There has been a great deal of speculation over the last several days about possible fallout for bolder southern Chinese newspapers following up on the case of Gao Qinrong (高勤荣), the reporter who was released from prison on December 7 after eight years in jail [read about the case at ESWN]. There has been, according to Jonathan Ansfield, news from major Chinese Web portals suggesting at least a limited ban on Gao Qinrong coverage (the purpose of which might be to limit a flood of online opinion), but CMP has so far been unable to confirm the existence of a blanket ban from the Central Propaganda Department. In fact, coverage in southern Chinese media continues, with the Information Times, a commercial spinoff of Guangzhou Daily, today re-running the Southern Metropolis Daily editorial from December 15, and coverage appearing yesterday in Strait News, a commercial newspaper in Fujian province.
The absence of the Gao Qinrong story in Beijing media such as Beijing Youth Daily and The Beijing News suggests local bans might be in force there. It should be remembered that “bans” in China are issued informally, usually via telephone, by a complicated bureaucracy, and are often difficult to pin down.
But setting aside the issue of what ramifications the Gao Qinrong interviews might have for Southern Weekend and/or Southern Metropolis Daily, CMP noted with interest that the entire last issue of Southern Weekend had a bit of the newspaper’s long-lost boldness about it. The piece on Gao Qinrong was not necessarily the boldest of all, in fact.
Throughout the 1990s, Southern Weekend was the primary target of the Central Propaganda Department’s News Commentary Group (阅评组), facing frequent censure and restructuring for pushing the bounds of news coverage. In the years following the ouster of editors Zhang Ping and Qian Gang 2001, many readers and media commentators said Southern Weekend had been effectively tamed by authorities and had lost its spirit of outspokenness.
The recent issue of Southern Weekend arguably recovers some of that old spirit. Starting from the top of Southern Weekend‘s front page on December 14, we have the list of the newspaper’s 12 candidates for “person of the year”, to be featured in the December 28 issue. Roland Soong has translated the list of candidates here, but the placement of former People’s Daily deputy editor-in-chief Zhou Ruijin (周瑞金) in the first spot can be read as a mildly audacious move.
[Front page of December 14 edition of Southern Weekend]
Zhou Ruijin has been as the center of calls this year for greater political reform. In a May essay, “How Should We See The Third Reform Debate?”, Zhou said China’s third round of debates on its reform path had focused since 2004 on internal contradictions in China, issues such as healthcare, education, affordable housing and the widening gap between rich and poor. Zhou wrote: “I believe that a whole range of problems now appearing in China’s economic reforms today are largely because we’ve not had political system reforms and legal reforms going along in step [with economic reforms]. Along with this, it’s not that these problems are the result of economic reforms so much as that economic reforms have been insufficiently deep, comprehensive and integrated”.
Zhou’s words came on the heels of political reforms in Vietnam, whose Communist Party for the first time held multi-candidate elections for its party chief this year. Zhou Ruijin made the controversial suggestion that China should hold multi-candidate elections for the position of General Secretary in 2007 [More analysis from Willy Lam at The Jamestown Foundation]. By all accounts, Zhou Ruijin’s writings this year met strong opposition from top propaganda officials, so a great deal could potentially be read into Southern Weekend’s decision to place the postage stamp-sized photo of the former editor ahead of the others on its list.
Moving down the front page, we have a large grey headline announcing the Gao Qinrong story on the inside: “One reporter’s eight years in jail”. The tagline reads: “What did eight years in prison mean for a former news reporter? Gao Qinrong, who is now already 46 years old, has no way to answer this. He says only that when he walked out of the prison gates he felt the value of freedom, “Getting out of prison is good — I can go to sleep whenever I please”.
The story dominating the front page of Southern Weekend’s December 14 issue is the sort of “defense of rights” (维权) story CMP said recently seems to be on the rise in China. The story is an investigative piece about citizens in Fujian’s Sanming City pushing the issue of child safety at a local park. The story isn’t the boldest in this edition and is unlikely to raise any red flags with censors, but it does recall Southern Weekend’s tradition of investigative reporting.
Below the investigative report is an editorial by Guo Guangdong (郭光东) about the legal controversy surrounding the “Temple Slayer” case. The editorial again raises the question of rights protection and rule of law. It issues a clear challenge to courts in Shaanxi Province to listen to appeals from prominent legal experts and evaluate the psychological fitness of the defendant in the case, Qiu Xinghua, who was sentenced to death in the first instance trial. The issue at hand is not merely this case, the editorial says, but China’s “legal history” at a crossroads. “Are we not hotly debating ‘The Rise of Great Nations‘? Vast territory, a huge population, or even wealth and a strong military are not enough to make us a great nation. Only as rule of law and human rights are upheld through one after another Qiu Xinghua case will our mother country truly be regarded as a great nation and receive the praise of the world”. CMP noted recently the sensitivity of the term “human rights” in China, a term this editorial did not shrink from using, even in reference to China’s domestic situtation. [SCMP on CCTV’s “Rise of Great Nations” series]. [David Bandurski on series at WSJ].
An article on page B11 of the recent Southern Weekend probably surpasses the Gao Qinrong interview in sensitivity. This is a half-page profile of lawyer Zhang Sizhi, who has represented a legendary line-up of defendants including the “Gang of Four“, China’s most famous dissident, Wei Jingsheng, and Shanghai lawyer Zheng Enchong. Most recently, Zhang Sizhi was an outspoken critic of new government rules placing curbs on rights lawyers in China. [“Zhang Sizhi: Notes from the Wei Jingsheng Case”].
The Zhang Sizhi article, centered around his birthday celebration in Beijing on November 26, takes a close look at China’s most outspoken legal figure, who has tried many of China’s most sensitive and high-profile cases, at a time when the topic of freewheeling lawyers is not particularly welcome in China. Does the article mention the case against Wei Jingsheng in 1995? Yes. Does it mention the case against Zheng Enchong? Yes. The article lists many of Zhang Sizhi’s top cases under his photograph.
The article concludes by describing the scene at Zhang Sizhi’s party, in which he sits together with Mao Zedong’s former secretary Li Rui (李锐), leading legal scholar Jiang Ping (江平) SARS hero Jiang Yanyong (蒋彦永) and reformist economist Mao Yushi (茅于轼). All of these figures are regarded as key proponents of reform in China. Li Rui and Zhang Sizhi were in fact two of the 12 reform-minded former leaders and intellectuals who signed an open letter protesting the shutdown in January 2006 of the weekly Freezing Point. Back in 2003 it had been an interview with Li Rui in which he advocated political reforms that had resulted in the shutdown of 21st World Herald [More from CPJ here]. The Southern Weekend profile concludes by writing of the men as they sit together on November 26: “When well-wishers Li Rui, Jiang Ping, Jiang Yanyong, and Mao Yushi sit together with Zhang Sizhi, these five old men who bow only to the truth constitute a classic and abiding image”.
Strangely, though, this sentence is not finished in the print version of Southern Weekend, where it reads: “When well-wishers Li Rui, Jiang Ping, Jiang Yanyong, and Mao Yushi sit together with Zhang Si …” The complete version is available on the Internet, but one can only speculate as to the reasons for this error.
[“Gao Qinrong Silenced Again“, China Digital Times]
[“Sketch of a media blackout“, Danwei.org]
[Posted by David Bandurski, December 19, 2006, 4:57pm]