Chinese Reporters Protest Government Firing of Editor

Newspaper readers in Beijing are mourning the decline of one of the boldest daily tabloids in the Chinese capital. Late last week, reporters at the Beijing News walked out after the paper's top editor was dismissed as part of government efforts to tighten press controls.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Newspaper readers in Beijing are mourning the decline of one of the boldest daily tabloids in the Chinese capital. Late last week, reporters at the Beijing News walked out after the paper's top editor was dismissed as part of government effort to exert more control over the press. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Beijing.

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ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

On the surface, things appeared normal today at the headquarters of the Beijing News. But since the sacking last week of Yang Bin, the paper's editor in chief, the paper itself looks different. It's thinner and the editors' names are all absent from the paper's masthead. As one of the paper's reporters put it, as if this was not the real Beijing News.

Sources at the paper say that Yang told his reporters of his dismissal at last Wednesday afternoon's editorial meeting. The next day, the paper's core editorial staff walked off the job. Yang Bin's friend, Beijing-based lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, says he spoke to Yang over the weekend.

Mr. PU ZHIQIANG (Lawyer): (Chinese language spoken)

KUHN: `He didn't have a strong reaction to his firing,' he says. `I think it's something he saw coming.'

Beijing News reporters declined to speak on the record. In private, they said that the paper's investigative reporting department had been under pressure from authorities for months. Last year, authorities detained, then fired, editor Chang Yizhong, who founded the paper in 2003. Observers saw it as punishment for pushing the envelope of what Communist Party propaganda officials would tolerate.

Wenrang Jiang is acting director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Mr. WENRANG JIANG (Acting Director, China Institute): This newspaper was punished primarily by the CCP, Chinese Communist Party, propaganda department, it's clear, for their very bold views. This paper has been very bold in expressing itself, in exposing the scandals and corruptions and the social ills around the country.

KUHN: The paper is also known for its outspoken editorial page. Independent pollster Victor Yun writes one of the page's weekly columns. Earlier this year, he wrote a column criticizing real estate developers. He scolded them for claiming to represent the public's interests when, he wrote, `They're really just pursuing their own.' Of course, few of the paper's readers could fail to see this as a thinly-veiled allegory about the Chinese Communist Party. Yun says he's optimistic that he'll be able to go on contributing.

Mr. VICTOR YUN (Independent Pollster): (Chinese language spoken)

KUHN: `Other newspapers won't let you state things so penetratingly,' he says. `I think the Beijing News is really in the vanguard in this respect.'

Reporters at the paper say things remain in flux. they don't know if the paper can retain its editorial independence. They don't know who will replace Yang Bin. Interestingly, there's been no official notice of Yang's dismissal.

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KUHN: Jagua Byong(ph) is an independent commentator and former journalism professor at Beijing University. Speaking at a university cafe, he says that party propaganda officials used to issue gag orders on government letterhead. Now they're more careful, issuing orders anonymously by telephone.

Mr. JAGUA BYONG (Independent Commentator, Former Journalism Professor, Beijing University): (Through translator) The situation is changing. Before, officials didn't feel ashamed about crudely and unreasonably trampling on press freedoms. Now they're ashamed and embarrassed.

KUHN: But they still do it anyway. The changes at the Beijing News follow a wave last year of firings of editors and arrests of journalists.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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