intention of tying its own hands and feet.

Therefore, Minjian decided to deliver the publication as an internal resource by post to the individuals and organizations that required it. As Minjian was directed toward publicizing the public welfare, any individual or group within the public welfare system interested in public welfare could become a Minjian reader. Minjian was offered free of charge. We undertook no profit-seeking activities, nor did we ever publicly distribute the magazine.

Minjian was therefore a not-for-profit public welfare publication for closed circulation. Moreover, Sun Yatsen University’s Center for Civil Society is a nationally approved secondary national research institute created in cooperation with the sociology department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and tasked with researching civil society and the management of public welfare work, and promoting civic education. It was founded before the Civil Society Center at Peking University [which has not been under pressure]. The formation of Minjian was approved by the Foreign Affairs Office of Sun Yatsen University, and received twenty-odd official stamps. For us all of the sudden to be branded “an illegal publication” is truly perplexing.

We did not apply for an internal printing permission certificate (内部准印证) because this unaccountable permission is an affront to publishing freedoms, its application process is complicated, and most internal newsletters now pay no attention to this kind of internal printing permission certificate.

There are now many rigorous academic materials of this kind within the university system. And among NGOs these kinds of materials now exist everywhere. This includes the recently shut down China Development Brief, which existed for 13 years.

China does not at present have a Press Law or Publishing Law.

The only relevant document is the State Council’s Publishing Management Ordinance of February 1, 2002, which includes a 1991 General Administration of Press and Publications provision on handling of closures of illegal publications. There are no stipulations or limitations concerning closed circulation publications like Minjian, and all articles are in regard to publications circulated publicly and for profit.

Minjian was an internal academic resource, not for profit, not circulated publicly and only delivered by post to persons within the public welfare sector.

In the materials we’ve reviewed and the document authorities have presented to us, on a single phrase, in a notice from Guangdong’s press and publications office concerning illegal publications, about “printing and reproduction of books, periodicals, audiovisual materials, etc, for internal use without prior approval from administrative offices dealing with publishing.” But it is unclear where the legal basis is [in the action taken against us].

If indeed it is this clause [from the Guangdong notice’] then all of the internal organizational publications and materials of NGOs in China are illegal publications. Without approval from all the various levels [of the government] NGOs have no way of printing materials and publicizing their own concepts and public welfare work.

And so it is with all of those small booklets we circulate among friends and acquaintances in China as a form of interaction or to seek the appreciation of friends, or those various poetry collections we call people’s publications (民刊), all reading materials shared among colleagues. All they need is to be printed and they are illegal publications.

And what about those internal materials printed by enterprises, their marketing materials, introductions to their products appearing in booklet form? And what of collected lectures teachers print on their own? Are all of these illegal publications too?

[According to the above clause] internal use is not permitted, and so external use is even less acceptable. According to this logic any and all printed materials in China must be approved by administrative organs dealing with publishing. This is not only a violation of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of publishing and expression — it’s also plainly ridiculous.

[Here Zhai quotes from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Original quote not found].

Therefore I believe that there is no freedom whatsoever to speak of unless there is true freedom to publish.

We believe there should be a clear-cut Press Law and Publishing Law. Otherwise, local governments and lower-level government departments can use various regulations to suppress freedom of speech and freedom to publish as suits them. When they deal loosely, licenses can be bought and sold, when they deal harshly, even strict internal academic publications in the public welfare, such as Minjian, are targeted. Pushing this to the limit, any printed materials that have not received direct approval from authorities can be deemed illegal printed materials . . .

What Minjian has faced is a sort of “intellectual strike hard” [literally “spiritual” or “mental”] campaign without any legal basis whatever.

This strike hard campaign has already developed beyond pornographic and opposition publications to hit serious investigative internal materials like the China Development Brief and Minjian. What does it matter [in their view] that these have real academic institutions or NGOs behind them? They are now dealing with the cultural field as they might with [unauthorized] vegetable markets, treating professors and doctoral students as roughly as they [commercial police, deputized security officers, etc.] might treat peddlers, interfering with academic freedoms.

Without freedom of expression it’s not only citizen teachers like us [that are at risk], but all of those buds of thought differing from the [party’s] main line that might bring about social progress stand to be trampled and destroyed . . .

Here I would just like to extend my personal sympathies to the China Development Brief. What nonsense it is that social research without approval should become a crime! For 13 years the China Development Brief presented to the world objective and even-handed research on China’s healthy growth. In the end for it to be cut down in such a way is, even from the perspective of the censors, an “unintelligent” move – I’ll refrain from using the word “stupid”. What a pity to lose such an excellent force of unity.

