Author: David Bandurski

Now director of the CMP, leading the project’s research and partnerships, David joined the team in 2004 after completing his master’s degree at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He is currently an honorary lecturer at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre. He is the author of Dragons in Diamond Village (Penguin/Melville House), a book of reportage about urbanization and social activism in China, and co-editor of Investigative Journalism in China (HKU Press).

Media sources: national ban on coverage of “The Da Vinci Code” came 10 days before the film was pulled

Media sources told the China Media Project national media were ordered against coverage of the blockbuster film “The Da Vinci Code” on May 28, ten days before a June 7 order from the state film and broadcast regulator for the film to be pulled from more than 400 theaters nationwide. A missive from censors told media not to write news or editorials about the film or set off factors of instability, sources said.
Theaters across China halted screenings of the film today, and various media outside China cited unrest among the country’s Christian population and protection of domestic films as reasons for the decision. The state-run China Daily English-language newspaper also reported that the film had been yanked from theaters – the newspaper, overseen by the State Council Information Office as opposed to the Propaganda Department, targets a mostly foreign population in China and therefore generally has more leeway in coverage than its Chinese counterparts.


The pulling of the film came without advance warning and surprised many outside China. Many foreign media reports focused on protection of domestic Chinese films as the reason for the change. Reuters, citing China Daily, said the decision to ban the film had come “after calls from several groups representing the Chinese film industry”. So far, China Daily seems to be the only source for that version of the story.
In the only domestic story run in violation of the Propaganda Department ban, however, Shenyang Today (沈阳今报) raised the issue of the film’s sensitivity and said the true reasons for the pulling of the film were not yet clear:
June 8, 2006 – This reporter learned last night that on the 9th of this month that “The Da Vinci Code” will be pulled from theaters.
The reporter contacted the manager of Stars Fantasy Cinema (星辰梦幻影都), Xu Zengbin, by telephone. He learned at 5:30am yesterday that “The Da Vinci Code” would be pulled on the 9th … He said he wasn’t clear about the reasons for pulling the film. With up to 10 domestically produced films due to hit the market soon, he said, one couldn’t help but think dropping a powerful performer like “The Da Vinci Code” was a way of protecting Chinese-made films.
Manager Xu expressed his disappointment that the movie had been pulled, because it had been welcomed by the public with very high attendance … Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Da Vinci Code” has been eagerly received. However, due to the film’s sensitivity it has been boycotted in some countries. Some sources here in China also contend that the sudden pulling of the film from theaters is due to the sensitive nature of the film. This report approached a Ms. Zhang of Huaxia Films, domestic distributor of “The Da Vinci Code”, about this question but she was insistent on not addressing it. She would only say: “The pulling of the film came very quickly. We’ve just learned about it, so we’re not sure of the reasons.
[China Pulls “Da Vinci Code” in Wake of Protests (LA Times)]
[China pulls “Da Vinci Code” to help local films (Reuters)]
[Posted by Brian Chan and David Bandurski, June 9, 2006, 6:26pm]

Chinese government newspaper launches ideological training in response to news extortion cases

Last month CMP wrote about an official bulletin from state media minders detailing four news extortion cases in China [article here]. On May 25, nine days after the official statement, China Industry and Commerce News, a newspaper not implicated in the above bulletin and published by the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, announced it would introduce new internal measures to avoid violations of conduct. While the phenomenon of news extortion (and other violations of journalistic ethics) are the product of endemic institutional problems, the supposition in the release is that they can be dealt with by ratcheting up propaganda training for news workers. It provides a taste of how Chinese leaders are in the habit of using hackneyed ideologies to deal with very new problems in the media brought on by rapid commercialization under an autocratic system:
In order to carry out the spirit of the “Provision on Cadre Education Work (draft)” (干部教育工作条例), improve the political behavior and performance of our whole system of news and publicity professionals (新闻宣传工作人员) and raise the quality of publicity reports at China Industry and Commerce News … the paper has decided from 2006 forward to hold training systems for our entire network of correspondents once every five years, endeavoring to build a troupe [of journalists] whose quality and scope are suited to the publicity needs of commerce administration [in China] — whose politics is strong [ie. in line with the Party], whose business dealings are clear [ie. uncorrupt], whose [working] style is upright
Training for 2006 will be as follows:
Guiding ideology:
[Upholding a stream of Party policies, including Deng Xiaoping Theory, etc. in accord with China Industry and Commerce News’ own “Key Points for Commercial Administrative Management News Publicity Work 2006]

Training content:
First is to strengthen training in political theory. We will firmly use Deng Xiaoping Theory and the “Three Represents” [of former President Jiang Zemin], earnestly studying the spirit of 16th Party Congress … firmly grasping correct guidance of public opinion, erecting Socialist Honor and Disgrace Theory [SEE “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces”], conscious of safeguarding news principles [i.e. self-censorship along Party lines] and professional ethics, raising the overall political-theoretical accomplishments of our correspondents

[Posted by David Bandurski, June 9, 2006, 12:27pm]

Chinese media debate information disclosure as reporter sues Shanghai City Planning Bureau

