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Date Posted: 22:27 04/01/2006

Censored in a 'fundamental manner'

The Coup at the Beijing News

WHITHER The Beijing News? A sense of déjà vu greets last week's firing of the tabloid's senior editors, but with defiant Chinese journalists denouncing the coup d'etat in umpteen blogs and bulletin boards and spreading their message faster than the censors can delete it, the Great Firewall somehow feels a little less secure right now.

Western reports have been describing The Beijing News as a courageous, crusading newspaper, cynically punished for taking corrupt officialdom and heavy-handed government brutality to task, but for the most part, it could hardly be described as radical. It was being run on commercial lines and sought, within the limits set by the government, to provide the sort of scandal, titillation and tabloid indignation that is capable of attracting readers. Such enterprises are always walking a very fine line.

A vast amount of the newspaper's regular content consisted of mawkish feature stories about peasant children, 'in-depth' interviews with retired senior officials or academics, as well as the odd photograph of a three-legged cow or a man blowing up a balloon through his ear. For the most part, it did a very fine job avoiding the dour boilerplate bureaucratese that characterizes papers like the People's Daily, or its Shanghai equivalent, the Liberation Daily. It aspired, in short, to be an ordinary newspaper, and tried to behave, as far as was possible, as if it were not constantly subject to the censor's vermillion pen. But like many papers trying to balance the harsh discipline of the market with the strictures of the Party censors, it soon aroused the ire of a number of senior government officials.

Much has been said of the paper's coverage from Dingzhou in Hebei Province, the scene of a disgraceful assault on villagers by an armed mob employed by local bigwigs. Naturally, the back issues of the newspaper, usually very conveniently stored in a PDF archive, have now been removed. Others have also cited its racy editorializing. In any case, senior Communist Party propagandist Liu Yunshan is reported to have said, at an early December meeting, that the problems at the paper need to be solved 'fundamental manner'. And so they were.

Being a journalist in China is never simple. Some westerners dismiss all Chinese reporters as Xinhua lackeys and lickspittles, as cynical hacks in the pay of the Party, and the only time they are given any praise at all is usually after they have been arrested by the government and sanctified by Reporters sans frontieres. Such critics rarely take time to question how they would behave under similar working conditions. The prison system is littered with reporters who strayed too far from the Party line, and Running Dog is often astonished by the talent, tenacity and courage shown by many of our Chinese counterparts. Since last week's sackings, several journalists were still submitting coruscating accounts of the fiasco to the Xici journalist forum, and even as the moderators were deleting the threads, the reporters continued to defy them and post their pieces anew.

They are acutely aware of the risks. The 21st Century Global Herald was forced to close in 2003 after an interview with Mao Zedong's secretary, Li Rui, who called for free elections. The Worker's Daily spin-off, Beijing New Times, was also shut down in the same year after printing a provocative article that included the National People's Congress in a list of the country's 'seven disgusting things'. Since then, the authorities have decapitated the Southern Metropolis Daily and sentenced its chief editor to prison, while the ostensibly well-protected China Youth Daily was also subject to regime change last year.

These, of course, are the more spectacular examples of a phenomenon that goes on every day. Stories are routinely spiked, and reporters live in a state of inner siege, anxious to do their jobs but unable to act on the things they know. Once they manage to get out of the office, they face the lawlessness of the hinterlands and attacks by hired mobs. Of course, some of the reporters naturally go astray, and allow themselves to be suborned. In such circumstances, who wouldn't at least be tempted to do the same?

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