“Only Diversity of Opinion Is a Normal Thing“
Economic Observer: You were born in the 1950s, and I’m supposing you had big dreams when you were young.
Chen Lidan: I had no dreams. People of my generation, our ideals were all about “being resigned to the arrangements of the party.” I entered junior high school in the 1960s. At that time the message was all about studying Lei Feng, about having a single red heart and preparedness on many fronts (一颗红心多种准备), about heading for the countryside an the border regions — all in service of the party. At that time there was neither the social basis nor the social environment for dreams. Could such an environment permit you to dream?
Economic Observer: Did children all think at the time of growing up and being scientists?
Chen Lidan: We wanted to be peasants, and workers — that was the most glorious thing to be. How could we be scientists? That was about earning a reputation for yourself, something entirely bourgeois.
Economic Observer: Can you talk about your experiences reading books and newspapers before the Open Door Policy?
Chen Lidan: On July 13, 1968, I went to to the Eighth Work Division of the Heilongjiang Production and Construction Brigade (黑龙江生产建设兵团第八团), where I became a full-time propaganda reporter. My present professional life can be seen as going back to 1970. I become head of the reporting division [in Heilongjiang] in 1971, and in March 1973, when the reporting group was disbanded, I was sent to the division’s maintenance depot to work as a statistician, and in fact what I was doing was still putting together reports. At that time I had few connections with the media, save with the Soldier Corps Daily (兵团战士报), which was all news about the various divisions. There were also Heilongjiang Daily and People’s Daily, but I seldom read them. We belonged then to the paramilitary network, and the Liberation Army Daily was more common than People’s Daily. After that it was the division’s radio station, mainly devoted to news (my responsibility), songs, and quotations [from Chairman Mao]. There was nothing more, for those were meager times.
In August 1973, five months after I was sent to the maintenance depot, I returned to Beijing to study journalism at Peking University. After graduation I worked the nightshift as first reader of Guangming Daily, my job being to read the paper everyday. When I was a graduate student I was again studying journalism, and I was reading newspapers day in and day out. So my connection with media was unbroken. But there was not much to read in these papers, in fact. I seldom listened to the radio, and television was common only after the mid-1980s . . .
Economic Observer: In that time, what things made the deepest impression on you?
Chen Yidan: When I was studying at Peking University, even while we were called “learners” (学员), I basically studied nothing in that three years. At that time, information was very strictly controlled at Peking University, the environment virtually entirely sealed off. My distaste for the “Gang of Four” was merely a kind of instinct. On April 4, 1976, I took the opportunity as I was heading home (I was living in Dongcheng District at the time) to pass through Tiananmen Square, and I was touched, but I had no clear inkling of politics at the time. In January that year, as a number of us were returning home to Beijing by boat through Tianjin after internships with Yantai Daily (烟台日报), we heard on the radio on the way that Premier Zhou Enlai had passed away . . .
The Tangshan earthquake struck in 1976, and we accepted our graduation certificates in the earthquake shelters. I was sent to the editor-in-chief’s office at Guangming Daily to serve as editor on the night shift . . .
Economic Observer: After the Cultural Revolution, how did the process of setting things right (拨乱反正) happen in the arena of press studies?
Chen Lidan: First of all, those to first carry out deep introspection on the press weren’t journalism researchers, but two female youth in their twenties. On November 13, 1978, People’s Daily published an article by Lin Chun (林春) and Li Yinhe (李银河) called, “We Must Actively Promote Democracy and Strengthen Rule of Law” (要大大发扬民主和加强法制), the first time the making of a press law was raised.
That article made use of the words of Mao Zedong, saying that “the most precious freedoms of the people are those of speech, assembly, association, belief and person.” The article said that the reason Lin Biao and the “Gang of Four” could take just a few sentences in criticism of them and strike out against others as counterrevolutionaries, and the reason they could turn the newspapers into mouthpieces of their clique, was because the people were as yet unable to protect their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. In order that these rights be realized, Lin Chun and Li Yinhe advocated “first making a clear and complete account of the democratic rights of the people in various laws, giving them a legal force that no one can oppose.” These ideas still glitter with rays of thought.
Economic Observer: A great deal of work was also done by those in the press for the creation of press laws.
Chen Lidan: Beginning in the 1980s, people in the press started clamoring about the creation of a press law. A number of my fellow graduate students, including Zhang Zonghou (张宗厚), Sun Xupei (孙旭培) and Zhang Huanzhang (张焕章) of China Youth Daily‘s press research academy, all wrote articles on this subject. In January 1984, the National People’s Congress instructed Hu Jiwei (胡绩伟), then deputy director of the Educational, Scientific and Cultural Committee (教科文委员会), to take charge of this work [toward a press law], and for this purpose at Press Law Research Center (新闻法研究室) was created within the Press Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). It irregularly published a periodical called Press Law Bulletin (新闻法通讯). By 1988, three separate drafts of a press law had been created by the Press Law Research Center of the Press Institute at CASS, by a press law drafting group in Shanghai, and by a press law drafting group within the General Administration of Press and Publications. In March 1989, Comrade Deng Xiaoping even said: “We must seize particularly on the creation of laws, including laws and regulations on assembly, association, procession, demonstration, the press and publishing.”