After news late last week that a reporter brought an information non-disclosure lawsuit against a government office in China’s financial center of Shanghai, some media in China asked whether this might push China toward a more open society. The reporter was using “Shanghai Municipal Government Ordinance on Openness of Information”, a local ordinance on government information disclosure passed back in 2004, to support his case. Southern Metropolis Daily, one of the country’s top newspapers, called the pending lawsuit “historic”. “We salute this reporter’s courage, and even more we hope people pay attention to this new topic of discussion”, the paper said. [PDF of Beijing Youth Daily editorial, June 3 here:pdf_article651.pdf]. [PHOTO: The State Council announces release of China environmental report in the spirit of disclosure, June 5, 2006, from Central People’s Government website].
[UPDATE: CMP’s mainland media sources are confirming the reports we cover here are so far the only that have appeared on this case in China, although the original coverage, by China Youth Daily, was picked up by a handful of other papers. There is apparently no national ban or limitation on coverage, but Shanghai media have avoided the story altogether, which may suggest a local ban is in force.]
This has all the hallmarks of a great story — a little guy up against recalcitrant, entrenched leaders, the question of important new legislation this year (the State Council is considering a national mandate for disclosure of government information), the perennial questions of political reform and free speech, etc. There was coverage by Hong Kong’s Ming Pao and Apple Daily, who regurgitated the original China Youth Daily story – and blogger ESWN (of course) picked up the basics from Ming Pao.
The critical question here is what impact cases like Ma Cheng’s, and the attending publicity (should coverage continue to be permitted), could potentially have on A) the public debate over disclosure of government information in China, B) on the effective implementation of local ordinances as well as, possibly, the national one, and C) on the perceived role of journalism in China. The case could provide greater impetus for action in the State Council, which entered a proposed “Ordinance on Government Information Release” (政府信息公开条例) into this year’s legislative calendar.
Hu Shuli, managing editor of Caijing magazine, wrote of the proposed State Council ordinance in April this year that “when looking back again after thousands of years, Chinese people will see that today is another new milestone in their history” [SEE “The Imperative of Information Freedom”, by Hu Shuli, translated Far Eastern Economic Review, May 2006, p. 62-63].
After government suppression of information about the SARS epidemic in 2003, public access to information became a more immediate concern for Chinese. In late 2003, the city of Guangzhou became the first to implement a local ordinance on information disclosure. The municipality of Shanghai came next, followed by Hubei, Jilin and Jiangsu provinces. Responding to public incidents, various government offices, such as the State Food and Drug Administration, issued their own ordinances or regulations on information disclosure.
The problem, as ever in China, is making the government stand by the letter of its own laws and regulations. The Ma Cheng case, which domestic Chinese media are saying is the “first time ever in China a reporter has sued a government office for violating his right to carry out reporting”, is one attempt to press the government to make good on its promises.
Behind this case about public disclosure of government information is a debate about the role of journalism in China. One legal expert quoted by domestic media said that Chinese citizens are the intended target of the disclosure ordinances, and that journalists using the ordinances as journalists per se may find the way blocked legally. Southern Metropolis Daily related the case directly to the question of protections for journalism.
The first report on the Shanghai case came from China Youth Daily, a newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Youth League on June 2. It included comments from a Fudan University professor about the probable success of a lawsuit as either a “citizen” or a “journalist”. Also interesting is Ma Cheng’s claim that his request for a media interview was treated by one Shanghai government office as a petition for redress, which might suggest either confusion as to how media requests should be handled or deliberate abuse of the petitions system to put journalists off:
China Youth Daily, June 2, 2006 – “The final result is not important – the crux is really making sure the relevant [government] departments attach importance to the right of journalists to do reporting.” Today Ma Cheng (马骋), a reporter for the law and politics section of a Shanghai newspaper told this reporter by telephone that he is suing the City Planning Bureau of the Shanghai Municipal Government for not providing access to information, and that the case has already been accepted by Shanghai’s Huangpu District People’s Court. This is the first time ever in China that a reporter has sued a government office for violating his right to report.
Ma Cheng told this reporter he had carried out extensive reporting of a story and on April 18 faxed his interview outline to the Shanghai City Planning Bureau. The bureau had never responded, and on April 23 sent a formal written interview request to the Shanghai City Planning Bureau asking them to provide public records in accordance with “Shanghai Municipal Government Ordinance on Openness of Information” [in Chinese here]. Once again he was ignored.
In filing his case, Ma Cheng asked the court to rule that Shanghai’s City Planning Bureau open up the government information he had requested in accordance with the “Shanghai Municipal Government Ordinance on Openness of Information”.
In a letter addressed to the All-China Journalist’s Association, Ma Cheng said that in recent years as he reported stories he frequently was ignored by various government offices. Some offices [he said] used methods against laws and regulations to limit news reporting, making journalists unable to exercise their right to report (采访权).
On one occasion Ma Cheng abided by the regulations of a particular government office in Shanghai and submitted a written interview request. Little did he know the a few days later he would receive in the post from this office a “Letters and Calls Confirmation Slip” saying his request was being handled as a petition matter and that “according to the ‘Petition Statute’ offices handling petitions must send a written reply [to the petitioner] within 60 days of receiving the request, and in cases of extension notify [the petitioner] of the status of the case”.

The “Shanghai Municipal Government Ordinance on Openness of Information”, implemented in May 2004, says that except in cases where disclosure is prohibited, government information regarding the economy, administration of society and public services should be disclosed or provided in when requested.

