In a talk here at the University of Hong Kong more than a month ago, I made the modest suggestion that two initial steps toward political reform in China might be more tolerant treatment of the media and greater respect for the rights of ordinary Chinese. In the discussion that followed several people objected to the feebleness of these hopes. “Shouldn’t we expect more?” they asked.
But over the past week, even these “feeble” hopes have faced powerful resistance in China. And never would I have guessed that the first test, and China’s first major news episode of 2013, would unfold at my old newspaper, Southern Weekly.
The standoff now dubbed the “Southern Weekly New Year’s greeting incident” (南周新年献词事件) was ignited by the callous intrusion of provincial propaganda authorities in Guangdong into the production of the newspaper’s New Year’s edition. In the backlash that followed, censorship was singled out for criticism.
For people who want to better understand the Southern Weekly incident, there are two pieces in particular that I recommend. The first, “The Party’s Suppression of the Media is Exposed” (中共钳制媒体揭秘), was written by former Southern Metropolis Daily editor-in-chief Cheng Yizhong (程益中). The second, “Who Revised the New Year’s Greeting at Southern Weekly” (究竟谁删改了南方周末新年献词), was written by Zeng Li (曾礼).
Zeng, in fact, was assigned to Southern Weekly as a content reviewer (审读员), and in the midst of the crisis he published a blog post that struck a counterblow to suggestions that provincial propaganda leaders had not been responsible for the blow up at Southern Weekly. Zeng offered conclusive evidence of censorship.
To be exact, China does not have (or typically has not had) the kind of censorship over copy that was the practice under the Kuomintang. Under Mao Zedong, the message in the media was entirely unified. In the Deng Xiaoping era there was at last talk of news reform (新闻改革), and one deputy propaganda minister even said at the time: “What newspapers do and don’t publish should be decided by newspapers themselves.”
In the aftermath of the June Fourth crackdown in 1989, however, media returned to a state of strict control. In the Jiang Zemin era, daily controls on news media were mostly exercised as “prior orders and bans” (事前禁令) and as “ex post facto punishment” (事后追惩).
Ban and Punish
When I served as executive deputy editor-in-chief of Southern Weekly from 1998 to 2001, I witnessed numerous “orders and bans” and repeated instances of “punishment.”
Orders and bans essentially delimit and confine your work before publication. They tell you what you can and cannot cover, and how. They may tell you also what you must cover. Punishment is generally meted out by the News Commentary Group (阅评组) of the propaganda department, which monitors media content, sending orders for discipline when “problems” are discovered after the fact.
During my time at Southern Weekly we routinely received ten or more “news commentaries” each year from the Central Propaganda Department. Each time this happened, the leaders up top — at our mother paper, the official Nanfang Daily — would suffer palpitations of anxiety. Any time a news commentary came we would be summoned to discuss the matter. We would put our heads together and determine whether a self-criticism was necessary, or whether some other disciplinary measure had to be taken.
My own fate, my removal as a top editor at Southern Weekly, was sealed once I had collected a fair number of these “news commentaries.” One troublesome report became the final straw, and so it was my turn to go.
Southern Weekly has enjoyed the protection of Guangdong’s provincial Party leadership in the past. But during those years I was at the paper, the situation grew steadily worse. Even at that time, though, there were never any instances of prior censorship exercised from outside the newspaper.
While at Southern Weekly I oversaw the creation of three New Year’s special issues. All were the work of the editorial office.
Prior Censorship Released From Its Cage
As Cheng Yizhong has noted, toward the end of the Jiang Zemin era the orders and bans of the propaganda department went underground. They were no longer delivered in written form.
After 2005, controls tightened. Following the creation in the early 1990s of the News Commentary Group, the Central Propaganda Department then formed a “content review system” (审读制度), placing “reviewers,” or shenduyuan (审读员), directly inside media regarded as strategically important. These reviewers would exercise prior censorship on media content. At the same time, a group of trusted propaganda officials were appointed as editors in chief at newspapers in order to take strict precautions.
As tight as things got — with every branch and blade of grass mistaken for the enemy — the attitude of propaganda officials toward those media seen as more outspoken was one of trepidation. The Central Propaganda Department became much more hands-on, displaying its power before newspapers like Southern Weekly.
