Party Suspends Popular Publication, Fires Editors - Prominent Figures Protest

June 16, 2006

The Communist Youth League Central Propaganda Department issued a Decision Regarding the Handling of the China Youth Daily Freezing Point Weekly Mistake in Publishing "Modernism and History Textbooks" on January 24, that ordered the China Youth Daily (a Communist Youth League publication) to suspend publication of its Freezing Point weekly beginning January 25. The Decision charged that Freezing Point's January 11 publication of the essay "Modernism and History Textbooks" by Yuan Weishi "spared no effort to reverse the verdict on the crime of the great imperialist powers' invasion of China, severely contradicted historical facts, severely violated news propaganda discipline, severely harmed the national sentiments of the Chinese people, severely harmed the image of the China Youth Daily, and had a detrimental social influence." Yuan Weishi is a scholar of contemporary Chinese history and a professor in the philosophy department at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou city, Guangdong province. In addition to suspending the publication, the Decision ordered the China Youth Daily Publishing House to submit a report criticizing Li Erliang, Editor-in-Chief of the China Youth Daily and Deputy Secretary of the China Youth Daily Publishing House Party Committee, and Li Datong, Chief Editor of the Freezing Point weekly.

This was the third time in two months that the Communist Party cracked down on a newspaper that discussed politically sensitive issues in a manner it found objectionable. On December 28, the Communist Party Propaganda Department removed the editor-in-chief and two other top editors at the Beijing News as part of an effort to curb that newspaper's aggressive style. That same week, the Southern Metropolitan Daily in Guangdong province dismissed Xia Yitao as Deputy Editor-in-Chief, reportedly because Communist Party officials in that province were upset at that publication's coverage of a coal mining disaster and rural unrest.

According to a January 25 Washington Post report, Yuan's essay "criticized Chinese textbooks for teaching an incomplete history of the Qing Dynasty, China's last imperial dynasty, that fosters blind nationalism and closed-minded anti-foreign sentiment." The Post cited unnamed journalists as saying that propaganda authorities issued an order barring all media from reporting the suspension, all reporters from participating in any news conference about it, and all Web sites from carrying any discussion about it. The Post said that Li confirmed the suspension in a message on his blog before censors deleted the page. The original Chinese version of Yuan's essay is available from the Independent Chinese Pen Center, and an English translation is available here.

Li attempted to fight the suspension, and on February 6 submitted a petition to the China Youth Daily Party Committee, addressed to the Central Discipline Inspection Committee, according to a February 16 South China Morning Post article (subscription required). The SCMP report said the petition complained about the Central Propaganda Department’s abrupt closure of the Youth Daily supplement and asked for "a responsible response." The petition was rejected within a week, however, and the SCMP quoted Li as saying: "I was informed by our newspaper party committee that our supervisor, the China Youth League party committee, had refused to pass my petition letter through to the upper level."

On February 2, 13 former senior government, Communist Party, and news media officials issued a Joint Declaration Concerning the "Freezing Point" Incident. The signatories included Zhu Houze, former head of the Central Propaganda Department; Li Rui, former secretary to Mao Zedong; Li Pu, former Deputy Director of the Xinhua News Agency; Zhang Sizhi, former Vice Chair of the Beijing Lawyers Association; Hu Jiwei, former Editor-in-Chief of the People's Daily; and Zhong Peizhang, former head of the China Youth Daily group. The Declaration said that "only totalitarian systems need to control the news," and that Freezing Point had "published the wisdom and conscience of a vast array of authors," and that its suspension was "a continuation of the Central Propaganda Department's malicious control." The authors singled out for criticism the Central Propaganda Department's Critical Review Committee, saying:

They have stripped away freedom of speech in order to quash public opinion. They have not only engaged in stigmatizing and criticizing, but have even gone so far as to manufacture all sorts of "black lists," carry out secret investigations, waiting for an opportunity to pounce, sometimes carrying out the process of an "execution" with instruction on a single phone call, leaving the target without any right to plead their case. Their methods are incredibly crude, and are not subject to any legal restraints whatsoever.

