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China's media censorship rattling world image

BEIJING – At 5 p.m. on Jan. 24, Li Datong's status went into a deep chill. Mr. Li, a Tiananmen protest veteran and a rare crusading editor still allowed to work, learned that "Freezing Point," his weekly magazine, had been closed.

The proximate reason: a lengthy article smashing official history of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, when a peasant cult killed more than 230 foreigners in a spasm of xenophobia. Li ran the story to ask why, in modern China, children are learning to praise the Boxers for being antiforeign.

Freezing Point will reopen March 1, without Li, following an unusual storm of protest that included retired party statesmen. Yet the episode highlights a censorship campaign here that is wide-ranging and whose opposition seems ineffectual.

For two years, the crackdown on virtually all media expression has played out through arcane ideology sessions and micromanagement of newsrooms.

More broadly, the war on liberal ideas is starting to alter the image of China overseas. For a decade, the country has been seen as a rambunctious marvel of manufacturing and export, of developing infrastructure, and a major source of cash reserves. It has managed to outflank human rights agendas, and enjoys an image as a safe, traditional society that is emerging into the international mainstream. Beijing won its 2008 Olympics bid in the midst of a brutal roundup of Falun Gong practitioners in 2001 - many of whom remain disappeared.

"China's deteriorating international image is impacting its ability to achieve its foreign policy goals, and could well affect its ability to stage a successful Olympics in 2008," argues John Kamm, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, who now runs Dui Hua, a nonprofit human-rights group in San Francisco. Mr. Kamm says the State Department report on human rights in China due next month will be far tougher than in recent years.

"Maybe the Olympics will help change China in the right direction, was the main idea," argues a Beijing scholar. "But at present what we see ... is an old-style party reaction of 'no debate' - meaning no discussion, no democracy, just hunkering into a political survival mode."

Indeed, the outspoken Bishop Joseph Zen, the chief Roman Catholic authority in Hong Kong who was made a cardinal on Wednesday, was warned by Chinese officials this week to not participate in social and political movements.

In a way that surprises even many experts, the repression campaign by the powerful Communist Party propaganda department here, including decade-long prison terms for Web bloggers - has again raised the image of China as seriously lagging in rights and liberal values that much of the world takes for granted. It has awakened a moral language of justice and condemnation, as seen last week on Capitol Hill when members of Congress berated Internet company officials for complicity with Chinese security police.

China's prohibitions on livelier, more authentic news are growing stronger, sources say - and extend to radio, TV, newspapers, and the Internet. On Wednesday, China Workers website ( was shut. The forum allowed sharp criticism of peasant and laborer policies. A Mr. Chen, spokesperson of the Website Propaganda Management Department at the Beijing Municipal Propaganda Office, said he was unaware of the site and had no comment.

China leads the world in jailed journalists, with 39 detained. This week, Mo Shaoping, lawyer for jailed New York Times researcher Zhao Yan, told the Foreign Correspondents Club of China that Mr. Zhao, who has been in jail for a year, will probably be in court in March. Zhao faces 10 years in prison. While the charges against him are for "endangering state security," a wide net used by police, the specific charges remain unclear - though appear to be based on anger in high political circles that the New York Times learned a day ahead of the event that former leader Jiang Zemin was to retire.

The role of overseas Internet companies in complying with Chinese police seized the moral imagination of the US Congress in hearings last week. The most serious cases relate to Yahoo's help in helping identify and convict journalist Shi Tao to 10 years in jail. Two weeks ago, a new case appeared to put Yahoo in cahoots with state security forces regarding Li Zhi, who got eight years in jail for trying to query and join a democracy group from his home in Sichuan.

Since December, the editor of a relatively feisty new tabloid, Beijing News, was fired after stories on why it took 11 days for Chinese officials to acknowledge a major benzene spill in a river flowing through northeast China to Russia. The firing hit the staff hard, bringing one of the first collective protests in memory at a state-run media outlet.

Last week, Chen Jieren, editor of the small Public Interest Times, was sacked. he went public this week in a 10,000-word essay after his employer said he was fired for poor management skills. Chen said he was ousted over stories investigating corruption, among others. The journal aimed to "report the truth with a conscience," he wrote.

Li, a party member, had been editor of Freezing Point for 11 years. He represents a liberal intellectual tradition in contemporary China that was crushed during the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. That event was a watershed that put China on its path of aggressive economic reform - while disallowing political change. Prior to the "June 4 incident," China was peppered with liberals, including leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang. Today, they are a tiny, fragile minority.

While the Boxer reappraisal upset officials, Li was the real target. Anger at him reached a peak late last August. In a 19-page protest letter to the new editor of China Youth Daily - that was sent out over hundreds of websites and blogs to avoid being blocked by China's sophisticated technology - Li ostensibly attacked a new policy that would link reporter's pay raises to praise by party officials. "Under this unreasonable system the editors and reporters will go out of their minds instead of worrying about the media's role to monitor," argued Li.

But the actual subject of Li's protest was the broad direction of China's media under the powerful propaganda department, recently renamed the "publicity department." Journalists trying to sort truth from propaganda were being discouraged, and under party edicts media were beginning to use language not heard since the Cultural Revolution - undermining readers' trust.

The Boxer story was not the first time that Freezing Point crossed swords with official history. Last June, Li published a lengthy analysis showing that, contrary to official history, during World War 2 the Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-Shek bled and died in at least equal proportions with the forces of Mao Zedong's communist army. In the official version of history, the Nationalists are often in hiding in Sichuan during the fighting.

Date posted: February 24, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 11