One month after the “Provision” took effect, 70 year-old Shanghai resident Dong Ming filed a lawsuit against the Real Estate Bureau of Shanghai’s Xuhui District alleging “government non-disclosure of information” after being denied access to real estate asset records. This case was called “the first government information disclosure case” [in China]. But Dong Ming eventually lost his case.
A proposed “Ordinance on Government Information Release” has made it into the State Council’s legislative calendar for this year. This “Ordinance” would make government disclosure of information mandatory, with disclosure the rule and non-disclosure the exception, changing the secretive prior rule of “secrecy on principle, disclosure on exception”.
Huang Hu, an expert on laws and regulations at Fudan University’s School of Journalism, said Ma Cheng would have no problem bringing his case for government non-disclosure before the court in the capacity of a civilian, because of the “Shanghai Municipal Government Provision on Openness of Information”. But alleging before the court that a government office violated his right to access information as a journalist would have little legal basis. This is because in China, and indeed outside China, there are no specific regulations addressing the journalist’s right to reportage, and government offices were under no legal obligation to accept approaches from news reporters. “The object of [these regulations concerning] information disclosure is the citizen, but do not mean the government is under any obligation to release information to journalists”
In the past, some within the industry have pointed out that the media are not organs representing the will of citizens and are not the legal agents of the people. In the obtaining of information, journalists do not enjoy any special privileges not accorded to citizens. While their profession demands that they must pay attention to the affairs of government, they are not carrying out the work of the state in gathering such government information. Because of this, when being denied information, media cannot take legal action in the capacity of plaintiff. Reporters may only sue in the capacity of citizens. This means that even if a court hands a victory to the reporter, their decision will in no way mean information must be made available to the media in question. Therefore, legal victories for journalists per se lose much of their significance.
… Ma Cheng told this reporter that his suit was filed in accordance with the “Shanghai Municipal Government Provision on Openness of Information” and mainly seeks disclosure of information, not emphasizing his right to reportage as a journalist. Of course, he also submitted a letter explaining his actions to the All-China Journalist’s Association, saying he was seeking to “test the use of civil law for recourse in the rights of journalists to conduct reportage”.
The next day, Beijing Youth Daily, the newspaper of the Beijing Communist Youth League, ran the following piece on its editorial page. The article was written by Yang Shou (杨涛), a prosecuting attorney in Jiangxi Province:
HEADLINE: The ice-breaking significance of the government disclosure case
Beijing Youth Daily, June 3, 2006 — [First paragraph is a summary of case as reported in China Youth Daily… In regards to right to report, the law does not say anything explicit. The general theory holds that the right to report is a right (权利) and not a power (权力). Therefore, the act of reporting by a journalist customarily requires consent of the person being interviewed. Exceptions are made, however, for information concerning the public interest – citizens should have a right to know information, and journalists have a right and duty to report it.
It should be said that Ma Cheng’s lawsuit is reasonable, proper and lawful. The “Shanghai Municipal Government Ordinance on Openness of Information” stipulates that information concerning planning issues, such as city planning and land use, belong to the category of information that should be made available to the public. Well then, if Ma Cheng cannot access the abovementioned information, he has reason to seek information and interviews with the Shanghai City Planning Bureau, and if his requests are denied, he can act in accordance with the provisions, which say: “Citizens, legal persons and other organizations that feel the government has violated the concrete forms of administrative conduct prescribed in this document and violated their legal rights and benefits, may request reconsideration in accordance with the law, and if proper reconsideration is not made may bring legal action; citizens, legal persons and other organizations may file a lawsuit directly with the People’s Court”.
On the one hand, Ma Cheng’s lawsuit strives for the citizen’s right to know. Lately, a number of local governments have come out with statutes on disclosure of government information, but a national “Ordinance on Government Information Release” has never been created. Citizens’ means of obtaining government information are imperfect. Only by going through a succession of concrete lawsuits can we make sure these local initiatives work, in this way bringing the public’s attention [to the issue] and promoting the creation of a national law and making sure the public’s right to know becomes a reality. One the other hand, his lawsuit is strives for the right for journalists to conduct reporting. China does not yet have laws protecting news reporters, and because the law makes no provisions on protection of the rights of journalists to conduct interviews, journalists are denied interviews by government offices and their employees, and sometimes even attacked. Through the use of specific legal cases like [Ma’s] the idea of protecting journalists’ right to report will receive the attention it deserves from society, allowing the media to be more effective in carrying out their watchdog role. I believe that striving after these rights will promote more timely and direct information throughout society, serving the public interest and avoiding harm. It will make news reports more impartial, free, and more importantly, members of society can then more effectively obtain information, and be therefore more equipped to safeguard their legal rights.
On the same day as the Beijing Youth Daily editorial, Southern Metropolis Daily ran its own in page 2. The editorial directly addresses the implications of Ma’s case for the work of journalists and seeks to dissolve distinction between “journalist” and “citizen” in the debate over information disclosure. It also discusses “supervision of public opinion” (舆论监督), the government mandate for the media to supervise lower-level officials, businesses and other aspects of society. The implication is that enforceable laws and regulations on disclosure would better enable reporters to carry out this social duty:
Southern Metropolis Daily, June 3, 2006 – According to a report by Beijing Youth Daily, a Shanghai reporter named Ma Cheng has sued Shanghai’s City Planning Bureau for repeatedly avoiding his requests for an interview for a story he was working on. In his suit, Ma requests that the bureau disclose government information in accord with the “Shanghai Municipal Government Ordinance on Openness of Information”. This case has already been accepted by Shanghai’s Huangpu District People’s Court. This is China’s first case of a reporter suing a government office for violating his right to report – its meaning is no trivial matter and deserves the attention of the nation.
The understand the importance of the case, one first has to be clear about the history and current practice of information disclosure in China. For a long time, we have been taught in our educational curriculum that protecting national secrets is the responsibility of all citizens, and that overlooking or playing down of the information demands of the people was an important function of the government. Along with the opening of society and the global information age, the ordinary understanding is that governments make the transition from a social control orientation to a service orientation and that official business be discussed openly.
[Summary of local ordinances since SARS in 2003 and this year’s possible national ordinance…
In accordance with modern principles of governance, these [local] rules and regulations are a mandate for public disclosure of government information – the idea is to make disclosure the rule and non-disclosure the exception. The scope of disclosure should be the large and cases of government secrecy rare, removing the gap between government disclosure and public demand for information. Using the news media to release government information is without a doubt the first choice in meeting the above-stated needs in today’s society – it’s the same in countries throughout the world. To meet the demands of regulations on government information disclosure, Shanghai and other local governments have already established news spokesperson systems, regularly issuing government information to news media. Also without a doubt, the news media are the first choice for citizens to learn government information.
However, due to the sustained influence of the social control model of governance … the implementation of government disclosure ordinances has not been thorough. In many local areas disclosure of information is a mere formality. The important is avoided and the trivial dwelled upon [in the release of information], empty talk is put out and nothing done, or pockets of interest use [information release] as a political device, so that it has become a tool for misleading the choices of ordinary people. In recent years a whole host of problems, from the real-estate market and fees in the public service industry to price-rigging by monopoly enterprises, all have sown doubt among the people and experts. In such a situation, supervision by public opinion [Chinese “watchdog journalism”] is the most basic protection of disclosure of government information. Because of this [need to resort to enterprising reporting under a state mandate for investigative journalism to ensure disclosure] those officials who are abusing their positions or asleep at the controls avoid contact with news media and even impede media reports. Recent cover-ups of safety accidents, mine disasters, etc. are classic examples of this. We must no overlook the work of journalists who do their jobs with utmost respect and stop at nothing to reveal the truth, getting government offices to make relevant information available to the public.
Although China does not yet have laws or regulations protecting the right to report, but the above facts and analysis confirm what is common sense to the people of our nation, that the government disclosing information to the public is the exact same thing as disclosing information to the news media. Unimpeded reportage by journalists watches and ensures government disclosure of information. This is now the convention in the law and practice of developed countries throughout the world. Although some countries do not have specific laws [concerning the right to report] they incline toward the media in judicial decisions, particularly in cases involving the government offices and the media, so that the former find it difficult to win cases.
The case brought by Shanghai journalist Ma Cheng against the City Planning Bureau has already been officially accepted by the courts. Before the case is heard, it’s impossible to tell what the outcome will be. But no matter what the result, this means opening a new chapter in history, and will lead people to think a great deal more about the question of journalists’ right to reportage and disclosure of government information. Whether this reporter wins or not it not important. What is important is that he has the courage to raise this lawsuit. What is important is that a new chapter in history is now opening. We salute this reporter’s courage, and even more we hope people pay attention to this new topic for discussion.
[BELOW: Flow chart of Shanghai government application procedures for information disclosure. From Shanghai Overseas Chinese Affairs Office website.]


