by Edmund Downie:
The last few weeks have seen civil liberties once again come to the fore in Chinese internal politics. As revolutions swept across the Middle East, the Chinese government responded by clamping down on media coverage and online commentary about the uprisings. Government security forces had to ramp up their efforts in late February, when an anonymous group of Chinese netizens circulated a call for street protests in thirteen major Chinese cities to speak out for a greater public say in government. The organizers acknowledged the influence of the Middle Eastern revolutions by dubbing their movement a “Jasmine Revolution,” after the Tunisian uprisings. Police across the country responded by swamping the protests with an enormous show of force and followed up by redoubling their attempts to monitor and intimidate foreign journalists.
Of course, foreign journalists in China who rankle the government benefit from a level of immunity; interfering with foreign outlets’ coverage risks negative publicity in the international press and angry reactions from foreign governments. Their Chinese counterparts enjoy no such protection, and, as a result, serious Chinese journalists are faced with a difficult balancing act of upholding journalistic ethics while also heeding the party line.
The last few weeks have made this balancing act even more difficult, with a series of high-profile moves by Chinese authorities suggesting that the sphere for journalistic activity has shrunk further. Most significant among these changes is the sacking of longtime journalist Chang Ping from Southern Media Group, a relatively liberal media organization based in Guangzhou. To be sure, Chang has been courting controversy for some time with his columns, not least when he called for a loosening of restrictions on Chinese media coverage of Tibet. Indeed, since last July, he has been barred from writing his usual columns in Southern Metropolis Daily and Southern Weekend, though he continued to write through major blogging websites Sina and Tianya. Now, in addition to his sacking, his blog presence has been shut down as well.
What’s notable about Chang’s sacking is the timing, just one week after the Jasmine Revolution. In the preceding weeks, Chang had not written anything particular inflammatory to provoke the government’s anger. Rather, as he explained to The Guardian, the sacking “is not just because of one particular article, it is because I have always written critical articles.” In this way, then, one wonders whether his firing represents something of a preemptive strike. The Jasmine Revolution had showed that insurrectionary mutterings on the web could translate into real political action in this climate. Chang, as a veteran journalist with liberal leanings, represented a big name who might sympathize with the emerging atmosphere. He needed to be removed, not for what he had done, but for what he could do.
In theory, it’s not impossible that Chang could find a way back into the world of Chinese journalism at some point. Indeed, in the murky world of Chinese investigative reporting, some figures that once seemed damned to silence have leveraged connections and name recognition to resurface. Notable among these is Hu Shuli, whose business and finance magazine Caijing gained published powerful exposes of government corruption under her tenure while also receiving tacit approval from the Propaganda Department. Caijing’s aggressive reporting caught up with her by 2009, when she resigned in the face of government pressure and internal conflicts. Since then, she has returned to the magazine world with Caixin, alongside much of her old staff from Caijing.
Yet it would be a stretch to hope for a similar revival from Chang. Hu benefited a wide range of close connections with the central hierarchy; Caijing’s funding came from Wang Boming’s Stock Exchange Executive Council, a government-backed organization which has been a major player in developing China’s private equity markets. In addition, as the scion of a long line of journalists, she already enjoyed a relatively high level of prestige in Beijing society. Moreover, she’s legendary for her sense of when to press an issue and when to pull back. Put simply, there are few like Hu in the Chinese press, and little evidence to suggest that Chang belongs in that category. It’ll take big change in China’s government before we see the return of Chang Ping.