The editorial staff at a cutting-edge Chinese political magazine say they will have nothing more to do with its publication any more following a slew of high-level sackings and the imposition of new editorial leadership last week.
Du Daozheng, who was fired from his post as publisher of Yanhuang Chunqiu by its parent organization, said in a statement circulated online on Sunday that the magazine would now cease production.
"Anyone who publishes a periodical bearing the title Yanhuang Chunqiu will have nothing to do with [the existing editorial team]," Du, who is in his nineties, wrote.
The statement said that editorial staff had made the decision after Du was fired by the Chinese National Academy of Arts, an organization linked to the Ministry of Culture that sponsors Yanhuang Chunqiu last week.
A member of the editorial team who asked not to be identified said the academy has now posted staff to keep an eye on the running of the magazine, which often challenges the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official view of historical events.
"Nobody here accepts the ruling by the National Academy of Arts," the staff member said. "Of course, there's nothing we can do about it, because they have sent in staff to manage the transition, and they are sitting in the editorial department."
"Du is now in hospital, because of the shock of the announcement; he has high blood pressure," the staff member said. "It's not clear what will happen next, but to a lot of people it's looking like the final ax-blow."
A Beijing-based academic, who also asked to remain anonymous, agreed that the end looked pretty final for the magazine, which had enjoyed the support of high-ranking reformers inside the ruling party.
"They have gotten rid of all of the old staff, and they are bringing in new people like Jia Leilei, who used to be vice-president of the arts academy; the new editor is also from the academy," the academic said.
Breach of contract
Beijing-based rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said Du plans to sue the academy for breach of contract.
"Mr. Du has told me he finds this totally unacceptable," Mo said. "From a procedural point of view ... I have been instructed as their lawyer, so I will be looking at the contracts between the arts academy and the staff of Yanhuang Chunqiu."
"There are very clear provisions in the contract regarding the exercise of editorial and financial control, as well as regarding personnel matters," he said. "Yanhuang Chunqiu was given total autonomy."
Du's sacking came after China's media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) told the magazine's editorial team in April that 37 articles published since the beginning of the year were in breach of political guidelines.
The magazine, founded by Du in 1991 to produce reform-minded scholarly articles on history and politics, appears to be the latest publication to run afoul of President Xi Jinping's ongoing ideological campaign to make all press and media organizations toe the party line.
Du was edged out under a rule, seldom enforced, that prevents party elders from taking up new posts after the age of 70. Du had reemerged from retirement to take the helm of Yanhuang Chunqiu, rendering him ineligible, the Chinese National Academy of Arts said.
The latest reshuffle looks likely to deal a final death blow to the magazine in its original form, although many previously cutting-edge media have continued to publish under their former names after ideological "rectification," a mere shadow of their former selves.
Bao Tong, a former aide to late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang who was toppled for taking too liberal a line with student-led democracy protests in 1989, challenged the government to explain the attack on Yanhuang Chunqiu.
"In my view, this magazine, which has been running for the past 25 years without spending a penny of taxpayers' money, has been stripped of its parent research institute and its freedom of press and publication," Bao wrote in a commentary for RFA's Mandarin Service.
"So why do it? Surely the institute and Yanhuang Chunqiu must have done something wrong, to merit such coercive measures?" he said.
"But disagreeing with the party line shouldn't be grounds for this sort of behavior," he wrote. "The magazine is there to serve its readers, and it's their opinion that matters. The preferred line of its parent organization is neither here nor there."
Yanhuang Chunqiu has published more than 200 issues in its 25-year history and is no stranger to official criticism.
It has been slammed for publishing articles about both late ousted premiers Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, for writing about the separation of powers, forbidden by late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping, and for publishing accounts of Mao Zedong's early life written by his former secretary, Li Rui.
In 2011, China's censors shut down the magazine's website after it called for reforms to China's political system.
Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.