The government cracked down on dissent in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing

The government cracked down on dissent in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing

In China, May has 35 days. All mention of June 4th, the day in 1989 on which the Tiananmen Square massacre took place, is forbidden. So Chinese journalists and bloggers get around the ban online by talking about what happened on May 35th.

Twenty-five years after Tiananmen, the practice highlights two aspects of China’s liberal media: the familiar story of oppression and the increasingly popular tactic of circumventing censorship through the venerable Chinese tradition of chunqiu bifa, expressing critical opinions in subtle linguistic ways. In early 2013, for example, when journalists at the liberal Southern Weekly went on strike to protest government censorship of their New Year’s editorial, other publications supported them via chunqiu bifa.

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One story in the Beijing News lifestyle section extolled the author’s love of “southern porridge.” In Chinese, the word for ”porridge” is zhou, a homophone of the first character in the ”Weekend” part of Southern Weekend’s name. Readers knew the author’s fondness for southern porridge was really a fondness for the beleaguered newspaper.

When I worked at the state-run Xinhua News Agency from 2004 to 2008, I became fairly adept at chunqiu bifa. I used puns, metaphors and homophones—any kind of linguistic trick I could think of—to express my approval or disapproval. Later on, at Southern People Weekly, one of China’s most influential national newsmagazines (part of the Southern Media Group that also includes Southern Weekly and another liberal paper, Southern Metropolitan Daily), I wrote a lot of sensitive features that relied on my chunqiu bifa skills.

At first, I enjoyed the cat-and-mouse game with censors. I thought, ”There will always be someone who can read between the lines.” But now, I worry that this kind of expression will create in me a vicious circle of complacency, in which I know my efforts to speak freely will be fruitless but can console myself with at least having tried. I fear that, in China’s increasingly complicated and ambiguous media environment, chunqiu bifa may be changing from a means of dissent into a tool of inadvertent self-censorship that may ultimately deprive us of the ability to face the truth.

A decade ago, people believed freedom and democracy would grow gradually in China. Now, we’re not so sure. Last July, Xu Zhiyong, one of the independent lawyers who won local elective office a decade ago, was arrested for being a leader of the ”new citizens movement,” which promotes transparency in government. Xu’s detention is an example of how progress toward more freedom is being reversed.

That reversal began in 2008. Riots in Tibet and the protests that accompanied the Olympic torch’s tour of the world created waves of nationalism in China. Then came the Sichuan earthquake, in which more than 80,000 people died. Chinese media exposed the corrupt local government officials responsible for the shoddy buildings. But they were quickly muted, and the most outspoken liberal newspapers were punished. At the Southern Media Group, propaganda officials moved into our offices to ensure “safety in production.” The Beijing Olympics boosted patriotism, and the regime became less and less tolerant of dissent.

There are currently fewer than 80 investigative journalists in China, according to estimates by some of those working in the field All this left little room for the Chinese liberal media, one prominent casualty of which has been investigative journalism. According to estimates by some of those working in the field, there are currently fewer than 80 investigative journalists in China. The emphasis is on lifestyle stories rather than hard news, gossip rather than muckraking, flattery rather than analysis—and of course, chunqiu bifa. The list of banned or sensitive words continues to grow, and now includes ”universal values,” ”constitutional democracy,” and ”checks and balances.” We console ourselves with dark humor about our revenge on the censors. Press restrictions may last forever, we joke, but newspapers will certainly die.

Even worse than the renewed restrictions is the change in the social and cultural environment, as evidenced by the rise of the 50-Cent Party, people hired by the government to post favorable comments on the Internet about the Communist Party and its policies. The 50-Cent Party existed before 2008, but it was only after 2008 that it became an important factor in shaping public opinion.

Last July, after a man detonated a homemade bomb he had strapped to himself at Beijing Airport, Southern Metropolitan Daily published an exclusive story about the bomber, who claimed he was left paralyzed by local law enforcement officers eight years ago and had been fighting unsuccessfully for compensation. Rumors quickly appeared on Weibo, alleging collusion between the bomber and Southern Metropolitan Daily to “pressure and embarrass the government.” The false claims were retweeted widely and, unfortunately, accepted as fact by many. The 50-Cent Party is no longer just a group manipulated by the regime, but one of the lenses through which many Chinese see and understand the world.

In “The Velvet Prison: Artists Under State Socialism,” Miklos Haraszti wrote of Hungary in the 1970s: “If I still speak of censorship, what I refer to is not merely certain bureaucratic procedures but the whole context of culture, not just state intervention but all the circumstances that conspire to destroy the basis of autonomous or authentic artistic activity … not only ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ restrictions but also the secret psychological sources that sustain the state’s reach even in the last cell of culture.” China’s liberal media are in the same bind.

As restrictions—and anxieties—grow, I have more doubts about the tactics I’ve used in the past to get my meaning across. Using chunqiu bifa now feels like scratching my itchy foot from outside my boot. Plus, as social media increasingly insulate people from information with which they disagree, journalists’ subtle linguistic tricks are too superficial for the well-informed and too sophisticated for those who just don’t care.

Next time, before using chunqiu bifa, maybe we should ask ourselves: Is this the best way to express myself? Am I doing enough? Am I pushing the line rather than just flirting with it? Speaking truth to power is the media’s reason for being, nowhere more so than in China.

Yang Xiao, a 2014 Nieman Fellow, is Beijing correspondent and a chief writer for Southern People Weekly. He previously worked for Xinhua News Agency

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