For a number of reasons, the work of creating a press law gradually came to an end, and it has not to this day made it onto the [NPC] agenda. But a social consensus has already emerged around the making of laws to protect the various freedoms of the people. The preciousness of this recognition [of the importance of protecting rights] is best expressed in the words of the essay by Lin Chun and Li Yinhe: “These rights must be had. A system of law (and rule of law) must be achieved. This is a conviction to which the people have arrived through the experience of most bitter suffering, at the cost of their own blood and of their own lives.”
Economic Observer: After the Cultural Revolution, how did the press begin the process of reflecting back?
Chen Lidan: The first thing everyone asked at the time was, “What is news?” After that it was, “What is the nature and function of the newspaper?” People were “crafty” at that time. Over here they would admit the point that newspapers were tools in the struggle of the classes, but over here they would emphasize that papers were tools of public opinion in society. During that time, a lot of essays were trending in the latter direction.
In December 1980, CASS held a forum to discuss the book The Theoretical Foundation of Journalism (新闻理论基础), by Renmin University of China professor Gan Xifen (甘惜分). The forum lasted three days, and a number of the teachers present continued to insist on the point that newspapers, radio and television were tools of class struggle.
One teacher turned to some words Mao Zedong had said to two radio broadcasters on the rostrum at Tiananmen in 1968, the basic point of which was that radio was important. This teacher also gave the example that political change in Iraq had happened because [the Socialist Baath Party] had first gained control of the radio towers — and this was testament to the fact that radio was a tool of class struggle. One of my classmates, Sun Xupei, said somewhat sardonically that seizing political control meant not only seizing radio towers, but also train stations, airports, telegraph towers, and of what nature were these? Perhaps these were also tools of class struggle. That teacher was extremely upset, but he said nothing.
The essential character of media is not as “tools of class struggle. The most basic function of media is to transmit information, and that is news, no matter what kind of newspaper you’re talking about, even if its a party newspaper. Talking about this now, this idea seems elementary, but in the 1980s it was hard to say such things.
Economic Observer: Aside from tearing down “quotation journalism” (语录新闻学), what other theoretical discussions were going on in press studies in the 1980s?
Chen Lidan: Beginning in 1983, I participated in three separate discussions about “whether news is a commercial product or not” (新闻是不是商品). A lot of people in the 1980s felt that news was not a commercial products, and people still criticized the idea that news was a commercial products as a bourgeois point of view. In 1982, the 12th National Congress raised the idea of “a planned commercial economy” (有计划的商品经济), and [China] began to acknowledge the idea of a market economy. I wrote one very long essay that gave an overview at the third discussion about the commercial nature of the news — as of today, it still has never been published.
There was also a discussion about “exemplary reports” (典型报道) that at the time grew very fierce. Toward the end of 1986, the Chinese Journalism Society held its annual meeting, and I wrote a piece called, “Playing Down the Concept of Exemplary Reports.” The idea might have been a bit ahead of its time, and the voices in opposition were very loud indeed. Most [opposition] came from the chief editors of various local and regional party newspapers, where they were doing these kinds of reports [about exemplary communist heroes] on a daily basis, so what I was saying amounted to a negation of their work. I realized only later that this was not just a matter of business, but still very much a matter of theories of the press. It touched on the issue of how we understand the role of the media. The news is a factual report of something that has just happened, and it has to have news value. Exemplary reports praised [actions that were seen as] advanced, and how could that be news!
Economic Observer: Is it fair to say that the book Ten Discussions on Press Theory (新闻理论十讲) represents your ideas about the last three decades?
Chen Lidan: I suppose so. Those are my views within the bounds of what I can express. There was one chapter in the book that was a criticism of the bourgeois notion of freedom of speech, or claimed to reveal the falsehood of freedom of speech. Well, in that discussion in the book, I talked about what “freedom of speech” meant from a totally positive perspective . . .
In our press theory, we don’t dare to speak the word “freedom” too boldly, because we can only feel empty in our hearts. In 1986, I wrote an essay talking about “absolute freedom of the press” (绝对的出版自由), and as a result this essay was sent up [to authorities] during the purges of 1990 and 1991 [following June 4, 1989]. To this day, however, no one has argued over these points [of theory] with me. There’s no way they can argue these points with me, because I make reference to the original words of Engels, and Engels wrote more than once about “absolute freedom of the press.” In 1980, Red Flag magazine published an article that talked about the meaning of freedom, and it spoke a truth, saying that in the West the work most widely published is the Christian bible and next comes the writings of Lenin. The article pointed out that they publish Lenin’s work so widely [in the West] in order that it can be criticized. This explanation is of course ridiculous and illogical. Lenin’s ideology is perhaps in direct opposition to the West, but the fact that his published works are second only to the bible at least tells us that Lenin’s writings can be freely published in Western society — as for who is reading them, and why, that’s another question altogether.
