In a pointed reminder of the complex relationship between control and its subversion in China’s media, many professional journalists today mourned the passing of Zeng Li (曾礼), affectionately known as “Old Zeng,” a man who served as a “content examiner” (审读员) at Southern Weekly but also played a crucial role in the paper’s fight against overbearing censorship policies earlier this year.
Zeng Li passed away on April 3, just days after his retirement from Southern Weekly, a paper known for its strong independent streak in a tightly controlled media environment. He was 61 years old.
Journalists, writers and others took to Chinese social media, chatrooms and other forums to remember Zeng Li, his character and his contributions. They also widely circulated a copy of Zeng’s farewell letter, in which he looked back fondly but with some remorse on his time at Southern Weekly:
Looking back on these four years, I know I did things I shouldn’t have done, that I killed reports that I shouldn’t have killed, that I removed content I shouldn’t have removed. But in the end I had an awakening, preferring not to carry out my political mission, refusing to go against my conscience and to become a criminal of history.
Zeng had served as a content examiner at Southern Weekly since 2008, when authorities endeavoured to reign in outspoken newspapers in the Southern Daily Group, including Southern Weekly and Southern Metropolis Daily, by instituting a new system of prior censorship. For this purpose, a group of “old comrades,” including Zeng, were brought onboard and tasked with reviewing content ahead of publication. This policy was a marked departure from past practice, in which “news commentators,” or yuepingyuan (阅评员), from the Central Propaganda Department pored over news content after publication with an eye to identifying transgressions but prior censorship was not generally practiced.
In the midst of the Southern Weekly incident in January this year, when staff openly protested rigorous prior censorship and sought to defend the paper’s legacy, a blog post by Zeng Li called “Who Revised the New Year’s Greeting at Southern Weekly?” was instrumental in bringing the ugliness of these censorship tactics to light.
Responding to the news of Zeng’s death, China Media Project director Qian Gang (钱钢), a former managing editor at Southern Weekly, wrote on Sina Weibo and Facebook today:
Today is Grave Sweeping Day and I light a candle to remember a contemporary who has just passed away — Zeng Li, a former content examiner (审读员) at Southern Weekly. Three days ago I received personal correspondence from him on Weibo. Never did I think that this exchange would be our last. During our first days of correspondence, he sent me three notes talking about his blog post, “Who Revised the New Year’s Greeting at Southern Weekly.” I felt deep pain and sorrow at hearing the news. I salute this very unusual news examiner (检察官)!
“There is no longevity for the good,” one user wailed with a weeping emoticon.
Writer and journalist Xia Yu (夏榆) wrote in response to Qian Gang’s post:
When I was at Southern Weekly I had a lot of opinions about Zeng Li, feeling that the review system (审读制度) muzzled the life of Southern Weekly. When the storm happened at Southern Weekly last year [when propaganda chiefs were installed in top posts] I saw courage in Old Zeng’s actions. I saw that he treasured the newspaper’s tradition perhaps even more than the radical youth [working there], that he wanted to preserve its legacy. I pay my respects to Old Zeng and his courage and conscience!
Weng Sizai (翁思再), a veteran journalist and a researcher at East China Normal University, wrote: “I read his blog post in the midst of the Southern Weekly incident. What a pity!”
Zhu Yong (祝勇), a reporter at Southern Metropolis Daily, wrote: “What a great pity! When he announced his retirement I really felt we had gained one more voice for freedom.”
Lei Lei (雷磊), a reporter at Southern Weekly, wrote on Sina Weibo:
I drank with Old Zeng at the annual meeting, and with his typical good humor he tossed back a half glass of red wine. One month ago, when I had exhausted myself on a story outside [Guangzhou], Old Zeng offered me encouragement on Weibo. Do a good job of it, young one, he said. Before when I heard he was retiring I was happy for him to have the chance to live out his days in peace. Never did I think that four days later he would be gone. Over the past year you were a pleasant surprise for this newspaper, and during your last stretch you worked hard so that the paper could come out as normal . . . May the spirit of the deceased come back to us!
The full text in image form of Zeng Li’s farewell letter upon his retirement from Southern Weekly last month follows. The letter is well worth a read: