CHINA: Voice of Chinese journals stifled

CHINA: Voice of Chinese journals stifled

A crusading editor sits in jail and wonders what he did to get there

The Age
Saturday, June 12, 2004

By Hamish McDonald

At the start of the year Cheng Yizhong was the star newspaper editor in China, directing the popular tabloid Southern Metropolitan Daily to ever greater heights.

There were scoops, circulation soared, and torrents of advertising income poured in from the industrial boom zone sitting on the Pearl River delta in China's South.

Today Mr Cheng, 38, is sitting in a cell in the Guangzhou No. 1 Detention Centre, where he has been for nearly three months, wondering when he will appear in court, and what charges he will face.

In linked cases, the newspaper's general manager and the advertising chief have already been sentenced to 12 years and 11 years in jail for embezzlement and bribery. Appeals started this week.

The case is widely seen in press circles as an act of censorship, silencing a critical voice. There is intense speculation about how far up the authorisation goes in the Chinese hierarchy.

But in interviews this week, colleagues of Mr Cheng portrayed it in a different light, as a vindictive act by one powerful official, but also as a struggle against supervision by China's central leadership in Beijing.

Most of Mr Cheng's colleagues, and many media and legal figures elsewhere in China who have signed up to internet petitions in his support, believe the charges are manufactured.

Claiming daily sales of 1.4 million, the tabloid belongs to the Southern Daily Newspaper group, long renowned as China's most commercially successful and journalistically brave. It has 3500 staff, including about 700 journalists, and, at least until Mr Cheng's forced resignation and arrest in March, was piling on circulation.

There is intense speculation about how far up the authorisation goes in the Chinese hierarchy.Together with its weekly sister paper Southern Weekend, the paper has set a model for the media around China, tackling rip-offs in the Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtse, official cover-ups of SARS pneumonia outbreaks, and the death of a young migrant worker in police custody.

Some have linked the arrests and sentences to other interventions against the group in March last year. They came around the time that China's new leadership - President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao - took over.

A sister publication, 21st Century World Herald, was shut down after it published an interview with a former secretary of Mao Zedong, who called for liberal political reforms.

Mr Cheng, along with six other staff, was first arrested on January 7, just after Southern Metropolitan Daily's health reporter broke the news that a TV producer was being treated as a suspected SARS case in a nearby hospital, the first since last year's epidemic.

There was speculation that this embarrassing scoop was the last straw for China's communists. But colleagues of Mr Cheng put a different slant on the case this week. They make it clear they do not see themselves as rebels against party rule.

The newspaper helps the authorities by "supervising society", as one journalist said.

The newspaper group was in fact founded in 1997 by the party's Publicity Department, the propaganda arm that controls the content and personnel of all media.

Staff believe the problems go back to the newspaper's exposure early last year of the death of Sun Zhigang, a young graphic artist arrested for not having a city resident's permit, and then beaten to death by other prisoners in a police lockup at the instigation of his guards.

As the Southern Metropolitan Daily broke the scandal, Mr Cheng was contacted by a friend of the Guangzhou Communist Party's political and legal committee chief, Jiang Guifang.

The editor was asked not to mention that Mr Jiang, in a speech only months earlier, had backed strong efforts by city police to round up migrant workers lacking stay permits.

Mr Cheng robustly refused, and the paper did mention the speech in a report last June.

Mr Jiang, the party's legal chief, was then forced to make a humiliating "self-criticism" at an internal party meeting.

One journalist said Southern Metropolitan Daily's staff were "depressed and puzzled" by the developments.

"Once those three, especially Mr Cheng, are found guilty it will set an example nationwide," he said. "Other provinces will follow it to pressure media groups which cut across their policies."

It would also help weaken the central Government's control.

"The local media have been a very good window for Beijing to keep an eye on local governments," the journalist said.