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April 12, 2004

The Price of Stability


by Sascha Matuszak

The Guangzhou Daily is the flagship of China’s newspaper industry. Launched just after Liberation by the Guangzhou Party Committee, the Daily spent 40 years as a Party organ, toeing the Party line, bringing the CPC’s views to the people.

The Daily was the first of China’s papers to begin fending for itself in 1990, setting up chain stores to sell its copy, increasing content from 4 to 60 pages over eight years and forming a conglomerate long before any other Chinese papers had even thought of it. In 2000 the Daily hit revenues of 1.3 billion yuan ($156.6 million), with a circulation of 1.6 million by 2001.

The success of the Daily helped pave the way for more daring papers to take the scene, specifically the papers of the Nan Fang Group, the Southern Metropolis Daily and the Southern Weekend. The Nan Fang Group, created about six years ago, aggressively reported on graft and migrant workers and most recently SARS and the beating death of Sun Zhigang in Guangzhou’s jails.

Now, the editors responsible for this journalistic excellence have been rounded up and face indefinite prison terms and perhaps worse – according to many the work of police officials whose careers were stalled by the story about Sun. This is not the first time editors have been rounded up on trumped up charges of corruption – the Guangzhou Daily faced the same persecution, when the former editor-in-chief Liu Yuanjiang was sentenced to four years in prison.

Jiang Zemin himself was catapulted into the upper ranks of the Communist Party when he closed down the World Daily in Shanghai during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

The fall of the editors of the SMD this year and the World Daily 15 years ago were met with approval by Beijing, but were actually executed by local officials, for local reasons.

Hu’s Administration has led the people to believe that his would be an era of reform and progress in the realm of politics as well as economics, but if it were not for the reporting of the SMD, those promises would have been completely empty. As it is, the breaking of the SARS story and the Sun story raised such an uproar that, to maintain stability, reforms were made.

Qiu Hou Suan Zhang – pay the debts after the harvest – refers to revenge after the dust has settled: Cheng Yi Zhong, Yu HuaFeng and Li Minying, the imprisoned former editors of the SMD, now fully understand these four Chinese words.

More Insecurity or More Stability?

In related news, the Basic Law of Hong Kong has been diluted by a series of talks between Beijing and Hong Kong officials – the end result being that Hong Kong’s dreams of democracy have been put on hold, indefinitely.

After the outpouring of anger against the proposed Anti-Sedition Law last July, Beijing, their Hong Kong puppets and the local business community decided to take matters and put them in the NPC’s hands, rather than risk the people of Hong Kong actually having a say.

This bodes ill for the Falun Gong practitioners and Tiananmen "revisionists" who, up until now, were allowed to air their views without having a member of the PLA put a foot on their mouth.

And with the crackdown on journalism just across the way in Guangzhou, what could the "new interpretation" of the Basic Law mean for the South China Morning Post? The SCMP has retained a lot of its freedom since 1997 and regularly reports on matters the Nan Fang Daily papers wouldn’t touch … how long can this last?

The Price

Close to home, China has paid the price in Taiwan for its crude methods of suppression.

Taiwanese are quite aware of the events in Guangzhou and Hong Kong and have come to realize that the CPC’s insecurity translates into broken promises concerning reform and swift crackdowns on disobedience. Democracy in Taiwan is alive and kicking – although hauntingly reminiscent of the 2000 US election, the people of Taiwan have methods to address the issues of a recount, invalid votes and the "assassination attempt" that did not result in mass imprisonment.

The Mainland has shown Taiwan that in the year 2004, Chinese domestic politics are crude, whimsical and fraught with insecurity.

China has also paid the price internationally.

It looked as if the EU might have lifted a ban on arms sales with China, but at the last minute US objections and nagging doubts about China’s domestic politics swayed the EU members to turn away.

Toward rival India.

Hope

Modeled after CNN, CCTV 9 covers from a government point of view, but also alike CNN, the News Channel has developed into a professional, streamlined operation with good, albeit biased, journalism.

Images of GIs battling Iraqis with clubs, dead and dying Iraqi children and Condoleeza’s testimony are accompanied by not-so-subtle anti-war commentary which one would be hard pressed to find on many American networks.

Coupled with domestic coverage of the AIDS crisis and measures taken to address infectious diseases, CCTV 9 presents itself as a news source as reliable as any major news network. They are even planning to launch a Spanish-language program in the near future.

But perhaps the real hope for the establishment of critical journalism in China is the work of overseas Chinese.

In cities like Vancouver, Chinese journalists are writing stories the established local journalists are unable to cover and bringing the Mainland to the West like only a Chinese journalist can – exclusive interviews, breaking news, shedding light on China’s mysteries.

These journalists and their colleagues in Guangzhou are the real patriots of China, if only the Chinese government sheds the fear that blinds them, then perhaps they would see it as well.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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