On Chang Ping and the Unconquerable Word / 关于长平的狂野版

Today I returned, as we all must, to The Guardian’s coverage of China, and was confronted with this story about a recent shedding of a particularly critical editorial voice at one of China’s best newspapers, the Nanfang Zhoumo (Southern Weekend):

A leading Chinese journalist said he had been forced out of his job this week amid tightened restrictions on the media.

Zhang Ping, better known as Chang Ping [ed.: 长平] is an influential editor and columnist who had worked at the Southern Media Group – one of the country’s best respected news organisations – for many years.

His departure has increased concerns that authorities, who already censor publications and broadcasts heavily, are clamping down harder on China’s increasingly independent-minded journalists.

Zhang has repeatedly been punished for tackling sensitive issues and was banned from writing columns for the Southern Weekend and Southern Metropolis Daily newspapers last July.

“Now I have ‘been resigned’. It is not just because of one particular article, it is because I have always written critical articles,” he told the Guardian today.

“Many times I have been told not to write and that if I agreed I would be able to get more benefits than now, but I refused. The reason the paper is giving is that ‘pressure from above is too great’.”

He added: “The whole media environment is changing. It has become tighter since the Nobel peace prize.”

Beijing reacted furiously to the decision to honour Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence for incitement to subversion for co-authoring a call for democratic reforms.

Chinese journalists say that the Southern Media Group has been under increased scrutiny in recent months. It is understood that two editors and a section head have also been transferred to new positions this week…

The New York Times also carries the story, adding some salient quotes from a recent speech by a pre-deposed Chang at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University:

We should transform into a civil society rather than wait for a virtuous leader.  Society is diverse and should have a platform for giving opinions. We don’t necessarily need everyone to support freedom and democracy. What is key is whether these opinions are people’s own voices.

Should there be any doubt that Chang’s downfall is part of a larger trend, the Chinese government is now attempting to stamp out the very term “civil society,” as reported by David Badurski on the essential web resource known as China Media Project.

Today, Chang’s Twitter feed features his agreement “(Yes), I have thrown it off [我脱]” the following message from a Chinese colleague in Canada:



Teacher Chang: Your dream of three years ago is still a wild and unruly page: You wanted to throw off fame, and afterwards totally shut everything out.  Nowadays to shut everything out also makes one famous, so you still need to decide to relinquish [fame], throwing off the shackles and fetters of the system in order to become a truly independent critic.

Xinhua’s response to all of this is to amp up the ever-present ratio of images of Japanese World War II atrocities on its Huanqiu home page and make headlines stirring up netizen anger over Japanese textbooks which claim the Diaoyudao islands as Japanese territory.  To link these things together, China’s need to divert domestic attention and angst away from its own manifest failings in such cases as Chang Ping acts a destabilizer of a more harmonious foreign policy.  This is an idea which Chang Ping himself has explored in various essays.

Possible captions:"Journalists in China Should Serve the People, by whom, we mean, The Central Committee," -- or, -- "Another Three Hour Meeting that Could Have Been Prevented with a Simple Memo reading 'You Are, Foremost, a Stenographer'" -- Image via David Bandurski

I have a few more thoughts on the greater meaning of press freedom in China in an essay I’m drafting which is tentatively entitled “Reality and the Upward Gaze: Toward an Epistimology of China Watching,” but I’ll save that for another post or series of posts. The same holds true for a post on the applicable lessons of the Tunisia/Egypt protests for the Chinese state and/or China’s democracy movement, such as it is.

One of the advantages of having been displaced temporary from the keyboard is that a bit of big-picture perspective emerges, almost enough to atone for this blog’s stunning lack of attention to every last significant musical detail of Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States.  This, too, shall come to pass.

Further Reading: Chang Ping, “Why Do We Command So Much Disrespect?”, October 2010, Southern Weekend in English via China Media Project


  1. Adam. “Reality and the Upward Gaze: Toward an Epistemology of China Watching,”

    A claim towards developing an Epistemology or Wholistic Theory of Knowledgeable China Watching is a doomed exercise, as it is based on the traditional presumption that there is a perfect match between representation (your theory [of what claims to be valid Sino knowledge]) and what is being represented, in this case China.

