In China, Media Make Small Strides

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 28, 2008

BEIJING -- This fall, a scholarly magazine that focuses on Communist Party history pushed the envelope again.

Editors, emboldened a few years ago after writing about a rarely mentioned former top official the party had purged, published a cover story about a former party chief banned from mention in state-controlled media because of his support for students during the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Propaganda officials waited two months before visiting the magazine's director, Du Daozheng, an 85-year-old party loyalist. At his office, he said, they delivered a subtle message. "Mr. Du, you have been working so hard. And you are old now, right?" the men reportedly told Du, director of Yanhuang Chunqiu, last month. "The implication was that I should resign now," he said in an interview.

That Du and his publication were not treated as harshly as they would have been in years past was one sign of change for state-controlled media in today's China. But the encounter also serves as the latest example of the party's determination to control the media at a time when a financial downturn threatens to aggravate social tensions and several important anniversaries have made officials nervous about dissent.

Propaganda officials have cracked down on Chinese writers and journalists who signed an open letter, known as Charter '08, that calls for an end to one-party rule. More than 5,000 lawyers, activists, Nobel prize winners and leading Chinese scholars also have signed the petition. At the same time, officials have begun to see that more open reporting could be used to help quell unrest, so long as the media remain under the party's control.

"This year there is more openness in China's media, and more and more top officials support more openness," said Zhan Jiang, director of the journalism school at the China Youth University for Political Sciences.

"But the recent tense situation in the media may be caused by concerns about the current economic crisis, which is much worse than expected, and about the 20th anniversary of the June 4th incident next year," Zhan said, referring to the Tiananmen massacre.

In the summer, China hosted the Olympic Games, which showcased a modern, prosperous nation but also highlighted a repressive government unwilling to tolerate dissent. As China celebrated 30 years of opening up and reforming its economy this month, even the Olympic motto, "One World, One Dream," with its reference to universal values, sparked a debate over whether capitalistic Western values are bad for China.

Yanhuang Chunqiu, which supports gradual democratization, published a series of articles three years ago commemorating the birthday of Hu Yaobang, a former party chief and reformer whose death sparked the Tiananmen movement. Propaganda officials responded by destroying the remaining 5,000 copies of the 50,000-circulation magazine. Hu had not been banned from mention, and central government officials eventually held a small ceremony that month rehabilitating his public image.

This time, with circulation at 80,000, Du chose a more difficult subject: former secretary general Zhao Ziyang, a reformer fired in 1989 for siding with and trying to help the student demonstrators. The piece, written by a retired top editor of the official New China News Agency, was the first positive story about Zhao to appear since 1989. Although it did not mention the Tiananmen incident, the report was seen as a direct challenge to the government's version of the massacre and of Zhao's mistakes.

And yet Du was able to challenge the propaganda officials by reminding them that a group of retired senior leaders had elected him to run the magazine.

Thanks to the Internet and the increasing commercialization of Chinese media, the public has become more demanding of reform and less tolerant of corruption. Media organizations that depend on growing circulation or reform-minded publications such as Yanhuang Chunqiu reflect that.

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