In the first three decades in the history of the People’s Republic of China, the journalists called their newspapers “loudspeakers” and “bulletin boards” of the Communist Party and the government. Newspapers were not newspapers in the Western sense. The foremost demand on journalists, just like the demand on officials, was obedience. Journalists were not supposed to think independently. The only requirement of journalists different from that of officials was the ability to write. Only two or three universities had journalism courses; therefore few journalists had regular training.

Nevertheless, the profession itself made some of the journalists unsubmissive. They had all kinds of contacts with all kinds of people and were always among the first to detect the damages brought to society by the wrong policies of the party. They were among the first group of intellectuals to doubt the party propaganda and to think independently; thus they became very sensitive and sympathetic to people’s sufferings. Whenever the political atmosphere became more or less relaxed, some of them would write about the true situation and express the people’s complaints and wishes boldly.

In 1956-57, during the period called the Hundred Flowers, Mao Zedong set a trap. At first he called on the people to criticize the mistakes and defects of the party in order to “help the party to rectify itself’. Responding to Mao’s call, there were many exposes and criticisms in the newspapers for four or five months. Then he began the notorious “Anti-Rightist” campaign in which 15 to 30 percent of the journalists from various newspapers and broadcasting stations were labeled “bourgeois rightists” and were attacked for “anti-party, anti-socialism crimes.” For more than 20 years, these “rightists” were deprived of their right to work and publish and were sent to the countryside to do heavy manual labor as punishment.

Of course there was another kind of journalist—the pliant tools of the party. Some of them cowered under the pressure and did whatever the party asked them to do, just for the sake of a peaceful life. Some mediocre ones were satisfied with carrying out orders rigidly and made their newspapers typical party organs. The more ambitious were willing to go against their own consciences to accommodate their superiors. In exchange, they were promoted to higher ranks of officialdom. During the “Great Leap Forward” of 1958- 59, there were many exaggerated reports of increases in agricultural production in the papers; some described the production as several dozen times the actual amount. Although in the ensuing years millions of people died of man-made famine, not one journalist was punished for writing the false reports of farm achievements. Since then, coverage exaggerating the “achievements in construction” and “good deeds of model workers” to accommodate party officials has flourished.

Three Categories of Journalists

Even in the post-Mao period, under the reform regime of Deng Xiaoping, Chinese journalists still mainly fall into these three categories: the progressives, who are the real journalists; the mediocre ones, satisfied in being pliant tools of the party, and the ambitious, who are willing to sell their consciences. The difference, however, is that, beginning with the Deng economic reforms in 1978, the ratio of the progressive journalists has increased substantially.

Because the loosening of economic controls also led to the relaxation of press controls, press freedom in China had expanded perceptibly in the ’80s as a result of the persistent efforts of the progressive journalists. The party authorities, however, have never acknowledged the legality of press freedom and have exercised every means to limit or crush it. It is very difficult for Chinese journalists to work under such complicated circumstances. China has never had an official censorship system. The regulations concerning mass media are vague and inconsistent and vary from time to time. journalists are able to make use of the vagueness and inconsistencies to expand their freedom. At the same time, however, it also enables the officials in charge of the mass media to act, perhaps to a larger degree, according to their will or whims, because the right to explain the regulations remains in their hands. More significantly, the political standing and personalities of the officials in charge of the mass media—editors-in-chief, directors of propaganda departments—play a very important role in determining what goes into a newspaper.

After the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and Mao’s death in September 1976, the liberal forces within the party increased dramatically. At the same time, reformist and conservative political leaders were constantly vying with each other for power even in the topmost echelon. Two phenomena emerged: first, with the development of inner-party struggles, the political atmosphere was constantly changing; sometimes it was tense, sometimes it was relaxed, and the degree of press freedom changed with the changing climate. Second, because of the differences in the political standing and personalities of those in charge of mass media, the journalists working at different papers enjoyed different degrees of press freedom in the same period.

People Encourage Exposés of Errors

Nevertheless, from the late ’70s on, the social environment for the journalists has undergone a major change. Back in the ’50s, when the majority of the Chinese people followed the Communist Party blindly, journalists attacked by the party would immediately be isolated. Now it is just the opposite. The ordinary people long for journalists to express in their papers their dissatisfaction with authorities. journalists who are bold enough to criticize the government and are attacked by the authorities always receive support and encouragement from their readers. The readers are often a source of information and inspiration to the journalists, as well as a reliable force to sustain them in the struggle for press freedom.

