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.
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