An already tight atmosphere for the press in China has continued to tighten in recent weeks. Most recently, the news retrospectives Chinese media have typically compiled at year’s end in recent years have come under pressure. Guangdong’s Southern Weekend, a newspaper with a reputation for bolder news coverage, had published its annual list of distinguished journalists and media, “Salute to the Media,” every year since 2001. But authorities put a stop to the list last month, the latest in a series of unfortunate warning signs.
The first hints of trouble for news retrospectives and similar lists came in early December, as Time Weekly, published by the Guangdong Provincial Publishing Group, invited a group of scholars to select a list of “100 Most Influential People of Our Time” (最有影响力的时代100人). The list included the recently jailed food safety activist Zhao Lianhai (赵连海) and several signers of the Charter 08 political manifesto, including Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping (崔卫平) and renowned scholar Xu Youyu (徐友渔).
Time Weekly‘s list of 100 influential people included artists, grassroots activists, educators, lawyers, officials, public intellectuals, scientists, entrepreneurs and journalists, all seen as having, as the newspaper wrote, “an irreplaceable influence on public life this year and on the development of our times.” The list was received well in China and drew attention from international media as well, all surprised at the publication’s boldness. But an order quickly came down for the recall of copies of the newspaper in circulation, and the list and related coverage was deleted from the Time Weekly website. Peng Xiaoyun (彭晓芸), the chief editor of Time Weekly‘s opinion section, who had been in charge of the list, was placed on involuntary leave.
While these are worrisome signs that must be closely watched, restricting open reflection on the major news and issues of 2010 cannot prevent Chinese journalists from pursuing the truth — nor can it erase their memories of major news events.
No one can forget the staggering case in Yihuang, Jiangxi province, in which citizens protesting the demolition of their home set fire to themselves in desperation. No one will forget the way local officials in Yihuang dispatched police to surround relatives of the victims at the local airport as they attempted to reach Beijing to appeal for justice in their case, or the way Phoenix Weekly reporter Deng Fei (邓飞) reported the story live on his microblog, taking it national and making Chinese news history. And no one can forget how the efforts of the Chinese media on this case eventually brought a small measure of justice to the Zhong family.
Brutal cases like that in Yihuang have continued. Late last year, The Beijing News exposed audacious land practices in Pizhou, Jiangsu province, where the government had submerged thousands of acres of farmland by diverting the course of a local river. The government even attempted to hide their misdeeds by deceiving the remote sensing satellites of the Ministry of Land Resources, blanketing areas of illegal land development throughout the city with black plastic netting. The Beijing News report drew the attention of central leaders, and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang (周永康) and Ministry of Public Security chief Meng Jianzhu (孟建柱) ordered an investigation that uncovered staggering abuses in Pizhou.
Another appalling and unforgettable story last year was the revelation by Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily and Caijing magazine that Anyuanding, a private security firm with strong official backing, was operating a network of “black jails” in Beijing, accepting payments from local governments across China to round up and lock up rights petitioners in the capital. Prisoners in these facilities were subjected to chilling violence, the jailers acting completely above the law.
When a fire tore through a high-rise residential building in Shanghai last November, the local First Finance Television (第一财经电视) reported the story live for three days straight, the first time in the history of Shanghai media that a negative local story was reported live. New Century magazine, led by former Caijing editor-in-chief Hu Shuli (胡舒立), followed up this major news story with a professional in-depth report looking into the deeper causes of the tragedy, “Shanghai’s Lamentation: Bund Redevelopment Project Never Went Through Open Bidding Process.”
There was more important work accomplished by Chinese journalists in 2010 than can be summarized here. It was a year of intense pressure, and yet Chinese journalists — from Party media as well as commercial media — made important inroads despite tightening restrictions, reminding us of their professional grit and idealism.