Any liberal government will welcome NGO and volunteer organizations to assist the weaker segments of society and mitigate social contradictions. But lately more conservative elements in our government have been on guard against NGOs . . . Is there really any need to prevent NGOs and citizens from speaking?

Lest readers think exaggerating, let me share a story that happened to me personally. I’m an acting director of Green Roots [a Shanghai-based NGO]. Our organization is involved in the building of NGO capacity, support and training. Last year the Center for Civil Society held a workshop and posted a pre-announcement online. After the announcement appeared, the abovementioned Web authorities maintained that a reactionary organization called “Workshop” had recently been formed, supported by Americans. Only after a lot of explaining from a number of sides did the authorities admit they had been seriously misinformed by this grave notice of enemy threats. Not long after, the authorities (abovementioned) said my brother-in-law was orchestrating popular movements with financial support from America. I explained that I was an only child. The younger sister they were talking about was in fact a friend with the same surname whose mother was working as a maidservant in the States and sending money back to China for the family. But last year the office again stepped up and said that I had, in cahoots with lawyer Gao Zhisheng, organized rights defense figures across the nation to sign a letter of protest at a conference in Shanghai. They had all the specifics worked out, such as at which restaurant near the rear gate of Shanghai Jiaotong University we had rendezvoused. Once again, I explained that no such thing had happened, that I didn’t personally know Mr. Gao, and that the address they had was a place where we held performances of folk dramas. Is this really possible! This office clearly wishes to make an example of Green Roots, and they have no qualms about resorting to rumor, saying for example that Minjian was run by Green Roots [rather than a research institute within Sun Yatsen University], or that all the articles were instigated, checked and approved by Oxfam. Their lack of understanding of NGOs approaches sheer ignorance. So the shut down of Minjian became a key task, a consolation for their vain pursuit of Green Roots over these last few years. What more can be said about this paranoia? If this government body persists with such misinformation, how many more NGOs will fall unjustly under the axe! Having lost any semblance of a normal working environment, we have lately been forced into disbanding Green Roots.

As a citizen I must protest this abuse of taxpayers’ money to fund campaigns of misinformation. Who has any idea how many American-supported “reactionary groups” these people will dream up!

But the most critical thing is that we have no idea how to appeal to this mysterious government office, and perhaps the only thing to do is appeal to the newly-appointed head of the Ministry of State Security, particularly as you, sir, are an expert on American affairs. First, your policies on management of NGOs are wrong. All of the NGOs Minjian reported on, the one-hundred or so with which I’ve personally had contact, consist entirely of well-meaning and law-abiding citizens. They have no political designs, and certainly are not the hatchet men of anti-Chinese powers overseas. As for Oxfam, this is a fund with broad support from residents in Hong Kong, and all the people I know involved in Oxfam projects are working on poverty assistance in the countryside. Second, keep your subordinates in check so they do not carelessly pursue cases.

Government and society are separate domains. In the social domain, pure people’s organizations should be allowed to operate . . . Right now the government not only monopolizes the bulk of charitable funds but also treats NGOs with unbridled suspicion. The closing of the James Yen Reconstruction Institute is a clear example. Not only should the government refrain from taking on social duties, it should not interfere with the natural development of society, and China is at present in a stage of social reconstruction.

I’ve thought a great deal about why these misunderstandings have arisen. Aside from the low character of these government offices, there is the issue of Chinese psychology. In economics there is something called “conspiracy theory”. Why should these offices suppose NGOs are spearheading political movements? Because in their subconscious Chinese blindly worship power, and from ancient times to now, whether official themselves or the common people, all have placed their hopes for good governance in the government itself, gazing up to the highest levels of political power. For this reason, very few have ever worked to enlighten the public and rebuild society. This leads the government office to this train of thought: “What is all this for, this back-breaking research you guys carry out without a thought to fame or profit? It must be that you’re after political power.” Let me tell you, we’re after nothing more than the strength of character of the Chinese people. We’re laboring away in the mud. We do not blindly worship power . . . We are not doing political work, but awakening civic consciousness. [Without a properly functioning civil society] democratic politics will be malformed. We are willing to work our whole lives in obscurity as civic teachers. We want to accomplish the work of James Yen, the work of Liang Shu-ming. Had it not been for Minjian’s closure, we would have worked forever in silence.

What is the most difficult thing to do in China? The good deed. A publication reporting on public welfare is shut down . . . In his report to [the recent] 17th National Congress, President Hu Jintao said we must work hard on civic education, yet Minjian, the only publication to make civic education its duty, is closed down. Who then should we believe?

