China Paper Reopens without Top Editors

A Chinese newspaper that was shut down a few months ago for its aggressive coverage has resumed publication. The newspaper is now operating without its top two editors, and without the edge that made it a "must read" for intellectuals and reformers.

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RENEE MONTAINE, host:

One of China's few publications of critical journalism is back on the streets more than a month after officials shut it down. Called Freezing Point, it's a weekly supplement to the official China Youth Daily. But the new version appears tamer than before, and it's missing its chief editor, who was removed as a condition for its revival.

NPR's Anthony Khun caught up with the former editor and filed this report.

ANTHONY KHUN reporting:

Freezing Point's former editor, Li Datong, never went to journalism school. He was sent to work in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia during the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution, when he could have been in college. In an interview at a hotel near his office on Beijing's East Side he explains that he got into journalism during the 1980s, just as post-Mao China was getting its first exposure to Western journalism.

Mr. LI DATONG (Editor, Freezing Point): (Speaking Chinese)

Mr. DATONG: (Through translator) We have no problems in professional exchanges with our western colleagues, we talk the same language and use the same standard. Our foreign colleagues tell us that our reports are good enough to print in the New York Times.

KUHN: Every Wednesday for the past 11 years, Freezing Point gave leaders hope and censurers headaches. One recent expose told of the discrimination an AIDS patients suffered after he was shown on television in a hospital shaking hands with President Hu Jin Tao. Another article discussed Taiwan's fledgling democracy, a taboo topic for most mainland media. Li says Freezing Point has been fending off criticism for years.

Mr. DATONG: (Speaking Chinese)

Mr. DATONG: (Through translator) The Communist Party's propaganda department has something called the news commentary bureau, whose function is to analyze each days news reports and see if they harm the ruling parties interest. Freezing Point has met with frequent criticism from this group, as well as from high-ranking propaganda officials and even higher leaders.

KUHN: The official reason for Freezing Point's closure on January 24 was an article attacking distortions of modern history in Chinese textbooks.

The government said that the piece upset leaders. Li says that this was just authorities getting back at him for a decade of criticism. But the closure triggered an outpouring of support from readers, influential scholars, and former propaganda bosses.

Li says censurers tried to keep news of the closure off the Internet, but failed.

Mr. DATONG: (Speaking Chinese):

Mr. DATONG: (Through translator): They mistakenly imagine that all Chinese journalists are meek, obedient and living in fear, but we're not. We believe that the closure violated the Constitution. It was an illegal abuse of power that we had to publicly appeal against.

KUHN: While authorities tried to block Li's formal appeal against the closure, he says China leadership eventually got wind of it. He believes Hong Kong media reports that President Hu Jin Tao's personal intervention led to Freezing Point's revival, but the reopening cost Li his editorship.

Freezing Point's deputy editor, veteran investigative journalist Lu Yuegang was also removed. But Lu says Freezing Point has other seasoned newspaper men who remain loyal to their publication.

Mr. LU YUEGANG (Deputy Editor, Freezing Point): (Speaking Chinese)

KUHN: It'll be up to leaders to decide whether the supplement is well run or not and what its style is like, he says. The path of protecting constitutional rights in China is a long one and we all need to be patient.

Many Chinese readers expressed frustration at what they see as a stifling climate for public opinion. They lament that any media outlet that dares to defy the sensors is eventually silenced. Despite his demotion, Li Datong, now 52, expresses no regrets.

Mr. DATONG: (Speaking Chinese)

Mr. DATONG: (Through translator) I've been banished to the newspapers so-called research department. I'm no stranger to that place. I languished there for five years after the political turmoil of 1989. How long will I stay this time, I figure two years should be enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KUHN: Li says his optimism comes from a long-term perspective. He points out the topics that were previously taboo, like mining accidents and natural disasters, are standard fare in Chinese newspapers today.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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