As a result, the journalists are greatly encouraged to make use of every opportunity to speak out for society and their readers. They try to use their skills and wits to expand their limited freedom to the utmost degree. But they are always very cautious not to go too far in order to protect their right to write in the future. All kinds of skillful protective measures are taken by the journalists. For instance, if a journalist wants to criticize the party’s top leadership, he cannot do so directly, but he can do it indirectly by criticizing the obstacles created by conservative leaders in carrying out a laudable project. He can also criticize lower-ranking officials to implicate higher officials who are their patrons. He can expose a minor case of corruption which will not incur opposition from above, but his expose implies that the cause of the corruption is rooted in the overall corruption of the officialdom. Chinese readers are very clever; they know how to read between the lines and find subtly concealed messages in seemingly harmless articles. After 1985, it was a common practice for columnists to criticize current leaders by telling stories about emperors in the dynasties. Stories about foreign statesmen were also used to this end.

‘Literary Reportage’ Gets Around Curbs

Since nearly all the mass media are owned and strictly controlled by the state or the party, many articles written by journalists are rejected for various political reasons. The journalists, however, can still find outlets for rejected articles. They are often rewritten in the form of “literary reportage” and sent to magazines where censorship is not so strict. Thus, “literary reportage” has become one of the most influential styles since 1979. It is a form of literature, yet it is nonfiction, strictly based on facts. Unlike investigative reporting in the United States, the author can express his or her opinion freely, in helping readers to analyze facts and in leading them to probe deeply into all kinds of social phenomena. I myself had been a reporter at People ‘s Daily for seven years, but the majority of my articles could not be published in the paper. They were published instead in literary magazines in the form of “literary reportage.”

In the spring of 1989, after 10 years of persistent struggle, press freedom in China reached its peak. Many subjects that had been prohibited were allowed to appear in print. Many journalists openly confronted the government’s decision to build the dam at Three Gorges on the Yangtze River, a project which was approved by the highest authorities even though it was damaging to the environment and disruptive to the lives of over a million people. In the democracy movement of the same year, the Chinese newspapers, for a short time in May, 1989, were able to report the true facts about an anti-government movement, which was unprecedented since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The journalists also were the first among Beijing intellectuals to join the ranks of students in huge demonstrations on the streets.

After the crackdown on the democracy movement on June 4, 1989, a “dark age” once more descended over the mass media in Beijing. Newspapers and broadcasting stations are not allowed any independence. Every article, every broadcast must follow the party line. Many journalists were arrested and sentenced to jail. Many were fired from their jobs and cannot continue to practice journalism any more. Those who still retain their jobs cannot write and edit according to their own judgment, but there are still a few who manage to convey true information to the readers in a subtle, roundabout way, which is difficult and risky.

Nevertheless, it should be stressed that, starting from the early 80’s, a new generation of journalists emerged. They had grown up during the Cultural Revolution when, because of factional struggles, the party’s control over ideology was considerably weakened. After the Cultural Revolution, they enrolled in colleges when the country was opening up and economic reform was underway. Many of them are college graduates, exposed to Western influence; the party ideology has much less impact on them than on their elders. Therefore they are more courageous in challenging the party’s control. An example of this increasing boldness occurred in 1986, when some young journalists at a newspaper in a Special Economic Zone, The Shenzhen Youth News, managed to shake off party control and made the newspaper independent. In the party’s chief organ, People’s Daily, young reporters and editors made up almost half of the entire editorial staff. They were the main force in pushing for press freedom and liberation of People ‘s Daily. Naturally, they were the most persecuted after the 1989 crackdown.

Because of intensified political pressure after June 4, the readers have become more apolitical. The journalists have become more and more despondent and frustrated. They feel that they cannot truly practice their profession and have turned their attention to their own personal well being and material interests. Some reporters receive payments from various industries for covering their “achievements”, a subtle, yet much more efficient, way of advertising. Political pressure and material temptation act together as closes of soul erosion for the journalists. They care less and less about the future of their paper and the future of journalism in China. This is exactly the effect that the Chinese Communist Party hopes for.

Liu Binyan, Nieman Fellow 1989, was born in 1925 in China. He had been an investigative reporter since the 1950s and was twice purged for his exposes of Communist Party and government corruption.

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