Drowsy Minjian, she dies with a smile. Because it is she who opted for this way of publishing, to get around press controls and stand for the common people. She consents to this use of death, a reminder to us all of just how far we have to go to reach freedom of speech and of the press. A reminder of how near the bullets are.

The sirens should be sounded. In every nation with freedom of the press across the world there are publishing licenses [or book numbers, etc.] for the sole purpose of record keeping, but only in China have these become a weapon of censorship and control, so that even internal printing requires a certificate with official approval, and so too with online publications and electronic materials, and so too with at-home and hotel satellite television programming . . . The government’s eye glares in every corner where information freedoms are concerned in China.

In the late Qing Dynasty any adult citizen who was not mentally ill or a convict could start their own publication. Today our dream of private media has still not been realized.

China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympic Games might demonstrate that Chinese people are physically stronger and sturdier, but the death of Minjian reminds us that the mental horizons of the Chinese people are limited to the child’s playground. While the market is glutted with mediocre, materialistic consumer fare, public affairs news materials are repeatedly pressured and bled out.

. . . I am willing to take full responsibility as the founder and leader of this publication.

I am acting chief editor of Minjian, and I am prepared to stand with my colleagues in taking full responsibility, including legal responsibility. But more than this, I am a free journalist. You could say I was angry when I was let go from my position as a reporter for Southern Weekend those years ago, annoyed at press controls. But today it is not anger I feel. If I feel anything it is pity. Pity for Minjian, and pity that the efforts of the people [“Minjian”] have been ruined. With a delicate and gracious heart, Minjian sought to build a civil society – but the government branded her “an enemy of the public and an illegal publication.”

I pity too those backstage murderers, so terrified that Minjian should put off a bit of light and heat, that the tiniest voice might bring “grave consequences.” This was a year of development for Minjian. We had readers across the country and received recognition from various quarters. One of our first issues to be shut down dealt with rights defense actions in the area of land use, and perhaps this is one reason our “old friends” [in the government] have been so afraid. During our second year authorities were clear about Minjian’s actions but never shut us down, so I thank them for their “tolerance” . . . Over these short two and a half years of Minjian’s existence, our colleagues at Minjian have enjoyed confidence and happiness and found joy in their work. They [the government] have put an end to our happiness. Nevertheless, we of Minjian still hope that they might find happiness [and freedom from fear and paranoia] – that they might cast off the psychological bent wrought of this long season of autocracy.

6 Comments to “After months of silence, veteran journalist speaks out about the “death” of an independent journal”

  1. Frankie Fook-lun Leung says:

    Journalists are the most feared professionals and at the same time the most pitiful human beings. My friend told me when he patronised an expensive night club in Beijing, the Mamasan introduced to her girls a customer: Mr. X is from the People’s Daily, that means he will get free sex services. Somebody must have paid for him. He wouldn’t be able to pay from his salary. On another occasion, one young female investigative journalist told me that she was trying to cover a politically sensitive trial in a court house, the security told her to leave. She had to hide in the toilet to sneak back into the court room after the security guard left. Her sense of professionalism is admirable but her situation is also pitiful. I asked her joking: does the toilet sting more than the court-room. You get the meaning.

  2. [...] Minglei (翟明磊), former journalist of China’s Southern Weekly, and editor-in-chief of the recently closed Minjian (民间) [...]

  3. [...] This is most likely connected to the notice I posted online informing readers of Minjian’s closure [zh], and I am prepared for the worst. This is the price to be paid in struggling for freedom of [...]

  4. [...] is in Chinese. Earlier: Journalist speaks out about the “death” of Minjian (CMP).Beijing Daily Messenger goes underground: From Interfax, an interview with Bi Kun, president [...]

  5. Doug says:

    Fantastic.

  6. [...] Journalist speaks out about the “death” of Minjian: At CMP, David Bandurski presents a letter by Zhai Minglei that documents the circumstances surrounding the shutdown of Minjian, a non-profit magazine about grassroots activism supported by Sun Yat-sen University:For two and half years veteran Chinese journalist and former CMP fellow Zhai Minglei (翟明磊) and others went quietly to work on Minjian (民间), China’s first magazine telling the stories of grassroots activists working for the betterment of Chinese society. They had no political or financial ambitions, but were driven only, says Zhai, by their belief in the principles of civil society. After cooperating with authorities since July in an effort to save Minjian amidst a government crackdown on "illegal publications", including the China Development Brief, Zhai has decided to speak out in an open letter explaining the circumstances surrounding Minjian’s "death." [...]

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