[Posted by David Bandurski, June 7, 2006, 6:15pm]

Chinese media too “desensitized” to cover the Xining Coal Mine disaster

When a flooding disaster occurred at a coal mine in Shanxi Province just over a week ago, there were no obstacles to news coverage outside Shanxi itself – no central government bans, no stipulations about using only official news agency coverage. The story was fair game. But to read Chinese newspapers, you might media had been straight-jacketed into using official releases. Not only was nearly everything from Xinhua News Agency – it was from one very busy Xinhua reporter named Chen Zhonghua (陈忠华). [PHOTO: Rescue workers rest during the rescue operation for a startlingly similar disaster last year, also in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, The Beijing News].
So what went wrong? Faced with a great story – about human tragedy, about greed and deadly collusion between business and local officials, about a failed national policy of no-tolerance – and given virtual carte blanche to cover it, why did Chinese media sit on their hands and wait for the next Xinhua release?
“We feel desensitized (审丑疲劳) to these mine disaster stories,” one editor at a major Chinese newsmagazine told the China Media Project when asked why they had not sent their own reporters to Shanxi. There had simply been too many mining stories like this in China, he said, and journalists and readers alike had grown tired of them. Given presumed lack of interest, there was no profit in the story, and therefore no reason to mobilize resources to cover it.
The dearth of independent coverage of the Xining Coal Mine accident underscores a new and growing challenge facing the public interest news story in China – commercial considerations. In China political controls have been, and are still, the major stumbling block in the way of journalists. But while government orders and bans continue to place strict controls on what media can and cannot cover, intensifying commercial pressures are leading some to discard even those stories that are fair game.
Official proclamations on the Xining Coal Mine accident have been strong and have come regularly. Just yesterday, newspapers across China reported a speech by the country’s top work safety official, Li Yizhong (李毅中), on the disaster in Shanxi. He spoke directly about the role of corrupt local officials in poor mine safety nationwide. The report of the speech was, not surprisingly, from Xinhua. Here is a portion of the story as it appeared in Sichuan’s Huaxi Dushibao (华西都市报):
(Xinhua) — As the investigation deepens into the severe flooding accident at the Xining Coal Mine in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, more behind-the-scenes details are now coming to light. During the meeting forming the State Council’s Accident Investigation Group (国务院事故调查组), the head of that group and director of the State Administration of Work Safety, Li Yizhong (李毅中) said the Xining Coal Mine made several legal violations in its management of resources, production, safety, explosives, business and other areas, and actually showed “the five poisons all at once” (五毒俱全). What was most peculiar [said Director Li] was that this coal mine of “five poisons” had managed to have all six of the necessary official stamps (六证齐全) …
The existence of such a phenomenon thoroughly shows the loopholes present in the carrying out of inspection measures and other areas at the local level, and shows that in implementing the State Council’s spirit in such areas as safety inspection and clean-up of coal mines, low-level offices often talk loudly but implement nothing … showing that many cadres at many local governments make a superficial show of “severity”, while stealthily serving as an umbrella of protection [for illegal behavior].