According to a March 2 Asia Week article (available on Chinese Media Net - in Chinese) the Critical Review Committee operates under the Central Propaganda Department's News Office, and comprises about 10 officials. The Committee issues on average 800 reports each year, about half of which are negative, that bypass standard reporting channels, and can go directly to senior Party officials or the propaganda offices at provincial and local news media organizations. According to the article, when the Critical Review Committee celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2004, two senior Central Propaganda Department officials issued a congratulatory statement on behalf of Politburo member Li Changchun and Liu Yunshan, a Communist Party Central Committee member who also serves as Secretary of the Party Secretariat and Director of the Central Propaganda Department. Ji Bingxuan, one of the officials, emphasized that "Establishing a news critique system was an innovation in news supervision in this new era."

On February 14, 13 Chinese scholars, lawyers, and editors issued an Open Letter From Freezing Point Writers to National People's Congress Standing Committee. The signatories included Cui Weiping, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy; He Weifang, a law professor at Beijing University; and Qin Hui, a history professor at Qinghua University. The authors quoted Hu Jintao's words back to him, writing: "No organization or individual may have any prerogative beyond that which is set forth in the Constitution and law," and said that the decision to suspend publication of Freezing Point was unconstitutional, illegal, and denied citizens "their most basic constitutional rights to speech and freedom of the press." The letter said that the Central Propaganda Department is an agency that "lives outside the Constitution and the law" and "manipulates and controls the range of speech." The writers said that allowing the Central Propaganda Department to suppress dissent would "cause policymakers to be divorced from reality." The letter concluded with a call to return to the direction of three years ago, when reporting on SARS and the Sun Zhigang incident resulted in the government being responsive to the will of the people.

On February 16, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Qin Gang defended the Communist Party's decision, saying that Yuan's essay had "severely violated historical facts, severely hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, and harmed the image of the China Youth Daily," according to a February 17 Voice of America report (in Chinese). The same day, the Communist Party Youth League Publishing House Party Committee issued a Decision Regarding Handling the Rectification and Expeditious Relaunch of the "Freezing Point" Weekly announcing the conditions under which Freezing Point would resume publication, including:

  • Dismissing Li Datong from his position as Editor-in-Chief and Lu Yuegang from his position as Deputy Editor and assigning them to the China Youth Daily's news research institute;
  • Appointing Party Committee and Executive Deputy editor Chen Xiaochuan as Editor-in-Chief of Freezing Point;
  • Compiling an essay to refute Yuan Weishi's "Modernization and History Textbooks," and publishing it in the first issue of the relaunched Freezing Point weekly "in order to dispel the bad influence that has already been created."

On March 1, Freezing Point resumed publishing. The front page was devoted to an article entitled "Anti-Imperialism and Anti-Feudalism Are the Topics of Contemporary Chinese History," by Zhang Haipeng, a veteran Marxist historian and Chinese Academy of Social Science research fellow. According to a Xinhua report (in Chinese) the following day, Zhang's article refuted Yuan's essay, finding that it "departed from the foundation of historical records, and was one person's impressions," that it "was without basis, unpersuasive, and lacking justification in historical record," and that it "severely mislead the youth."

Li Datong previously has exposed the Chinese government's control over the news media. On August 15, 2005, a letter from Li Datong to Li Erliang circulated on the Internet (the original Chinese version is available from the Boxun Web site, and an English translation is available from the Washington Post) that exposed a proposed appraisal system that would tie journalists' promotions and compensation to praise by Communist Party and government officials. Under the new system, reporters would receive 50 pay credits for high reader response, but between 90 and 120 pay credits for stories praised by leaders of the Communist Party's Central Propaganda Department, between 80 and 100 pay credits for stories praised by government leaders at the ministerial or provincial level, and 300 pay credits for stories praised by senior central government leaders. The publication's leadership subsequently abandoned the proposal.

