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Provincial politics and the death of free media in China
Arnold Zeitlin
5/4/2004

"Our newspaper is dying, while the murderer cries 'I want more blood!'" read the stark, brief email message from a staff member of the popular Guangzhou newspaper Southern Metropolitan Daily. "The dawn seems so far away that we doubt it will ever come."

The message appeared on my computer screen after the arrest of the paper's editor-in-chief on a charge of embezzlement and the sentencing of two of its senior managers to long jail terms for bribery and embezzlement. Only a few days before, a query to the staff member brought this response: "As an employee of the Southern Metropolitan Daily, I have been told to keep silent…that is why I did not write back immediately. I am sorry for that and hope you could understand. All I can say now is that the situation is difficult for us and can be even more difficult in the near future. There has been a lot of pressure and all kinds of rumors. We don't know what fate is waiting for our newspaper. We can do nothing but pray that Dawn will come after the darkness."

Little more than a year since the new leadership took control of the Communist Party apparatus and the central government, a shadow of fear has darkened the news media climate in Guangzhou, once the center for China's most refreshing, critical, reformist journalism. Cheng Yizhong, former editor-in-chief of the Southern Metropolitan Daily (owned by the Nan Fang newspaper group) and the newly created Beijing News, was arrested March 19 in what the Agence France Presse called "an expanding crackdown against perhaps the most aggressive newspaper group in the country."

"On March 19 at 2:50 a.m., my husband was detained on charges of embezzlement of state-owned assets," Cheng's wife, Chen (cq) Junying said. His arrest and the sentencing followed Southern Metropolitan Daily reports about SARS and police brutality. According to the state news agency Xinhua, on the day of Cheng's arrest a Guangzhou court sentenced former Southern Metropolitan Daily general manager Yu Huafeng to twelve years for embezzlement. Former editor-in-chief Li Minying, also an executive of the paper's parent company, received eleven years for taking bribes.

The police questioned Cheng and six other editors of the newspaper after the daily headlined a page one report about the reemergence of SARS in Guangzhou, which one year ago was the center of the outbreak that cost hundreds of lives in China and elsewhere. Authorities in China initially suppressed reporting about SARS until international pressure forced them to lift the lid. This year, the government ordered that all news about SARS would first come out of the central Ministry of Health, a regulation Southern Metropolitan Daily ignored.

Foreign reporters and editors initially tied the questioning of editors to the SARS story. The party's English mouthpiece, China Daily, pointedly reported in an unusual story in January that the Southern Metropolitan Daily editor had been interrogated because "one of the newspaper's staff members is allegedly involved in a bribery case." Quoting Guangdong provincial officials, China Daily added: "The other reasons as speculated by some overseas media why the person in charge was questioned were groundless." A Guangzhou journalist, who will remain otherwise unidentified, confirmed that the SARS story was not the major trigger for the arrests and charges. "The thing that angered the government and the police is the coverage of Sun Zhigang, the college graduate who was beaten to death by some police last year," said the journalist.

"The Sun Zhigang affair is very, very important to the Guangzhou police department. When the incident happened, the head of the police department had a chance to be promoted to the head of the police department of Guangdong province. So, Mr. Zhu, then the head of the Guangzhou police went to the Southern Metropolitan to ask the newspaper with tears not to report it. But they did. The report crashed the political future of Mr. Zhu and other police officers. The SARS report didn't. So, at the trial after the beating incident, one guilty police officer told another police officer, 'I will kill you if you don't manage to crackdown on the Southern Metropolitan'. Yes, that time has come."

The beating death attracted national attention, and the central government ordered new procedures for the police in handling cases involving migrant workers.

Cheng's wife claimed the issue over which her husband was jailed involved what she called a minor accounting problem: The newspaper kept money from selling advertisements instead of turning it over to the Nan Fang group. "They are using the issue to persecute them," she said.

Yu was convicted of helping to embezzle US$70,000 from the newspaper, Xinhua said, reporting that he passed along US$12,000 to Li. "Li went to the net chatroom and found there are tons of posting about the affair of Nan Fang Metropolitan (NM)," the unnamed Guangzhou journalist reported. "Many people argue that it is the shame of the law of China, many argue that it is a tragedy of journalism of China, but I have to say that this is the shame of tragedy of the whole nation, the whole society. It is doubtless that the sentence and potential trial of other leaders of NM have affected NM morale seriously. Some of leaders who maybe involved in the affairs have fled Guangzhou."

The Nan Fang Group, which is actually owned by the provincial Communist Party (all the major Guangzhou publications are owned by party units; no independent news media operates in the province), long has been a target. The group's flagship publication, the widely read weekly Southern Weekend, had three editors in three years, as crackdowns for stories they published cost them their jobs. After a spate of SARS stories one year ago, the party's provincial general secretary, an engineer trained in North Korea, replaced the group's editor with an apparatchik from the provincial propaganda office.

In March of 2003 authorities suspended one of the group's newest publications, a weekly called 21st Century World Herald, which in six months of publication had attracted a circulation of 200,000. The suspension, yet to be lifted, came after the weekly published an interview with a former private secretary of Mao Zedong that supposedly embarrassed the central leadership. It cost the new weekly's editor, Lian Qingchuan, his job. During the SARS outbreak, Lian (also known by his English name, George) had helped to write an open letter signed by 3,000 people demanding that the authorities allow full disclosure about the epidemic. Lian has been in the United States since October 2003 doing research at Columbia University.

When Zhu Zhengliang, a farmer from Anhui province, tried to set himself on fire last September close to the portrait of Mao Zedong in Tiananmen Square to protest his eviction from his home, the Southern Metropolitan Daily published a stern commentary saying: "The fundamental reason for the tragedy is that the government ignored and denied citizens' right to bargain with the government. To avoid such things from happening again, we want to warn the government, you should not deny citizens' rights to bargain with the government in any cases."

Corruption charges often hit editors and news media managers. In a celebrated case, Li Yuanjiang, the former editor-in-chief of the Guangzhou Daily, one of China's biggest newspapers and a member of the first recognized news media group, was sentenced to four years in prison on charges that she took bribes and kickbacks. The charges of corruption were sufficient to force a halt in plans for the group to build an extravagant US$150 million dollar commercial center in the middle of Guangzhou in partnership with the Swire Group of Hong Kong.

The expectation persists that the new generation of leaders assuming power as the Jiang Zemin era fades will somehow bring reform and liberalization to China, including to the media. In fact, the new leadership has encouraged foreign participation in the news media, while the internet offers the Chinese public more opportunities than ever before to seek and share information. However, such foreign participation will not be allowed to erode party control. Frantic efforts to minimize the impact of the internet and the Guangzhou case demonstrate that the new leadership is as obsessed as its predecessors with total control of a society that will only grow more restless under its tightening grip.

Arnold Zeitlin, former vice president for the Asia-Pacific region of United Press International and director of the Asian Center in Hong Kong of the Freedom Forum, is teaching in China.

This article was published by Jamestown Foundation and is reprinted here with permission.

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