Great stuff. But, again, no one is rushing to cover it. In fact, since the story appeared in the Chinese media on May 21, most newspapers have differentiated their “coverage” in only very minute ways, through headlines, layout and editorials.
As a kind of baseline, here is the May 21 report of the disaster in Beijing Daily, using Chen Zhonghua’s Xinhua report. Notice use of the word “accident”:
According to a May 21 release from Xinhua News Agency (reporter Chen Zhonghua/陈忠华) – According to early assessments by the emergency team on the scene, a flooding accident occurred at the Xinjing Coal Mine in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, [which is under the jurisdiction of] Datong City, Jiazhang Village, on May 18 at 8:30pm. Up to now an estimated 44 miners are trapped inside. The reported discovered from the emergency team on the scene that when the accident occurred, there were 145 miners in the mine, of which 101 exited the mine on their own, leaving 44 trapped inside. On the afternoon of May 20, the Safety Inspection Bureau and other government offices started receiving calls from informants, who said that when the accident occurred on the 18th there were more than [the reported] 5 people in the mine and that the mine’s owners had kept the situation under wraps. The appropriate offices took the matter very seriously, and State Administration of Work Safety director Li Yizhong (李毅中), Shanxi Party Secretary Zhang Baoxun (张宝顺) and Shanxi Governor Yu Youjun (于幼军) went to the scene to direct the emergency effort. At the same time, they opened an investigation into the cause of the accident. On May 20 the reporter learned in a phone call to the head of the Shanxi Work Safety Office, Gong Anku (巩安库), that after the accident happened, the figure in charge of mining operations fled. According to escaped miners, there were probably more than five workers below, and that after the accident occurred, the mine boss took a taxi from one of the miner’s relatives and headed from Inner Mongolia. Taking all the above factors together, the Shanxi Work Safety Office believes a [criminal] cover-up may be involved. Nine of the mine’s principals have already been detained by public security officers.
On May 22, Beijing Daily ran a second Xinhua release making an adjustment to the number of miners supposed to be trapped:
According to a May 21 release from Xinhua News Agency (reporter Chen Zhonghua/陈忠华) – This reporter learned from the emergency team for the Xinjing Coal Mine flooding accident in Shanxi’s Zuoyun Country that the number of miners trapped in the accident has risen to 57. According to the latest findings of the team’s investigative group, the number of miners trapped might be 57, up 13 from the estimate of 44 given on May 20. As required by the Safety Inspection Bureau, the Shanxi Party Committee and the provincial government, the investigative group of the emergency team is working with family members to determine the number of miners trapped and produce a detailed list of names.
Follow these links to see how Associated Press and Reuters used the same releases from Xinhua.
Nanfang Daily, Guangdong’s provincial paper with a reputation for pushing the limits just a bit farther than most of its counterparts, ran the same Xinhua release on May 22, merely adding a touch of exasperation to the headline: “Number Trapped in Zuoyun Mine Disaster Keeps Going Up: 5? 44? 57!” Notice also the reference to “disaster” here, which plays up the news more than the Beijing Daily version.
But rare editorials were the strongest expressions of “independence”. Here is the finish of a Nanfang Daily editorial appearing May 24 and calling for “punitive damages” to be levied on negligent mine bosses:
Indeed, the abhorrent cover-up at Zuoyun reminds our lawmakers (立法者), that mine bosses and managers who cover up the circumstances [of accidents] and prolong emergency efforts should be forced to pay punitive damages on top of the usual disaster compensation, even if it means the personal ruin of mine bosses. Only in this way, can we discourage people from challenging the law and the government on mine safety issues to protect their own financial gains.
The first papers to come out with their own editorial takes on the disaster, though, were Southern Metropolis Daily and Sichuan Daily, both on May 23. Here is Southern Metropolis Daily [See also PDF at top of page]:
Collusion Between Officials and Coal Industry Means Failure of “Iron Fisted” Clean-up [Policy]
Just as coal mine safety seemed to be taking a turn for the better and [mine] disaster reports had quieted down, the Xining Coal Mine flooding accident happened on May 18 in Shanxi’s Zuoyun County, bringing the issue of mine disasters once again before the public eye. This is an accident of an odious nature. It is abhorrent not because the mine boss is more heartless, the safety inspection system more ineffective, or the number of dead greater [than previous disasters]. It is abhorrent because the central government has been pushing its no-tolerance (铁腕) policy on the clean up of the coal industry for more than a year now – and then to have such a disaster, no less dark, no less ineffective, no less deadly. If we can say that anything at all has changed, we can say only that the means for covering up such disasters have increased.
We have already seen some results from the no-tolerance clean-up policy for safe production at coal mines, that much is certain. But the disaster at the Xining Coal Mine once again tells us with the lives of miners that complex local interest and departmental interests can make the implementation process fail for lack of final effort … [Social] advantages must be balanced equitably. How we can develop a comprehensive system for equitably balancing social advantages, truly making an iron-fisted clean-up as strong as iron, safeguarding safety — this question is much more urgent even than the emergency effort on the scene [in Shanxi].
The only other notable difference among mainland coverage was an apparent news blackout in effect in Shanxi Province, the site of the disaster. Although CMP has not obtained a provincial-level news ban on the Xining Coal Mine disaster, a ban can be inferred from the silence of local media. Shanxi Daily, the mouthpiece of the provincial party committee, did not report the disaster until May 23, a full three days after the first Xinhua releases were available. The interest in controlling the news locally is not surprising considering local party congress and other positions and due for a change-over this year. Here is the initial Shanxi Daily report:
7 people in criminal detention, 9 high-power water pumps to be delivered today
May 22 (reporter Zhao Zhicheng/赵志成) – After two days fighting bravely day-and-night, the Zuoyun County “5*18” mine flooding accident has been designated an accident of great proportions (特别重大事故), involving cover up by the mine boss of numbers of people [injured], illegal mining beyond designated deposits, serious over-mining with excessive personnel, power and degree, and chaotic workforce and safety management. The mine boss’s concealment of the accident was a vile act that bungled the most opportune time for emergency efforts, placing accident response efforts in an extremely difficult position. As of 12pm today, the emergency team raised the number of workers trapped in the mine to 57 from the previous 44. Seven people suspected of involvement [in the cover-up] have been taken into criminal detention, and other people involved in the case are being sought.
In the last two days, the emergency effort has been a race against time. Tongmei Group (同煤集团), Fenxi Mining Group (汾西矿业集团) and Qi, Linyi and Tunliu counties have, without asking for any compensation, contributed people and equipment, allowing for great headway in the emergency effort. Lately, six water pumps have been employed at the site, and three more are now being installed. It is estimated that by the 23rd, 9 water pumps will be in use, with a total drainage capacity of 1,200 cubic metres per hour.
Appropriate offices in [nearby] Datong City and Zuyun County are arranging aftercare for the families of the trapped miners. At the same time, environmental offices are monitoring the water quality in the area.

