Censuring China’s censors

SETH FAISON writes editorials for The Times. He is a former Shanghai bureau chief for the New York Times and author of "South of the Clouds."

LAST FALL, a magazine editor in Beijing named Li Datong decided to feature a historical article about Taiwan in his weekly, Freezing Point. It was a straightforward account of Taiwan’s harsh political repression in the 1950s and how democratically elected legislators are coping with that history. In China, where Taiwan is routinely criticized, the article passed the usual censors at the Ministry of Propaganda, which screens all of the nation’s publications.

Once it was published in November, however, sophisticated readers could see that the article drew a clear if unstated contrast between politics in Taiwan and in China. One is now a democracy that is openly debating past repression, and the other is not. The article was eagerly passed around by liberal intellectuals in Beijing who enjoy nothing more than a chance to chuckle when a subversive article sneaks into print.

There are dozens of editors like Li -- working within China’s restricted media and yet fighting to bring in a little daylight. As Internet access expands the flow of information in China exponentially, despite the blocking of overtly political websites, Chinese journalists are straining at the old leash of Communist Party control. Chinese society as a whole is becoming more open and permissive, and while the Ministry of Propaganda is still a tough media overlord, editors like Li are making the landscape of information control undulate unpredictably.


American companies that traffic in information technology, such as Google and Microsoft, have recently been debating the upsides and downsides of doing business in China, generally arguing that they have to accept Chinese law in exchange for access to its lucrative market. Yet what is Chinese law? Because Chinese courts still take orders from the Communist Party, the law is often whatever the most powerful official within earshot says it is. There is no simple recipe for international information-based companies -- or for Chinese ones -- to operate in China without constant wrangling and second-guessing. But the first step is to recognize that the media business is in flux.

In recent months, Chinese editors and reporters have begun to openly question the legal basis for censorship. Li goes so far as to argue that the Ministry of Propaganda operates beyond the law and relies on fear and intimidation. When enough people stand up to the ministry, he says, it will no longer rule with impunity. That is starting to happen. Open protest letters recently came from two editors at newspapers that had been singled out for censure, while reporters at another newspaper in Beijing held a strike, which was followed by a string of resignations.

Freezing Point offers the most intriguing case so far. On Jan. 21, the Ministry of Propaganda ordered the magazine closed and Li fired from his position as chief editor for “malignant management” and for publishing an article that was “unpatriotic,” a loaded term in the same way that “communist” was in the McCarthy era. Li, who has been a member of the Communist Party for more than 30 years, told reporters later that he knew the censors were angry with him well before the Taiwan article and that it was just a matter of time before they struck.

But the censors were in for a surprise. Working quietly, Li persuaded a dozen Communist Party elders to take his side, and on Feb. 14 they released a letter demanding that the magazine be reopened. The signers included a former secretary to Mao Tse-tung and a former editor in chief of People’s Daily. They insisted that China would never be able to prosper if the Ministry of Propaganda continued to wield capricious power. “Experience has proved that allowing a free flow of ideas can improve stability and alleviate social problems,” they wrote. “At a turning point in our history from a totalitarian to a constitutional system, depriving the public of freedom of speech will bring disaster for our social and political transition and give rise to confrontation and social unrest.”

With that kind of direct language, and with its illustrious backers, the letter must have alarmed China’s president, Hu Jintao. The following week, China’s leaders ruled that the magazine would reopen on March 1 -- which it did -- a rare rebuke to the Ministry of Propaganda. Li, however, was not reinstated.

Li did not go quietly. In interviews with Chinese and Western reporters, he sharply criticized the Ministry of Propaganda, arguing that its function is not to act as a watchdog with the authority to bite a publication out of existence.


Not long ago, it would have been inconceivable to hear a Chinese journalist speak that way publicly. Li is not a fringe character. He is a senior editor who argues that allowing greater freedom of speech will enhance the ability of China’s leaders to preside over the modernization they desire. It’s a compelling argument. And it’s apparently one that China’s leaders are going to be hearing more and more.