Just over a decade ago, veteran journalist Luo Changping (罗昌平), then deputy editor-in-chief of one of China’s most influential magazines, was a stand-out example of the best in Chinese journalism – a professional dedicated to the facts and to the hard-nosed techniques needed to ferret them out in a challenging environment. In November 2013, his work exposing official corruption earned him back-to-back international and domestic honors, first the “Integrity Award” from Transparency International, and later the China Hero Award from NetEase.
But the days are long gone when journalists in China can be openly lauded as heroes for asking hard questions about those in positions of power. On May 5, Luo Changping was sentenced to a seven-month prison term for “infringing the reputation and honor of national heroes and martyrs.” His punishment is a potent illustration of how profoundly values have shifted in Chinese media and society under the iron-fisted rule of Xi Jinping.
Luo’s sentencing comes almost exactly seven months after he was summoned by police on October 7, 2021, after making several posts to Weibo in which he questioned China’s role in the Korean War as depicted in a blockbuster propaganda film called The Battle at Lake Changjin (长津湖). Commissioned by the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, the film is a cloying war epic glorifying the deeds of the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) at the outset of the Korean War in 1950, as they faced off against an American-led United Nations force near at the Chosin Reservoir, about 100 kilometers south of the current border of China and North Korea along the Yalu River.
The real facts behind what Americans call the Battle of Chosin Reservoir are more tragic than glorious. But even when fictionalized to the point of absurdity, the Party’s version of the truth is not to be questioned. In October last year the film was a core feature of official commemorations of the Party’s centennial, and by design it became a national craze, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. The miseries facing the People’s Volunteers during that bitter winter 72 years ago, as they waited in vain for the delivery of even basic winter uniforms, were uplifted as dazzling sacrifices for the communist cause. Chinese schoolchildren screening the film were given frozen potatoes to eat so that they could appreciate the toughness of the so-called “ice sculpture company” (冰雕连), the thousands of soldiers who eventually froze to death that winter. Videos of filmgoers eating frozen potatoes – even at the cost of lost teeth – proliferated on social media.
Addressing this wave of national foolishness, Luo did the unthinkable. In a post on October 6, 2021, he questioned the authenticity of the film’s treatment of history, even referring to the “ice sculpture company” as depicted in the film as the “foolish sculpture company” (沙雕连).
Luo’s clear intention with this remark was to highlight the plain stupidity of one scene in the film in particular, in which a detachment of American soldiers comes across Chinese volunteers literally frozen into their battlefront positions, snowflakes dusting faces set like wax museum sculptures. Soaring music plays as the camera sweeps across the line of dead soldiers still gripping their rifles, and we see the American general, Oliver P. Smith, visibly moved by the display. He salutes, and then says: “Fighting against men with such strong will like this, we were not ordained to win.”
For viewers not desensitized to China’s overwrought propaganda, this scene, like so many others in The Battle at Changjin Lake, is hyperbole so outlandish it might easily prompt laughter. From a purely creative standpoint, it hardly seems an unfairness to call the scene “foolish.” Is there really a better word? The temptation to humor, so at odds with the intended reverence, was duly noted by international critics. As Phil Hoad, reviewing the film for The Guardian, wrote: “It’s straight-up propaganda – almost comedically so at times.”
Puncturing the inflated mythologies surrounding the Battle of Changjin Lake, and their shameless mobilization to legitimize CCP power in the 21st century, could be regarded as an act honoring the lives of the thousands of men who were asked to face bitter winter against a well-equipped enemy with only thin cotton uniforms and simple canvas shoes.
But in Xi Jinping’s China the lines are clear. Heroes are heroes. Martyrs are martyrs. The Party’s vision of history must be commemorated with a teary eye, and perhaps even a broken tooth. And the crime of “historical nihilism” must be eradicated with the tool of the law. Luo Changping’s questions came in the face of a law introduced in 2018 on the protection of heroes and martyrs that seeks to propagate the spirit of patriotism and sacrifice, and “stimulate strong spiritual power in achieving the Chinese dream of great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
After being summoned by police on October 7, the day after his allegedly defamatory remarks, Luo deleted his posts and issued a public apology through WeChat. The court decision notes this fact as a sign of contrition on Luo’s part, but also makes clear that the content had already by that point “been widely disseminated on the internet, triggering strong public outrage and having a deleterious social impact.”
A decade ago in China, questioning established truths was an act of heroism that merited recognition. It was possible, even in the face of Party controls on the press, for journalists to explore the secrets lurking in the Party’s fictionalized past, and to expose acts of corruption that had been plastered over with myth-making. A journalist like Luo Changping could proudly address young, aspiring journalists on the art of pursuing the facts, as he did in his November 2011 lecture at Beijing Foreign Studies University, titled “How Caijing Investigates.”
But by November 2013 the terrain for journalism had fundamentally changed. By the time Luo was honored with Transparency International’s “Integrity Award,” a chill had already swept through Chinese journalism. Ten months earlier, propaganda officials in Guangdong had effectively tamed Southern Weekly, long a vanguard of in-depth, factual reporting in a challenging political environment. April had brought a high-level Party directive with a shortlist of strict prohibitions that included “the West’s idea of journalism,” stressing that no challenge would be permitted to the notion that “the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline.”
On November 27, 2013, the day after Luo received the China Hero Award from Netease, having been chosen by internet users for his reporting on official corruption, news came that he had been forcibly transferred from his senior position at Caijing for skirting censorship guidelines. In another act of heroism that month, he had posted his latest corruption scoop to social media. Facing strong pressure from the authorities, Luo quit journalism altogether the next year.
In the years since Luo Changping’s departure from journalism, the space has narrowed substantially for those small acts of heroism by which Chinese seek to hold officials to account. Heroism is an act of sacrifice frozen into the landscape of the Party’s past. In the present, meanwhile, the only acceptable act is obedience to the Party’s version of history, and to the narrative of national rejuvenation.
Mandating his public capitulation to falsehood, Luo Changping was ordered by the court in Hainan to issue a written apology through Sina.com, the Legal Daily and the People’s Liberation Army Daily. But perhaps most poignant for the past recipient of the China Hero Award was the demand he pay 80,000-yuan in “public interest damage compensation” to a memorial in Dandong, Liaoning province, the “hero city” along the Yalu River from which tens of thousands of volunteer fighters crossed into Korea more than 70 years ago.
These are chilling plot twists in a very real saga for China’s journalists. But for heroes like Luo Changping, the front has become bitterly cold.