On May 24, six days after the disaster, the story finally made the front page of Shanxi Daily. Below is an image of the front page. The article on the Xining disaster runs above the central photograph, an unrelated and uplifting image of schoolchildren in the classroom. The headline reads: “Speeding Up Rescue Work/Seeking Those Responsible”:


China’s coalmining industry has the world’s worst safety record, with about 6,000 deaths at mines every year, according to an Associated Press report. In mid-2005, Chinese officials urged more spending on mine safety after government statistics showed 1,113 workers had died in mining accidents in just the first three months of the year.
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 30, 2006, 11:51am]

Chinese media seize on words of cultural minister and broach Cultural Revolution anniversary

A statement yesterday by China’s cultural minister emboldened a handful of mainland newspapers to defy a government ban on coverage of the fortieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. For the first time today, four mainland newspapers ran articles directly mentioning the “fortieth anniversary”, based on a database search of 140 Chinese newspapers.
Chinese cultural minister Sun Jiazheng (孙家正) said at a press conference on May 25 that the National Museum of China and the National Library of China were gathering together Cultural Revolution materials that might “assist in research of this period in history”. The response came as Sun dodged a question by a foreign reporter as to why China had no museum for the Cultural Revolution, but bolder newspapers read this as a clear opportunity for more open coverage – an act Chinese call jieti fahui (借题发挥), or, translated roughly, “using a current topic of conversation to put out one’s own ideas”.
The four newspapers to mention the Cultural Revolution anniversary were: Guangzhou’s Southern Metropolis Daily and New Express, Wuhan’s Strait News, and Chongqing Morning Post.
In an A16 article, Southern Metropolis Daily reported the exchange between Sun Jiazheng and a United Press International reporter who asked why China had no Cultural Revolution museum:
The first “Cultural Heritage Day” will come on June 10 this year. The theme of the first “Cultural Heritage Day” will be “protecting our cultural heritage, preserving our spiritual homeland”. China’s Cultural Heritage Day will fall each year on the second Saturday in June.
At a May 25 press conference held by the State Council Information Office, Cultural Minister Sun Jiazheng said cultural protection concerns not only the long-reaching history of our people, but also how we will face our future
[Concerning a “Cultural Revolution” museum, the National Museum and National Library are gathering materials]
United Press International reporter: “May this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. China has many museums about the history of the 20th century, I’d like to ask why China has no Cultural Revolution museum?”
Sun Jiazheng: “Concerning history, including the history of the ‘Cultural Revolution’, we have people gathering cultural materials together. Right now there are various ‘Cultural Revolution’ materials scattered about the globe … and those we can collect, including at the National Museum and National Library, will assist in research of this period in history” …
Even more brazen, however, was a letter to the editor Southern Metropolis Daily seemed to have had at the ready. It appeared right at the top of page A2 and was called, “Forebears, please write down your ‘Cultural Revolution’ histories”:
Cultural Minister Sun Jiazheng said yesterday responding to a reporter’s question that the National Museum was collecting materials from the ‘Cultural Revolution’ in order to improve research on this period of history (May 25, When I saw this news, I had a sudden hope: Beloved forebears, won’t you please write letters to your children and grandchildren, telling us the truth about what the ‘Cultural Revolution’ was and what you did then? …
The histories that arise from each personal story, each tale of a family’s pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy, are every bit as precious as those official histories – indeed, they are more precious. Forebears, for your children, why don’t you become household Si Maqian’s [Chinese historian, 145-90 B.C.]. Pick up your pens and tell us everything that concerns you.
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 26, 2006, 5:12pm]

Formerly-banned AIDS village documentary now available on DVD in Chinese stores

Chen Weijun’s (陈为军) 2001 documentary (released 2003) on Chinese AIDS villages, “To Live is Better Than to Die”, can now be shown in mainland China, bringing to an end a four-year ban, the film’s director confirmed by phone Wednesday. Mr. Chen said film was now available on DVD in stores across China, but there were likely to be few public showings.


