Are Chinese media reforms on ice?

While raising speculation that the Chinese government is reeling in the press at a time of growing social unrest, the closing of a popular magazine may be part of a protracted battle over the media’s role in the country.

Editor Li Datong is demanding an explanation

Officially suspended pending “re-organisation” the demise of Freezing Point in late January capped a long line of publications that fell to an official media crackdown.

Editor Li Datong did not know his magazine was to be suspended until he heard from colleagues across China.

“They told us they had received a notice from the Central Propaganda Department not to report on the stopping of our magazine,” he told

“I only found out from the newspaper leadership two hours later what had happened. It was out of my expectations.”

Believed by Li to have been ordered by Liu Yunshan, the head of the Central Propaganda Department, a high level Communist party organ, the closure comes amid calls from officials for the media to play a role in maintaining social stability.


A week before the closure, the government issued figures showing the number of public order disturbances in 2005 was 85,000, a 6.6% increase from 2004.

Though the figures did not give a breakdown, it is believed the majority of these disturbances are rural, and linked to complaints over compensation for land seizures.

When contacted by, officials justified shutting Freezing Point by pointing to an article published in early January that had criticised the country’s history textbooks.

A peasant woman cries as she protests over land seizuresA peasant woman cries as she protests over land seizures

A peasant woman cries as she
protests over land seizures

Written by reformist professor Yuan Weishi, the article queried the origins of the 19th-century Opium Wars between China and allies Britain and France, and the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when a wave of anti-foreign sentiment led to the besieging of Beijing’s diplomatic quarter.

Yuan told “Since 1949 Chinese historians have said that the Boxer Rebellion has been an important event in the forming of modern China.”

Referring to a Marxist based historiography that has portrayed the rebellion as a struggle against colonialism, Yuan says that from his research, “the Boxers were simply an army bent on destruction”.

Yuan suggested Chinese textbooks were factually incorrect and fostered prejudice and resentment among young Chinese.

In a statement, officials said the article had “seriously contradicted news propaganda discipline; seriously damaged the national feelings of the Chinese people … and it created a bad social influence”.

Both Li and Yuan say the decision to close the publication in January was opportunistic.

Pressuring journalists

In late December, the editor of the Beijing-based New Capital Times was replaced prompting a one-day strike by journalists.

While the parent Guangming Daily Group said editor Yang Bin was being reassigned, the paper’s journalists were quoted as saying it was a political move to punish a paper that had broken stories on corruption and rural unrest.

Beijing News staff went on strikeafter their editors were sackedBeijing News staff went on strikeafter their editors were sacked

Beijing News staff went on strike
after their editors were sacked

On 8 February, Hong Kong media reported editor Chen Jieren at the Public Interest Times in Beijing had been fired for writing on Chinese president Hu Jintao without permission, and running articles on how relief funds were being held up by local officials.

The paper’s editor-in-chief later said that Chen had been removed after five months’ probation because he “was no good at managing”.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an NGO based in New York, China currently has 32 journalists incarcerated.

Orville Schell, a veteran writer on China and dean of journalism at Berkeley, said: “When an editor gets fired, it is a signal that all other editors read loud and clear. It’s the old ‘kill the chicken to scare the monkey’ dynamic.”

Schell told several Chinese editors he has spoken to, “have said that it is time to retract and hope the chill soon passes”.

Freer media?

Others, however, see the dispute in terms of political infighting.

Jiang Wenran, Freezing Point reader and director of the China Institute at Canada’s University of Alberta, says: “It is clear that the government has at least two wings on this issue.

“One is a conservative element, often associated with the Propaganda Department, who advocate political control of the media in the name of social stability, and fear the effects of market reform on media content and the possibility of a ‘colour revolution’.

“The other side, more closely linked to the State Council, would like to move towards a more open system.”

While under nominal government control, media groups, like other state-run companies, have been increasingly subject to market forces.

Several Chinese media companies now have stock market listings.

However, the readers’ appetite for controversial stories and the whims of advertising companies often clash with the conservative tastes of propaganda officials.

Transparent governance

A director of the State Council Information Office, the department charged with government public relations, told earlier this year they were introducing measures for “building a transparent government and changing the Chinese mindset,” towards accepting a freer media.

Detailing plans to encourage all government departments to hold regular press conferences and answer journalists’ questions – rather than simply order newspapers to reprint speeches and press releases verbatim – director Wang Xingming explained that the move was in recognition that the media was no longer just a government mouthpiece.

Freezing Point was an example of this change.

Published inside the national China Youth Daily, a newspaper under the control of the politically influential China Youth League, Freezing Point had a reputation for aggressive reporting.

Morphing from a single page in the mid-90s to a weekly four-page spread with a circulation of more than four million, it covered issues that few other publications dared touch.

Recent articles included essays on the social ostracism of Aids patients, the former leader Hu Yaobang whose death in 1989 sparked the Tiananmen Square protests, and a comparison of life in Taiwan before and after the introduction of democracy.

Li challenges decision

On 7 February, Li sent a letter of complaint to the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection asking them to reopen the magazine. If he does not receive a “meaningful response” within a month, he promises the contents of the letter will be made public.

“They have violated my constitutional right to freedom of expression, and they have violated the Communist party charter”

Li Datong,

Admitting his response is unorthodox – dismissed editors rarely talk to the media, let alone threaten the government – Li’s behaviour reflects a wider sense of frustration that liberal reforms are not happening fast enough. 

“They have violated my constitutional right to freedom of expression, and they have violated the Communist party charter, which forbids punishment against people who hold contrary views,” he says.

For all the bluster however, Jiang believes that the trend towards media openness is irreversible.

“They can close this publication today but tomorrow another will open. There is so much demand for this kind of journalism, and so many journalists always pushing the line forward. I see the decision of the propaganda department to close Freezing Point as a sign of weakness, not strength.”

Source: Al Jazeera