Li founded Freezing Point in 1995 and, according to a February 17 article (subscription required) in the Wall Street Journal, turned it into a popular weekly with articles and essays that often challenged the official line. The Journal cited Li as saying he was able to last as long as he did because market-oriented media reforms had left the China Youth Daily increasingly desperate for readers. According to a February 18 Ming Pao article (subscription required) when questioned why Lu Yuegang had been dismissed, the secretary of the China Youth Daily Party Committee said that Lu had published articles on the paper's internal networks to mourn Liu Binyan, had accepted interviews with foreign mass media, and had maintained contacts with people involved in the democratic movement.

For additional comments about the suspension of Freezing Point from Yuan Weishi and some of the signatories to the joint declaration and the open letter, see below.

Yuan Weishi - author of "Modernism and History Textbooks," told a panel discussion according to a Radio Free Asia article on February 17: "The authorities have been looking for an excuse to rectify Freezing Point for a very long time now, and my article gave them that excuse. . . . Things are pretty terrible now in terms of the government's attitude to the media."

Li Rui - former secretary to Mao Zedong (quoted in Asia Week, March 2, 2006, available on Chinese Media Net - in Chinese)

As to whether or not there will be any improvement with respect to news control and suppression of freedom of speech, in my view it is unlikely that there will be any immediate change. That is because this kind of control has already become a habit, and the one party dictatorship has become accustomed to it. They would feel that it would make their lives harder if they were stop censoring the news.

Hu Jiwei - former Editor-in-Chief of the People's Daily (quoted in Asia Week, March 2, 2006, available on Chinese Media Net - in Chinese)

The crux of the issue is that the Central Propaganda Department is afraid - afraid of incidents, afraid of instability, afraid of a lack of unanimity of opinion, and they have once again returned to the old ways of a few years ago where, if they do not agree with your opinion, they crush you.

Li Pu - former Deputy Director of the Xinhua News Agency (quoted in the Sankei Shimbun, February 22, 2006 (FBIS 22 February 06))

I want to point out the essence of the Bingdian issue. That is, there is no freedom of speech or the press (in China), and there is no legal supervision by the government.

This has become an international controversy and has been frequently covered by the news media in Japan, the United States, Britain, and France. But the Chinese media have published no reports on this issue at all. Despite the fact that this is a historic incident for the Chinese media, Chinese people do not know the incident. It did not give a boost to the CPC [Chinese Communist Party], but rather stained its reputation.

I have worked at the [CPC Central Committee] Propaganda Department, but those who work at the department now seem unable to understand things. They neither have good academic backgrounds nor understand how the Propaganda Department should function. There exists no concept of "democracy and freedom" or "human rights."

Cui Weiping - professor, Beijing Film Academy (quoted in Asia Week, March 2, 2006, available on Chinese Media Net - in Chinese)

The purging of "Freezing Point" represents a severe erosion of the press. All "Freezing Point" did was tell a little truth and say something a little controversial in order to create a space to speak relatively freely. To purge "Freezing Point" like this is killing the chicken as a warning to the monkeys.

Fu Guoyong - freelance author (quoted in Asia Week, March 2, 2006, available on Chinese Media Net - in Chinese)

People like us no longer visit Web sites because there is nothing on the Net worth looking at, and everything that could be viewed has been shut down. We all recognize that everything worth viewing has vanished. In the past there was "The Boundaries of Ideology," "Voices from Afar," and later "Study and Thought," and in summer of 2005 the "Yannan Forum" was shut down. The Central Propaganda Department exercises the same controls over the Internet media that it does over the print media.

He Weifang - law professor, Beijing University (quoted in Asia Week, March 2, 2006, available on Chinese Media Net - in Chinese)

The administrative management system and methods of the Central Propaganda Department's Critical Review Committee are illegal. One small committee holds in its hands the power to grant or deny life to the entire nation's media. While the development of the economy and society is progressing faster and faster, they are going further and further in the opposite direction.