“I’m very happy about this, of course,” Chen told CMP. “A lot of people in China have wanted to see this film for a long time but have never had the opportunity.”
Copies of “To Live is Better Than to Die” have been available in stores across China since late March, Chen said.
Chen Weijun began shooting his AIDS documentary in the summer of 2001, after he was introduced to five AIDS patients in Wuhan by doctor Gui Xi’en (桂希恩), credited as the first doctor to document China’s AIDS villages. Breaking from his day job with a local Wuhan TV station, Chen traveled to the Henan village of Wenlou and, disguised as a farmer, filmed a Chinese family’s struggle with AIDS without the knowledge of local officials. Chen’s documentary was banned by Chinese authorities, but received critical acclaim outside China, winning a Peabody Award in 2003.
The availability of Chen’s film within China could be seen to signal a further relaxing of restrictions on coverage of the country’s HIV-AIDS crisis, which was first exposed at great risk by domestic media in 1999-2000 and taken international by The New York Times in October 2000. Recent contributions include Wang Keqin’s excellent China Economic Times report to commemorate International Aids Day last year.
Chen’s film should be regarded as an important example in what has been called China’s New Documentary Movement (新纪录片运动) — generally speaking, films produced independent of the government using inexpensive digital video technology. News that the film is now unshackled in China offers a good opportunity to address some recent misunderstandings about this documentary movement and its importance.
In an entry called “Wu Wenguang’s Village Video Project”, one blogger recently had the following to say about new Chinese documentaries:
Before seeing the films produced by Wu Wenguang and the villagers, I had spent a couple days watching other documentary films made by contemporary Chinese filmmakers. In a sense, these filmmakers were capitalizing on the new capabilities offered by DV cams. Whereas filmmakers once had to conserve film because expensive reels of tape restricted their ability to shoot long, continuous takes, DV filmmakers can just keep the camera running and then pick and choose the bits that are most compelling.
What this generally translates into is an extremely long (one might say boring) documentation of some aspect of modern life in China that is spiritually empty. Most of the documentaries produced in China today seem to belong to an artistic movement called the “New Documentary Movement” (新纪录运动). Wu Wenguang is considered an early member of this movement, and all of the other films I saw were considered part of the movement as well.
Before seeing the films produced by the villagers, one thing really struck me about these New Documentary Movement films. While they were interesting in a cultural sense, they were incredibly tedious and difficult to follow. Not one of them contained a narrator, and only once did text appear on the screen describing the action that was happening in the film. People were talking to each other, and conversations were painstakingly stiched together, one after another, on the presumption that the audience would be able to grasp what was happening in the lives of the people who were on film. The approach is artistic and tasteful, but not very entertaining or brave. I would surmise that the absence of narrative, which is so widespread, indicates that the New Documentary Movement filmmakers are of two stripes. One is your average loyal party member. The other is too frightened to make a judgement and lead his audience.
To criticize these New Documentary films for lacking narrative devices or the courage to “lead” the audience is to miss the point entirely. These films, as expert Lu Xinyu (呂新雨) of Fudan University and others have noted at length, represent a break with documentary tradition in China precisely because they do not lead the narrative or impose the voice of the narrator. Here is Lu Xinyu in her book Documenting China, contrasting the new documentary with the state-produced “special topic films” (专题片)) of tradition:
Special topic films are done by national television; they are a kind of “social responsibility” undertaken by the national television station, a manifestation of the national ideology. They take a top-to-bottom look at Chinese society. Documentaries, however, must probe from another perspective. I often use the metaphor that the dominant ideology is the sun that illuminates whatever it touches, but a normal society must also have moonlight, starlight and lamplight. Documentaries are an important complement to the dominant ideology; they enable non-dominant (非主流) people and marginal groups to write their own existence into history.
Given the tradition of state-imposed ideology and its rigorous enforcement in the media via the cardinal principle of “guidance of public opinion” (舆论导向), it should not be hard to understand the director’s interest in letting his or her sources speak for themselves. Quite contrary to the speculation that the new documentary creator must be a “loyal party member”, it is this lack of guided-ness that gives these films their decidedly non-Party character.
One documentary filmmaker recently told the author, in fact, that he conceived of himself more as a journalist than an artist. He felt new documentaries, while presently having little direct social or political impact, will in future prove important first drafts for a non-official history of contemporary China.
Chen Weijun’s documentary, an intimate look at the lives of Chinese AIDS patients on which Party ideologies do not intrude, is a clear case supporting such a role for these films.
There doesn’t yet seem to be much writing online about the release of “To Live is Better Than to Die” (and there are apparently no Chinese media reports, except one in Hong Kong’s Apple Daily on May 23), but here is what one mainland blogger wrote about the film after seeing it last month:
Yesterday I saw the documentary film, “To Live is Better than to Die”. My heart is so cold I can’t breathe. Faced with setbacks and difficulties, everyone thinks of death, thinks of escape. Death, in such situations, is a kind of beguilement — a form of extrication.
This film tells the story of a family beset with HIV-AIDS. A father, mother and three children. The father faces not only the agony of his illness and the approach of death, but must witness the creeping illness of his loved ones. He has thought of death, but must not die. He knows that by throwing off his own pain he would leave even greater tragedy for the others.
I so admire his resoluteness. He bears his own pain, determined not to add it to the pain of those he loves … What a responsible man this is, a great man! A father and a husband. Surely, heaven will send angels to great him …
[2003 coverage of Chen by Time magazine]
[Site on Independent Documentary book]
[Discussion on independent documentary with Zhi Ruikun]
For Chinese-language readers we also strongly recommend reading Dong Yueling’s (董月玲) 2004 coverage of “To Live is Better Than to Die”, which was featured in the Freezing Point supplement to China Youth Daily even while the ban was in force. Her story, which narrates the story of the Ma’s and of Chen’s film, begins:
Wuhan TV’s Chen Weijun never himself expected that the documentary he made with his DV camera, a film about the ordinary lives of a peasant family, would shake people to their cores and bring him international acclaim.
In Wuhan, I climb to the seventh floor of an apartment block, dripping with perspiration as I approach the Chen home. In the disorder of the sitting room, I watch this documentary, “To Live is Better Than to Die”. After I’ve watched the 80-minutes, my feet and hands are icy. I struggle for breath.
Chen Weijun never ceases smoking. When he’s finished with the cigarettes in the box and on the end table, he harvests the butts from the ashtray, carefully tears each open, rolls up another and smokes again …
[UPDATE:Chen’s film seems to have been shown at a film festival in Anhui Province on April 19]
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 24, 2006, 6:16pm]

Changsha Evening News [Hunan] launches “Eight Honors” nursery rhyme competition

We’ve written elsewhere about Chinese President Hu Jintao’s ideological campaign for improved social morals, which has had implications for media in China [See also this link]. Just to keep tabs on how Chinese media are taking part in the “Honor and Shame Ideology” (荣辱观), also referred to as “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces” (八荣八耻), here’s a look at an announcement in yesterday’s Changsha Evening Newspaper (长沙晚报), which is launching an original “nursery rhyme” competition: [PHOTO: Chinese children play paddycakes using the national “Eight Honors” nursery rhyme, from]
“Searching, searching, searching, searching for a trusty friend, to tip their hat, shake my hand, everyone let’s all be friends” [a child’s nursery rhyme]. We all have memories of such innocent nursery rhymes that grow up with us. They saturate the young lives of successive generations. But in the [recent] past, some vulgar and unseemly so-called nursery rhymes have invaded our schoolyards and polluted the spirits of our children. Carrying on the Socialist Honor and Shame Ideology (社会主义荣辱观), and in hopes of enlivening the spiritual lives of our kids, this newspaper has decided to launch its “Star City [Changchun] New Nursery Rhyme” propaganda competition.
The new nursery rhymes must take “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces” education as their main line, including such content as patriotism, diligent study, friendliness, honesty, justice, loving-care, thrift, courage, and towing the line. The new rhymes should be clear, simple to learn, suitable to a child’s taste and sing-able. Each rhyme should be about 15 sentences in length and must be original. Teachers, students or anyone else interested in created nursery rhymes (or children’s songs) may participate by submitting their creations to this newspaper. Multiple submissions are welcome. Submissions may be made by Internet ([email protected]) or by mail … Winning submissions will be printed in this newspaper. Submissions must be received by June 6, 2006.
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 24, 2006 at 9:57am]

Reading the “Summer Palace” at Cannes controversy through Chinese press coverage

The May 21 issue of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily printed an internal notice released by Guangdong’s provincial propaganda office, dated May 19, and referring to a Central Propaganda Department ban against all coverage of this year’s 59th International Cannes Film Festival, where Chinese director Lou Ye’s “Summer Palace” was screened without proper authorization from China’s media minders at SARFT and the Propaganda Department. [Coverage of the film at Taipei Times].