    This implies

    1) perfect knowledge on your part and

    2) China – as a social formation – is viewed as** a singular unitary** object of knowledge. It is only because of this assumption that you can then impose your paradigm on this object of inquiry/China.

    Result: Experts with superior knowledge/the paradigm masters and all the rest of us punters who take an interest in matters Sino.

    There is absolutely no reason to assume that the Chinese social formation is a single unitary object.

    Totalising epistemological projects got their comeuppance in the late ’70s.

    A far more useful approach would be to discuss the type of bio-political power being exercised (some sort of Leninist form of Mercantilism), how this power exercise is linked to dominant discourses (nationalism, China taking its place at the top table, harmony versus anarchy), strategies of population security management (hukou, GFW, media management) and local tactical exercises of power (negotiation, legal harrassment, compensation etc). Also of popular resistance (mass incidents, internet sarcasm, etc).

    The benefit of this type of approach is that one doesn’t assume that there is some bedrock Chinese reality, and one can adjust ones attention to the exigencies of the moment, the most notable today being media discipline campaign noted by CMP.

    Okay, maybe I made a mountain out of a mole hill here, and fully expect to be jeered at, but thats what makes blog discussions so much fun.

  2. The tentative title struck me, too, KT, but for a simpler reason. An essay that doesn’t yet exist, but already carries a working title, is usually doomed – speaking from my own experience, that is. Adam’s may be different.

    Viewing China as a singular unitary object is an old sinologist habit – after all, sinology is a discipline which includes “everything about China”. If this is an occupational bug, or a feature, I can’t really tell.

    Did I mention before that I’m thinking of China as a totalitarian country? In that sense, there would be some bedrock Chinese reality indeed (if I’m right, which is a big if, of course), and that bedrock reality would be political.

    Where does the upward gaze go, Adam? What is it looking at?

    1. The upward gaze is reference to both hope (some kind of teleology in which the world and China in particular inspires hope, unleashes a kind of visionary instinct in the observer) and totalitarianism (that we remain subalterns in the presence of state power, that societal direction comes only from above). Glad to see a “proper struggle session” emerging here!

  3. Thats a pity. I would have looked absolutely buff in my bespoke Mao suit.

    Okay JR. I will engage in a proper struggle session and address the authoritarian -totalitarian debate and get back to you.

  4. Well, I did what most western media do, KT – I used a misleading photo of January 24 in the post (but with a correct description in the caption, anyway – Hu in his capacity as CMCs chairman seven days earlier). At the dangwai session, Hu wore a tie. After all, he was talking with dangwais.

  5. Adam. Sorry about the 1.07. Responding to JR and didnt realise I was on your site via his link.

    To philosophical matters. Being a recovered Althusserian (rarely do I admit that these days), I am vehemently opposed to anything which smacks of ***teleleology/Hegelian becoming, the Frankfurt School or any other strain of thinking which utilises the notion of immanence.

    Hope belongs to theology and is a wilful turning away from concrete exercises of power. Bloch, Moltmann.

    Evil Evil Evil. And one reason why I only read properly footnoted history these days.

    If you want to theorise state power in China, try my prescription of bio-politics which has been around for about 30 years now.

  6. KT: if I understand Althusser’s views correctly – I know very little about his ideas, and what I know is what I’ve read on the internet during the past fourty minutes -, he finds the theories of Marx convincing because Marx built his own concept of the political economy, rather than referring to the existing, and still prevalent one – the one even the CCP accepts these days (with an unusual lot of mercantilism, of course). Am I getting this right?
    Are you critical of the CCP because it also believes that one can expect every individual to be in need of the same commodities – food, shelter, modest material prosperity?
    I might have to ask my way forward to understand your view.

    Can a Chinese citizen – or all Chinese citizens – gaze upward in expectation of all the same things (commodities and purchasing power) that his or her compatriots would aspire to? Is it your criticism of teleology that there is no smallest common denominator between different people?

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