I WROTE last month about the short-lived critical tradition in Chinese newspapers in the early 1950s, soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. It was a time of newfound peace and promise, and for journalists at many newspapers it meant seeking new space for the advance of reporting and the innovation of form.
President Xi Jinping has favoured the idea of “innovation” in recent years — with the prospect of new media technologies, and the push for newly creative measures to restrain their destabilising impact. Media innovation, however, is as old as the hills in China.
With that in mind, we share a translated excerpt of a wonderful piece in the August 2003 issue of the journal Yanhuang Chunqiu, in which Zhong Peizhang (钟沛璋), who began his career as a journalist in the 1940s, reflects back on his early work at China Youth Daily. A key focus of his recollection is former colleague Zhang Liqun (张黎群), who was swept up in the first wave of the 1957 Anti-Rightist Campaign after remarks he made at a Beijing forum on journalism.
It was in 1949, not long after the liberation of Shanghai, that I first met Zhang Liqun. I had launched the Youth Daily (青年报) in Shanghai, the first newspaper in New China oriented toward young readers. One day, a handsome young guest, brimming with confidence, arrived at the newsroom. That was Zhang Liqun.
His girlfriend had recently been transferred to the Youth Daily and he had come to pay her a visit. Only later did I realise that this youthful looking man, so resembling my twenty-something comrades at the Youth Daily, was in fact a toughened old revolutionary. And naturally I had no idea at all that before long this young revolutionary would become my leader and my colleague.
In 1954 I was transferred to Beijing’s China Youth Daily to serve as deputy editor-in-chief. It wasn’t long after that that Zhang Liqun was transferred over as editor-in-chief. Working under the leadership of Liqun was a joyful experience. He had two distinct characteristics: first, his courage to push innovation and break new ground, and second, his knack for giving his cadres a free hand.
Zhang Liqun, deputy chief editor of China Youth Daily before the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957.
The entire newsroom at China Youth Daily, like the Youth Daily (青年报) launched several years earlier, was a crew full of life and creativity. In moving from Shanghai to Beijing, and to the China Youth Daily, I felt no sense of unfamiliarity or constraint whatsoever, and very quickly I was able to showcase my own abilities and know-how. I worked with another deputy editor-in-chief, comrade Chen Mo (陈模). While he was responsible for youth activities and for advertising the work of the Youth League, I was responsible for culture, education, ideology and theory.
Youth activities were all about guiding the youth and boosting their morale so that they devoted their youth to socialism. Culture, education, ideology and theory were about fostering the full development of youth as new Communists. I should point out that the leader of the Youth League at that time was comrade Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), an ardent revolutionary who had joined the Red Army and the revolution in his own youth. He was someone who could rouse ideas, a true mentor and friend to the youth.
Every Sunday night Hu Yaobang would have us over to his home to talk about the publication and propaganda work. China Youth Daily, he said, should become a clarion call to stimulate the youth. Back at the news room, I drafted a work report on this issue and urged our comrades to put forward ideas on how we could lend the newspaper fighting strength and liveliness.
The author, Zhong Peizhang, an editor at China Youth Daily shortly after the foundation of the PRC in 1949.
Under Zhang Liqun’s leadership, with the united strength and creativity of my comrades, I led the publication of several supplements that at the time had great influence on the journalism profession. They included Hot Pepper (辣椒) and Sunday (星期天). The Hot Pepper supplement was about courageously tackling the uglier aspects of our society and the trend of corruption emerging among cadres in the New China — while at the same time urging the youth to fashion a splendid new world. Hot Pepper had a tremendous influence almost immediately. People felt the keen and constructive criticism in the supplement spoke to what people kept in their hearts. Hot peppers are spicy, but they are full of nutrition too; they promote perspiration and help clear up ailments.
Other newspapers, especially youth oriented publications, came out with their own special columns and supplements similar to Hot Pepper, and all told they amounted to a formidable force of supervision by public opinion (舆论监督), earning the support of the masses — but at the same time making certain people uneasy.
Sunday was about enriching the lives of the youth during their down time. In those days, everyone, man or woman, wore the same colour and style of clothing, what we called “the people’s attire.” Western journalists used the term “blue ants” to describe us. The people of China had achieved liberation, but the youth were still restrained by old feudal traditions and they were “incapable of laughing at a bit of drama, or skipping along the road.” It was as though [people felt] the more you didn’t talk about the joys of life, the more “revolutionary” you were.
I remember the time when I joined the first youth delegation from the New China to visit Japan, and Japanese young people would ask me eagerly: “When you young people in China seek out partners, does it matter what they look like?” In the Sunday supplement we said to the youth: you should be diligent and hard-working, but you should also learn how to live, to have the courage to lead the way and don “flowered clothing.” You should learn how to find the beauty in life, making your life richer and more colourful. China Youth Daily also created a number of other sections that were welcomed by our readers, like “Three-Day Chalk Talk” (思想三日谈). In this column we ran a lot of punchy and lively thought essays, using Marxist points of view to pull apart all sorts of reservations young people had. This was seen by youth as a lantern of ideas to light the way. One short piece, “If You Never Fall, You Never Learn to Walk,” was praised by Chairman Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong said: “I love to read China Youth Daily, but I don’t enjoy reading the People’s Daily.”
Certainly, China Youth Daily at that time was beloved not just by young people, but also by the middle-aged and the elderly. A lot of brother publications looked to China Youth Daily. I remember that when the Liberation Army Daily was launched, they sent a small group the the China Youth Daily newsroom to gain experience. I received them with respect and humility, sharing our experiences. Receiving wave after wave of approval, Comrade Liqun urged us not to rest on our laurels — we needed constant innovation and improvement. He personally picked a number of comrades to form a small experience group (总结经验小组) to draw up proposals on how to make China Youth Daily even better. Lots of proposals were drawn up, but before we had a chance to finalise our plans, misfortune crept up on the newspaper, and indeed crept up on the people of China. This was what we call the Anti-Rightist Campaign.
What began as “rectification,” encouraging everyone to speak their minds, later became “conspiracy” — “inviting the snakes out of their holes,” and snaring the “rightists.” At a journalism forum in May 1957, Comrade Liqun shared a number of his views on how to improve newspapers, and at one point he said that newspapers should not simply be “phonographs” and “notice boards,” but should also have their own style, their own characteristics and their own language, that there should be different voices.
The journalism forum was reported in the People’s Daily, and so the views of Liqun and a number of others made it into the newspaper.
Not long after that, at the direction of the highest leadership, the People’s Daily ran an official editorial called, “Why Is This?”, announcing the start of the “anti-rightist struggle.” A number of outright opinions about reform were regarded as “anti-Party, anti-socialist rightist speech.” And a number of famous journalists overnight became “rightists.” Zhang Liqun, whose speech about phonographs and notice boards had been reported openly in the People’s Daily, naturally had nowhere to run.