In China, Free Speech Shows Its Teeth

Officials oust the top editors of a targeted weekly, but consumer trends may yet weigh in.

By Mark Magnier

Los Angeles Times

February 17, 2006

BEIJING — Authorities on Thursday removed the top editors of an investigative weekly that had tested the limits of censorship, banished them to a think tank and announced that the publication would be relaunched in a more compliant format next month.

Action against Freezing Point and its editor, Li Datong, comes as overseas observers focus on whether Internet and technology firms such as Google Inc., Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. help expand freedom of information in China or undercut it by acceding to the regime's restrictions.

But some analysts say that the behavior of high-tech multinationals ultimately may have less effect on freedom of expression than the changing appetites of 1.3 billion information-hungry consumers in China and the voices of people such as Li and deputy editor Lu Yuegang, who are challenging the system at substantial personal risk.

A few analysts suggested that the government's crackdown could raise questions within the Communist Party about whether President Hu Jintao's administration is bearing down too hard. The editors have refused to go quietly and have marshaled support from a handful of influential party elders, including Chairman Mao Tse-tung's former secretary.

"Freezing Point's soul is being snuffed out," Li said today, adding that any relaunch would be problematic now that most of the publication's editors have been squeezed out or have resigned. "If it flies at all, it will only be a shell of its former self."

Outsiders looking at China often see a dictatorial Communist Party with absolute control over 11,000 publications, 650 broadcasters and 670,000 websites; a clear distinction between dissidents and party stalwarts; and journalists blindly following Propaganda Department dictates.

But a close look at events involving Freezing Point, which was forced to stop publishing last month, underscores some of the tension and complexity surrounding China's media.

Freezing Point was born in fall 1994 when Zhou Zhichun, a top editor of the China Youth Daily, approached Li and asked him whether he'd like to get back to the newsroom.

Li, who originally joined the China Youth Daily in 1979, had been sitting for five years in a sleepy backwater institute run by the media group after he called on several hundred journalists in the lead-up to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown to air their grievances in a face-to-face meeting with the Propaganda Department.

It is the same think tank, the News Research Institute, that the two editors were reassigned to Thursday after being removed from Freezing Point.

Li recounted in a book about the publication that he felt as if he were being reborn when he got there more than a decade ago. The publication's name was a near-afterthought. A week before the scheduled Jan. 3, 1995, launch, brainstorming editors offered several suggestions such as "Hot Point" and "Focal Point," reflecting the media's obsession with "hot" trends.

In a moment of pique, the new chief editor snapped back: "Damn these Focal Points and Hot Points. Let's call it Freezing Point." The response was classic Li: irreverent, outspoken and focused on content over form.

Li estimated that 40% of the parent newspaper's nearly 1 million subscribers signed up primarily because of the supplement.

From the beginning, Li and Lu focused on social problems and the plight of ordinary people in a country where reporters more often take their cue from politics.

Their first issue included a feature on people who clean toilets, a clear break with the traditional media's embrace of glitz, wealth and happy news. Freezing Point went on to tackle politically sensitive issues such as corrupt procurement at state hospitals and democracy in rival Taiwan. One report exposed the actions of Hubei province officials who made primary school students perch on a hill in white fertilizer bags so Communist Party bosses would think the fields were filled with sheep.

Being a part of the China Youth Daily gave the paper some cover, as did its writing style, generally described as gentle and reasonable. Editors were also helped by their growing support among the intelligentsia and some Communist Party members.

But they also forged operating principles that helped ensure their survival, resisting censorship when they could and compromising when they had to.

"They wouldn't initiate a lie, and when they had to lie, they didn't do it in a creative way," said Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer, free-speech advocate and longtime reader. "They only repeated the lie that the leadership forced them to make. They never saw themselves as the traditional throat and tongue of the party," a Mao-era phrase used to describe the state media.

Li and Lu built the Freezing Point staff carefully, selecting promising journalists from the China Youth Daily newsroom who had keen understanding of political limits and were also good at their craft.

By the late 1990s, economics were changing even the most stodgy state-run publications, forcing them to rely more on advertising and readership than state subsidies. Freezing Point was spun off as a supplement in June 2000 and expanded in 2004 as its readership grew. But tensions mounted with censors, who insisted on controlling the content even though they weren't paying the bills.

Despite Freezing Point's tough editorial line, Li is hardly a radical. He and his supporters say China's top leaders are on the right track. They blame narrow-minded propagandists for their problems, accusing them of misinterpreting the national interest in a desire for job security and promotions.

Censors rarely appeared in the newsroom, but their presence was felt through daily, sometimes hourly, calls to top editors as well as off-site meetings.

Editors bridled at what they regarded as fickle and arbitrary judgment. "They're the god, not us," said Lu, the deputy editor. "If they don't sleep well, if they quarrel with their wives, if they have good or bad food, it can change their decisions."

Whether Li misjudged how far he could go, grew careless or became so fed up that he no longer cared is unclear. But after years of skirting the edge, Freezing Point blew the Propaganda Department's final fuse last month, reportedly over a piece by a Chinese historian, Yuan Weishi, that criticized long-standing distortions in Chinese textbooks.

Insiders say one of the first articles in next month's relaunch will be a sharp rebuke of Yuan's ideas.

Censors reportedly were already miffed over a blanket refusal by Li to do a complimentary article on a favored Communist Party secretary, and a report late last year that aired claims of plagiarism against Zhou Yezhong, a law professor closely tied to senior Chinese leaders.

Li said his first evidence that the publication would be shut down came Jan. 24 as he prepared final proofs for his next edition. Several industry colleagues called, telling him they'd been ordered not to report on what was happening at Freezing Point. Two hours later, he was told the plug had been pulled.

Most editors in China would disappear quietly. Li mounted an aggressive fight against the Propaganda Department, speaking out to foreign media and organizing high-level supporters.

This week a petition surfaced on the Internet signed by 13 influential scholars and ex-officials denouncing the shutdown and implicitly criticizing censorship policies. In a one-party state that likes to project an image of unanimity, the willingness of Mao's secretary and biographer Li Rui, former Propaganda Department chief Zhu Houze and ex-editor Hu Jiwei of the party's main mouthpiece, the People's Daily, to add their names has attracted attention.

Analysts say the fact that Li has not been more severely punished and that others also have signed petitions suggests that the regime is not as powerful as it was a decade ago. It also may signal that opinions are far from unified.

Chinese consumers also are making their presence felt, experts say. Many analysts believe that censors won't be able to contain people's growing appetite for information.

"At a certain point, it's just too costly for them to do it," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley.

"Our work is to meet the needs of the people," Li said in an interview. "We do not want a society of blind and deaf people. We've done what our profession requires us to do — uphold the truth. If they continue to act like this, they will only darken people's minds, leading to greater social crisis, riots and revolts."

*


Ding Li in The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.