Economic Observer: Is there any relationship between the “public opinion studies” referred to in these textbooks [in the interviewers hands?] and your previous book Public Opinion?
Chen Lidan: There is some relationship, but not a great deal. That “Public Opinion Studies” is a topic [i.e., project] undertaken by the Academy of Social Sciences Fund [SEE a list in Chinese of projects proposed for Tsinghua University and approved in 2004 here], and it has to concern itself here and there with “guidance of public opinion.” I’m no longer interested in guidance of public opinion as an expert question. Guidance of public opinion is not a serious academic question, but rather a political demand. Public opinion is a naturally existing ecology of opinions. Opinions in society are diverse, and public opinion is diverse. It is wrong to insist that opinions in society be channeled in one direction in a concerted manner. Uniformity of opinion is abnormal. Only diversity of opinion is a normal thing.
Economic Observer: This year is the 30th anniversary of economic reforms. What were you doing in 1978?
Chen Lidan: It was in 1978 that I tested into the graduate school of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. I had at the time a very poor theoretical grasp of the overall national political situation. I just felt that there were major problems with the Cultural Revolution and that we must criticize the leftist trend in thought. I was unhappy with a number of methods employed by the central party, but I was totally at a loss as to where these problems arose and how they should be analyzed.
On November 13 that year, the article by Lin Chun and Li Yinhe . . . appeared on page three of People’s Daily and armed me with the theoretical basis to analyze the problems of the Cultural Revolution — and that was the democratic system, the protections of the democratic system and rule of law. On November 16, Xinhua News Agency released 242 words from the party secretary of Beijing on the rehabilitation of those involved in the April 5 Tiananmen Incident. That December the Third Plenary Meeting of the Eleventh CCP Central Committee opened, and I read over and over the bulletin from the meetings and Deng Xiaoping’s speech, “Liberating Thought, Seeking the Truth Through Facts, Looking Ahead in Unity” (解放思想，实事求是，团结一致向前看). They were utterly inspiring.
And it was from that time on that I became clear about various issues . . . and the building of democracy, of a society ruled by law, and the pursuit of freedom of the spirit became firmly held beliefs of mine. I was 27 years old in 1978, a time by which one’s ideas should already be mature, but in the atmosphere of the first couple of years after the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, when people spoke in set phrases all day long, spoke words forced on them, it was difficult to form a habit of thinking for oneself.
Economic Observer: If you were to write a phrase to describe the 1980s, what would it be?
Chen Lidan: The 80s were an active and stimulating time, in which people’s ideas were constantly colliding, and there was a tolerant space for stimulation and activity. This was true even though the space would constantly expand and contract, heading left and then right. In fact, it was precisely because there was this constant tugging left or right that there was space for activity.
After the 1990s, the system of press studies in system had basically been built, particularly in the area of press theory, and any time someone opened their mouth it was with a particular approach. Of course, after 1992 there was open space for press research, and this space emerged primarily under the stimulation of the market economy. In the 1980s, all disciplines were doing things that fell within the category of “politics,” they were all flying the flag of political reform, including press reform. But after the 1990s, people discovered that there was a speciality terrain outside of politics where a great deal could be done, and a lot of developments were made.
But looking back now, it seems that the thing most troubling press studies lately is still press theory. If we can make breakthroughs in press theory, I’m afraid things would be a bit better.
Economic Observer: The philosopher Li Zehou (李泽厚) believes that compared to the 1980s, the 90s were a time when “ideas were weak and academics were highlighted.” Do you agree with this view?
Chen Lidan: . . . The 1990s. I think they weren’t a time of “weak ideas in which academics were highlighted.” There is thought in academics too. I think it should be that “politics were weak and academics highlighted.”
Economic Observer: You think there were still ideas in the 1990s?
Chen Lidan: Ideas in the 1990s emerged largely within academia. They came out tortuously, and in the name of academics and academic study. This was unlike the 1980s, when they could emerge directly under the slogan of “political reform.” So in the 1990s, many ideas were hidden away within academia. This includes a lot of Western concepts and comparative study, which have ideas but are indirect. Now we can actually say “freedom of speech,” and what we use is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. But would this have happened in the 1980s? At that time people didn’t even know such a thing existed. Now our own government has signed this covenant on civil rights, and so I can say it boldly and confidently. I think we can use different words and say that “politics is weak.” Everyone does their utmost to keep their distance from politics.
Economic Observer: Next year is the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement. What influence do you think this movement had on press studies in China?
Chen Lidan: In my view, the May Fourth Movement, aside from voicing the slogans of “science” and “democracy,” had a fierce sense of freedom. It broke through the conformity and uniformity of the ancient Chinese academic discipline and inaugurated an all-encompassing era of academic diversity, bringing into being modern literature, philosophy, history, linguistics and other independent disciplines and schools of thought. After 30 years of development in press studies in China, we’re at last able in this kind of social context to announce our own independence as an academic discipline. It can be said that only in the May Fourth era did press studies [in China] have an entirely independent status.