When a corruption scandal swept through this northern Chinese city several weeks ago, leading to the dismissal of five high-level officials, the Communist Party tried to keep it secret from the people. Newspapers and broadcast stations, under strict censorship, were allowed to report only that the five had resigned, without saying why, and even that came two weeks after the fact.
Many people in Harbin and the surrounding Heilongjiang province, based on experience in a region with a long history of official malfeasance, assumed bribery and influence-peddling were involved. But as the gossip and speculation buzzed through Harbin and made their way south to Beijing, authorities maintained silence and party censors forced a blackout on the media.
Despite the rapid pace of reform in China over the last 25 years that has produced rich capitalists and a much freer social climate, information has remained tightly controlled government property. The country's 1.3 billion people still have the right to know only what the Communist Party's publicity department says they should, particularly on sensitive topics such as Taiwan and the doings of senior leaders.
Journalists for major Chinese publications, particularly those who deal directly with national-level censors in Beijing, say the reins have loosened in recent years, allowing more reporting in vanguard newspapers and magazines and on Web sites. But the party's power ultimately to decide what is reported, exercised with particular stringency regarding television and local papers, has remained intact even in the information age, they add.
"This is China's most obvious problem right now," said Jiao Guobiao, a Beijing University professor who made waves last spring with a Web site essay denouncing party censorship as heavy-handed and backward. "One reason it's so efficient is that all the top editors are government officials," he added. "They are not professional journalists. They are just like soldiers. They have to follow orders."
Chinese who depend on their own media for information were left in the dark three weeks ago, for instance, when President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan made what his aides described as a conciliatory appeal to resume discussions with China. Beijing's relationship with Taiwan is one of the most important subjects in the country, an issue that could lead the country to war. But only four days later, when the Chinese government announced its rejection of Chen's proposal, was the story allowed to be fully reported.
Signs have emerged that the government of President Hu Jintao, or parts of it, has set out to undo even the tentative loosening of recent years. Party declarations have exhibited what seem to be fears that the more open atmosphere could undermine the party's grip on information, perhaps even its power to rule.
"In 1996, Comrade Jiang Zemin emphasized many times that newspaper employees must keep in mind a very strong concept of national interests and must keep the secrets of the party, the nation and the army," Xu Guangchun, deputy director of the party publicity department, wrote recently in the official People's Daily, referring to China's former president and party leader.
"They must abide by news reporting disciplines in their work," he said.
A meeting of the Central Committee, which sets policy for the Communist Party, concluded in September that Communist control of the country is not guaranteed if the party is seen as doing a bad job, according to a party communique. Since then, the party has issued calls for ideological orthodoxy, urging students and its own officials to study Marxism-Leninism and Maoism more intensely. It also has silenced a bold magazine, arrested a New York Times researcher, closed a popular Beijing University chat site and, producing bitter smiles from students, barred a Tsinghua University site from discussing the closure of its rival.
Despite these steps, the party has had only limited success.
Party censors also have had difficulty in stifling Harbin's scandal. The city, 550 miles northeast of Beijing near the border with Russia, had already gained a reputation as a nest of corruption, particularly since the Chinese government began selling off Heilongjiang province's numerous money-losing state enterprises.
A former minister from the region was drummed out of the party at September's Central Committee meeting for accepting bribes, according to a party announcement. A half-dozen lower-ranking officials were dismissed here last year and put on notice that they were being investigated for allegedly selling nominations to positions of influence, whose holders could be expected to rake in bribes. One of those dismissed, Han Guizhi, a party personnel chief, became so well known as Harbin's go-to person for buying a lucrative post that she was nicknamed "Auntie Han," residents said.
A retired city official, who spoke on the condition he be identified only as Song, said locals assumed the five officials dismissed last month were forced out as a result of the continuing investigation into the job-selling network.
Judging by his and others' comments, the censorship encouraged the very cynicism toward the government and party that it was designed to prevent. It did not help that one of those dismissed last month, provincial procurator Xu Fa, had been chief editor of a book used at the provincial party training center and entitled, "How to Prevent Crime by Those in Official Positions."
"It is very common for Heilongjiang province to have so much corruption," Song, 67, said during a conversation in Harbin's Children's Park on a frigid but sunny morning.
"Do you see those big apartment buildings next to the park?" he continued, gesturing toward four high-rises. "No ordinary Harbin citizens can afford to buy apartments there. Most people who bought apartments there are officials from counties and towns. Where does their money come from? Everyone in this park knows where. The provincial party committee knows, too. But so what?"
The government in Beijing has warned of more arrests to come and, according to China Newsweek magazine, dispatched a 30-member team from the capital to fill posts being vacated because of corruption-related dismissals.
China Newsweek, which has no relation to the U.S. publication of a similar name, at least one other magazine and one newspaper broke the censorship barrier two weeks ago and reported the dismissal of the five Harbin officials. The publications were based in Beijing, which meant they were dealing with national censorship officials who, journalist say, tend to be more flexible than their provincial counterparts.
The city editor for a prominent Beijing daily said central party censors have become more sophisticated in recent years, relaying their views as advice rather than orders and focusing on specific stories rather than general topics.
But when the crunch comes, the party can wield its power however it decides, he added, calling the relationship between editor and censor "one-way communication."
Even in Beijing, editors trying to break stories such as the Harbin scandal have often had to resort to cat-and-mouse tactics to get sensitive news into the paper. One stratagem, they said, is to turn off cell phones and tell their secretaries to inform callers the boss is out. Another is to keep a story quiet until 5 p.m., when most censorship bureaucrats leave for home, and then push it into the paper so the news is out by the time censors' advice notices are faxed over the next day.
The party's judgment about what the public should know differs greatly from what it believes its own officials should know. According to involved journalists, the country's most clearly official organs -- New China News Agency, China News Agency, People's Daily and Guangming Daily -- have multi-channel reporting systems. One channel is for public consumption; the others are for "reference" news that goes to officials only, according to their ranks.
Chinese journalists and others interviewed for this story, most of whom declined to be quoted by name for fear of retribution, frequently expressed frustration with the censorship system. But they also indicated a broad willingness to accept government guidance on what might hurt China's interests if it were published.
Doctoral candidates in a prestigious Tsinghua University media program said, for instance, that controls seem necessary on displays of anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese public, lest relations with Tokyo be undermined. Fresh in their memory was an outburst by Beijing soccer fans when Japan's team defeated China Aug. 7 in the Asia Cup tournament.
The Beijing press reported street demonstrations but held back on some violent clashes with police and omitted the most virulent anti-Japanese slogans shouted by Chinese fans during and after the match.
Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.