Zeng Li, the reviewer at Southern Weekly, has revealed that since May 2012, when Tuo Zhen (庹震) became the new minister of propaganda for Guangdong province, the control and oversight of newspapers in Guangdong reached an extent previously unseen. The theme of each issue of Southern Weekly had to be reported to the provincial propaganda office, and editorial could only proceed after this had been approved.
Important news reports and editorials all had to go through a review process at the propaganda office before they could be published. There was even one instance in which notification of a report’s deletion came only after the newspaper had gone to press, so that hundreds of thousands of copies had to be destroyed. (Another friend at Southern Weekly says that there were in fact four cases in 2012 of reports being killed after the issue had gone to press).
The Five Cuts (连挨五刀)
The editorial process surrounding the 2013 New Year’s special edition of Southern Weekly is in fact a living specimen of news censorship in contemporary China. In the midst of this storm, the Professional Ethics Committee of Southern Weekly (新闻职业伦理委员会) released a version of the internal process involved in the creation the New Year’s edition. This account paints a reliable portrait of the rough intrusion of news censorship.
Having been involved in the New Year’s edition, I understand just how important it is as a mark of the Southern Weekly brand. The issue is highly anticipated by readers, and the process of getting the issue out is painstaking. this is especially true when everything you do is so carefully scrutinized.
Preparations for this issue began in early December. The theme agreed upon initially was “crossing the river,” a reference of course to Deng Xiaoping’s famous statement about the reform process as “crossing the river by feeling the stones.” The theme proposal was passed on to the paper’s editor-in-chief, Huang Can (黄灿), by the editorial office. It was mid-month before a response came back from Huang. He advised instead that the issue center around the idea of the “China Dream” (中国梦), a decision made entirely to appease propaganda leaders.
On December 23, the editorial office provided a written plan for the issue to Huang Can. On the 24th, Huang submitted the plan to provincial propaganda authorities. Importantly, this was the first time in the paper’s history that the New Year’s special edition was subjected to prior censorship.
In fact, this prior censorship of the Southern Weekly involved what we can call “five cuts” (身挨五刀), as follows:
FIRST CUT: Many proposed topics for the issue were rejected. On December 26, the first opinion came back from the provincial propaganda office. It dealt mostly with “people.” Many planned profiles of certain people had to be removed.
SECOND CUT: The New Year’s Greeting (新年献词) in the issue was delivered twice for review and revision by propaganda authorities. The original title of the Southern Weekly greeting was “China’s Dream, the Dream of Constitutionalism” (“中国梦，宪政梦”). Huang Can was unhappy with the editorial and so he made revisions and then sent it to propaganda authorities. The paper was then ordered to work on another draft, which was again submitted. The draft submitted on December 31 was cut down to 1,000 words. The title was, “We Are Closer to Our Dream Than Ever Before” (我们比任何时候都更接近梦想).
THIRD CUT: Major cuts were made to the inside pages of the special issue. On the night of December 31, as production of the issue was in its final stages, Huang Can conveyed further opinions from the propaganda office to the paper’s editors. An entire page was cut that included an end-of-the-year round up of major news stories. An order later came for the deletion of two more articles. The editors had no choice but to spend another two hours laying out the issue.
FOURTH CUT: There was an attempt to entirely supplant the front page of the issue. As the editors were laying out the page, Huang Can took a photo of the front page with his mobile phone and sent it to the propaganda office.
In the early hours of January 1, 2013, Huang Can suddenly informed the editors of the latest “opinion” from propaganda authorities. First, authorities said the front-page image from Chinese history of Yu the Great Taming the Waters was too dark — it might be misinterpreted, they said. It had to be replaced by an image of an aircraft carrier. Second, the words “China’s Dream, a Dream [Glimpsed Through] Adversity” (中国梦, 梦之难) could not be used for the front-page of the issue.
After hearing these instructions, the mood of the editors essentially collapsed. The deadline for signing off on the proofs had long since passed. Major changes were basically impossible. After some back and forth, it was agreed that the image could stay. The headline was changed to “Homeland Dreams” (家国梦).
FIFTH CUT: This was the last and most serious cut, and it happened after the entire production process had finished. At around 3 a.m. on January 1, with work finally finished, the editors responsible for the special issue signed the pages. The deputy editor was the last to sign before the proofs went off to the printer. The editors then switched off their mobiles and went home.