[PHOTO: “Summer Palace” director Lou Ye]. What follows is a timeline of the recent political row over “Summer Palace” based on mainland media coverage:
May 8-9 – reports say “Summer Palace” failed to pass approval by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) because director Lou Ye (娄烨) had not implemented revisions they had demanded.
May 9 — SARFT and director Lou Ye publicly deny the above, saying “Summer Palace” has not yet been submitted to SARFT. Interviewed by Chengdu Economic Daily, the film’s producer, Fang Li (方励), says he has assurances from SARFT that the approval process will be simplified to ensure quick approval.
May 13 — SARFT says it has not yet approved the film’s application, and that approval will be unlikely before the film festival begins. One SARFT official says the movie’s nomination for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s highest award, is already in violation of SARFT rules.
May 15 – “Summer Palace” is finally sent to SARFT to begin the approval process.
May 16 – Citing poor film and sound quality, SARFT refuses to begin the approval process.
May 15-17 – Mainland media report conflicting accounts by people involved in the film as to SARFT’s regulations and position:
Fang Li, producer: “It’s not necessary for a record of the film’s recommendation [for the Palm d’Or] to be made [with SARFT] because the recommendation was made by the film’s foreign distributor, Wild Bunch, and not a mainland producer.” (The Mirror, 法制晚报, May 15)
Nai An (奈安), producer: “We will produce a new version of the film that is brighter and has a clearer soundtrack for SARFT … If we do not receive permission [from SARFT], ‘Summer Palace’ will be withdrawn from the festival.” (Nanjing Daily, 南京日报, May 17)
Lou Ye, director: “I don’t understand what can possibly be wrong with the film. If [the screening committee at SARFT] wants to give the reason that the film and sound quality are poor, that’s like fooling children. It’s shameful! (Strait News, 海峡都市报 [Fujian] May 17).
On May 18, Lou Ye took his director’s cut of “Summer Palace” to Cannes and the film was screened according to the original schedule [AP coverage here]. However, the film was presented as Lou’s personal work and not as a work representing China at the festival.
On May 19, the Propaganda Department sent out an internal notice banning all news reports dealing with the Cannes Film Festival, “Summer Palace” or any of its creators. On the day of the notice, however, news report on the film’s “illegal” participation in the festival were still running in many mass media.
On May 20, reports about “Summer Palace” could still be found in some media. See, for example: Chongqing Morning Post, and Yangzi Evening News. The Chongqing Morning Post story begins:
Reporter Feng Weining (冯伟宁) – Approval from the China Film Bureau [of SARFT] never came, but Lou Ye took part in the competition nevertheless. On the night of May 18 at the Cannes Film Festival, a screening for Lou Ye’s film “Summer Palace” was held and three consecutive showings were packed.
Since May 21, reports about “Summer Palace” in the Chinese media have apparently disappeared, based on a search through publications database WiseNews, but there are some reports on the Cannes Film Festival, including from The Strait and Beijing Times.
The following is a graph showing the results of a WiseNews search on both “Cannes plus Summer Palace” and “Cannes” for May 14-23. Numbers at left are total number of articles:

[Search covers 140 mainland Chinese publications]
There is now strong speculation that the non SARFT-authorized screening of “Summer Palace” at Cannes will mean the film will not be shown at theaters in China. It is also conceivable that the director, Lou Ye, could face penalties from SARFT, the most severe of which would be withdrawal of his right to make films legally in China.
[See May 17 for more coverage and links]
[Posted by Brian Chan, May 23, 2006, 12:30pm]

The Parable of the Scarecrow: A Chinese appeal for public interest journalism and adherence to global standards

Just two days after a Xinhua bulletin exposing acts of “news extortion” by four Chinese reporters, Chun Cheng Wanbao (春城晚报), a commercial spin-off of Yunnan Daily, ran an editorial attacking the practice. What sets this piece apart from other expressions of outrage in the Chinese media is its thinly-veiled reference to public interest and its appeal for adoption of global professional journalism principles, which precede mention of China’s recent moral clean-up campaign, the “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces”.

By Lao Lai (老赖) [a penname]
News journalists have been called “uncrowned kings”. But behind this glorified moniker, journalists bear a holy responsibility – providing society and the public with the most up-to-date news and information. They are the scarecrows in the cornfield of society.
But if the scarecrows becomes the robbers, colluding with others and doing an inside job, well, that cornfield is done for, and the people, who are the masters of that field, are also done for. Not long ago, some news organizations gave rise to a group of bandits – such reporters as Wang Qiming (汪启明) from China Food Quality News and three other papers extorted money from the people and low-level companies or offices (基层单位) in the name of journalism. Put simply, they used their right to interview and report to grab somebody’s handle (get supposed evidence against them), and through the threat of “exposure” demanded huge sums from the people and work units in question. Because this later came out, they were taken into custody (Xinhua News Agency, Beijing, May 15).
In Article 7 of its Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists says: “The journalist shall regard as grave professional offences the following: plagiarism — malicious misrepresentation — calumny, slander, libel, unfounded accusations — the acceptance of a bribe in any form in consideration of either publication or suppression” [Editor’s Note: this is actually Article 8 of the Declaration].
Since commercial reforms in the media, such trends as fake news, false advertising, exaggerated news and sensationalism have created an upswell of sentiment against journalists. Now, with the addition of “news extortion”, public trust in the media and its public image is again shaken. It seems discussion about the “Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces” in journalism, about professional ethics and media self-discipline is much needed …
If journalists want to gain the trust of the public they have to begin with themselves. Those like Wang Qiming represent a minority among journalists, but, as we say, “One ant hole can cause a breach in the dam”, and we must not be negligent in our journalism.
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 20, 2006]