Where is the line?

In January this year, Chang Ping (长平), a former CMP fellow and one of China’s most outspoken columnists, was forced to resign from the Southern Daily Group, where he had long been a permanent fixture, writing for Southern Weekend, Southern Metropolis Daily and other publications.

Last week’s edition of Sunday Life, a supplement of Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper, ran an interview with Chang Ping by Pei-fen Li (黎佩芬) at Hong Kong Baptist University, where Chang is currently serving as a research fellow.

In the interview, Chang discusses censorship (and self-censorship) in China, the changes Chinese media have undergone, and the challenges they continue to face.

Do you all actually know where the line is? As we see it, you are very brave. For example, Time Weekly editor Peng Xiaoyun (彭晓云) doing [a special feature on] “100 People of the Times” and selecting Zhao Lianhai (赵连海), which was later ‘shelved’ [under pressure]. These are the kinds of things we routinely do at Sunday Life. But we don’t have to worry about running into trouble. In your case, though, it’s courageous.

Chang Ping:
And so she has to pay the price. Before you do it you’re never quite sure of the price. You know you’re taking some measure of risk, but sometimes you just want to try, because if you don’t try you’ll never know for sure. We don’t have a press law [in mainland China], and the lines are very unclear. If you don’t test them you have no way of knowing where they are . . . In a large sense, they rely for [effective controls] your own self-censorship and grasp, on your self-discipline and phone calls from leaders [delivering directives]. But the words of leaders are not sufficiently clear either, so we talk about grasping the spirit [or sense] of our leaders. Your leaders are the ones you answer to, or those above them.

Self-censorship cannot be avoided?

Chang Ping:
It cannot be avoided.

It’s a part of life?

Chang Ping:

This is not how it works in Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a basic foundation of free speech. If a report shirks or conceals [certain facts] it will be criticized as a case of self-censorship.

Chang Ping:
For us [criticism comes when] we’ve said too much of what we shouldn’t. For you it’s when you’ve not said enough.

You’re trying. And perhaps the authorities are trying to, loosening their grip to see where you’ll go, and tightening back up when there’s a problem.

Chang Ping:
Sometimes this [tightening] happens because of some temporary thing, such as the Beijing Olympic Games, or the Asian Games. We are asked to reign ourselves in . . .

It’s the public that loses out, right? They should have a right to know. Do ordinary people have any conviction about this?

Chang Ping:
In recent years some media have told the public when they have an opportunity that they should have the right to know. But the official view is that if the media say too much this will cause social chaos and messy thinking. [They] say media report false information, create rumors or mislead [the public]. In the case of SARS, for example, if no one is told anything, everyone can go on living well, but as soon as you tell everyone they will live in terror.

So SARS in 2003 was a turning point?

Chang Ping:
It began before 2003, but 2003 further emphasized this fact. The Ministry of Health and the mayor of Beijing had to step down because they reported it too late.

But in fact, when officials delayed reporting [of other cases] later on, they did not have to step down, and so there was no real and substantive change. Stepping down is just a break. They still get paid, their treatment does not change. When our leaders are caught up in political infighting, it’s all about face, and the only impact is a matter of face. [Former top Shanghai leader] Chen Liangyu (陈良宇) is comfortable in prison, and it’s all half open. None of the perks really change, for example vice-ministerial status, sitting up front on airplanes, having one’s own driver, access to special foods (they won’t worry about eating poisonous foods), how much money they get, having police escorts.

Southern Metropolis Daily was launched in 1997, and it was seen as serving a vanguard role in the media. What was the role of media in society at the time?

Chang Ping:
Before Deng Xiaoping’s Southern Tour, the media were propaganda tools of the Party . . . After the Southern Tour, marketization took root in various corners [of society]. I entered media at that time. At that time if you could get your hands on a publishing license (kanhao) then you could launch a paper, and a kanhao could be sold or rented out. Major newspapers like Nanfang Daily, China Youth Daily, Beijing Youth Daily, all of them applied for licenses so they could launch spin-off papers and make money. Southern Weekend, Southern Metropolis Daily, and eventually Southern People Weekly, are all examples of this [kind of spin-off activity].

The media used marketization to open up more space, making newspapers for the public, and making newspapers for the sake of advertising [revenues]. While Southern Metropolis Daily was not launched until 1997, it was born against this background. After 1992, many metro newspapers [spin-offs relying on advertising] emerged all over the country, and many people with ideals and aspirations for journalism, who had no opportunities [for solid work] at the Party newspapers, also went to the metro newspapers. They used marketization as a weapon on the one hand, and on the other they tried to open a path for their own aspirations . . .

Recently, have [media in China] gone backwards? Remarks by Premier Wen Jiabao during the recent “two meetings” about human rights and democracy were deleted by Guangzhou media. How is it that even the words of Premier Wen can be deleted?

Chang Ping: Recently things have been very uneasy in the [Chinese] media. Even after the media commercialized [marketized], official controls on the media were not broken through. Also, commercial controls on the media emerged at the same time. Once they’ve made a bit of money, people are less brave. They want to preserve their own interests. They are more inclined toward self-censorship. Lately these two factors are quite serious in the media, and they [commercial interests and power interests] in fact often work together.

Do you know about [guilt by] implication? It’s like in the case of the One-Child Policy, by which if a woman in a village is found to have given birth to too many children, her neighbors are fined, because they neglected to inform on her . . . Within the same media group, if [say] Southern People Weekly, [a spin-off of Southern Metropolis Daily], makes a misstep [in terms of propaganda policy], then Southern Metropolis Daily will be forced to pay. This is their way of managing things.

The internet has opened up some space for expression. Ordinary people whose voices might not be heard can open up their own microblog accounts. But many people fail to realize the other side of this, which is that these web companies and commercial in orientation, and their [business] interests are their first concern. Overseas, Twitter makes no attempt to organize conversations, but Sina [which operates China’s largest domestic Twitter-like weibo platform], invites celebrities to come and join, sets up certain topics of conversation, builds up issues. Sina stock market value last year went up threefold. Out of fear that these things will be shut down, they supervise it themselves, and cooperate with the propaganda department.

Breaking through the control of the media will require pushing for changes to the [political] system.

Chang Ping interview with Danwei.org, March 1, 2011


2 Comments to “Where is the line?”

  1. ltlee says:

    Can someone raise more important questions next time?
    Does news in China, and if so, in what way make Chinese citizens dumb?

    American professor Sommerville had written a book with the title of “HOW THE
    NEWS MAKE US DUMB.” He argued that American press is making
    Americans dumb.

  2. Phil says:

    This fine interview deserves to be read widely re such issues as the media marketization since 1992, the ubiquity of self-censorship, and the continuing lack of a press law or publications law in the PRC. The lack of such a law is a holdover from Maoist times, i.e. the Chinese Communist Party’s insistence that it forever enjoys total flexibility and total expediency in its control over what at any given moment constitutes “crossing the red line.” In other words, the CCP and its propaganda organs continue to enjoy the Maoist privilege of moving the goalposts in any direction at any time in response to the CCP’s perceived needs of the moment. Because a publications law would limit the CCP’s longstanding ability to redefine the boundary between legal and illegal in different ways at different times, the CCP will continue to oppose a publications law in the PRC. This is one of the many ways in which the CCP sees to it that the Party remains above and beyond the law. Nothing short of fundamental change to the politial system of one-party authoritarian rule will alleviate the six-decade-long affliction of self-censorship and intrusive CCP control of the media in the PRC.

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