At first light, the editor-in-chief and deputy editor-in-chief were called back to the provincial propaganda office and ordered to make further changes to the issue. The focus was on the front-page and the annual greeting. Provincial propaganda authorities said they wanted introductory remarks added to the front page. These words were attributed to Guangdong’s propaganda chief, Tuo Zhen (庹震), once the incident had boiled over onto China’s internet.
Based on what we know now, it is likely the introductory remarks were dictated orally by the deputy propaganda minister, Yang Jian (杨健), and transcribed by the deputy editor-in-chief before being sent back by mobile for a final approval. The final, final version of the introductory remarks was then sent back by propaganda authorities for publication.
It is not yet clear exactly who finalized the text, which included grade-school errors — referring, for example, to the historical episode of Yu the Great Taming the Waters as occurring 2,000 years ago. In fact, Yu the Great lived between 2,200 and 2,100 B.C.. You do the math.
Still unsatisfied, authorities also turned again to the New Year’s greeting (which, remember, had been censored three times already). Several lines were removed and around 100 words added. One casualty of this final draft was the last surviving instance of the word “constitutionalism,” the idea at the heart of the original. Additions to the greeting included language pulled directly from the political report to the recent 18th National Congress — “[We have] confidence in our theory, confidence in our path and confidence in our system.”
On the night of January 1, provincial propaganda authorities ordered that the title of the special issue be changed to “Seeking Dreams” (追梦). With the editorial staff now off duty, it was now up to the editor-in-chief and deputy editor-in-chief of Southern Weekly to head to the print room and carry out the final instructions.
I ask any of my fellow Chinese journalists to consider as they read this account: Have you ever seen such an editorial process as this? I am plenty familiar with the process of media control in China, but I find this case astounding! Is there anything these controls don’t fuss about? Content plans. Issues. Specific topics. Drafts. Photos . . . Everything, absolutely everything, must serve the goals of the propaganda office. And the journalists and editors of the newspaper are little more than servants to be ordered around. The staff at Southern Weekly labored through exhaustion day after day, not to put out the best issue of the newspaper possible but to deal with the tortuous whims of propaganda officials. These controls are like a nightmare that goes on day after day, month after month.
Southern Weekly is a commercial product — even though, naturally, it is a special kind of product. Southern Weekly is a commercially operating enterprise whose boss ultimately is the Chinese Communist Party. But China today already has a “modern enterprise system” (现代企业制度). Look at today’s state-run enterprises. Can Party leaders trifle as they please with the managers of these enterprises? Can they just head over and poke their fingers into the operation of these businesses? Of course not. But such chronic symptoms of the planned economy are still very much alive within today’s system of news and propaganda.
The First “No”
The Southern Weekly incident is important first and foremost because it exposes what has been happening behind the scenes. Over a period of several years, media controls have been transforming and becoming much stricter. Methods of prior censorship have been applied shamelessly in the darkness.
In recent years, devoted readers of Southern Weekly have bemoaned the fact that the newspaper has been less strong and less critical, that it has been missing altogether from many major stories. Increased doses of official jargon and empty talk in its pages has not gone unnoticed.
Former Southern Weekly reporter Li Haipeng (李海鹏) wrote on Chinese social media recently: “I arrived at Southern Weekly in 2002 and left in 2009. I saw for myself that there wasn’t a day that the paper didn’t struggle under strict control. It was like a tree that would lose a branch today and another tomorrow . . . ”
Readers of Southern Weekly had no way of knowing how much truth had been buried by the heavy hand of prior censorship — how many sparks had been snuffed out.
The staff at Southern Weekly had suffered long. But this time they hit their limit. Their demands were specific. They wanted a rollback of prior censorship. They wanted editors to have autonomy again.
Propaganda leaders may be more careful after this showdown over censorship. But the road to freedom of expression as guaranteed in Article 35 of China’s Constitution will be a long one. The orders and bans will continue. Punishments will still await those who step too far over the line.
But we can say that things have begun. For the first time, the word “NO” has resounded within China’s media system. The game of competing interests we saw played out this week was like none we have seen before.
My hope is that China’s leaders will have the wisdom to distinguish between those who desire and support a fresh approach to governance, and those whose disgusting actions only create anger and mistrust.
The time has come for greater tolerance of the media. The time has come to be more respectful of the people’s rights. On the issue of political reform, we can delay no longer.