HONG KONG--China's powerful Central Propaganda Department has ordered a crackdown on Chinese media workers who signed a document this month calling for sweeping political reforms, a management executive at a state-run media organization said.
The message was given orally by the department, which is charged by the ruling Communist Party with ensuring that China's media toe the Party line, the executive said. It was aimed at anyone who had signed Charter 08, a document published online in early December, sparking a flurry of interrogations, police searches, and detentions.
"It wasn't as if there was a written order issued by the Central Propaganda Department. Nowadays the Central Propaganda Department rarely issues written orders. Instructions are conveyed orally," he said.
He said media outlets have been barred from interviewing anyone who signed the Charter and from carrying articles penned by signatories. Some journalists have received visits or phone calls warning them "not to go to extremes," he added.
Call for rule of law
Charter 08, signed by more than 300 prominent scholars, writers, and rights activists around the country, called for concerned Chinese citizens to rally to bring about change, citing an increasing loss of control by the ruling Communist Party and heightened hostility between the authorities and ordinary people.
It also called for the observance of guarantees made by China's Constitution and for institutions to uphold the rule of law, for democratic reforms, and for human rights, and warned of disaster amid growing social tensions if change is not implemented soon.
Several of the Charter's signatories were detained and their homes searched. Others were questioned and placed under surveillance even before the document had been published online.
One journalist at a state-run media organization who signed Charter 08 said he had received a phone call from his boss, telling him not to submit any more articles.
The reason given was his involvement with the Charter.
Beijing-based rights activist Zhou Guoqiang, himself a signatory, said that authorities want to force Chinese journalists to show where their loyalties lie.
"The policy is meant to intimidate those who have not yet signed the Charter," Zhou said. "It’s like saying, you make the choice: either sign or carry on writing."
Along with professional journalists and editors, the decision will likely affect scholars and academics who contribute to the media.
Xu Youyu, a researcher with the Institute of Philosophy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said he had signed the Charter.
"Recently, a magazine asked me to write articles for a column," Xu said. "When I asked for approval from my superiors, I was told that I couldn't do it."
"But I can't say for certain if it was because I had signed the Charter," Xu added.
The Charter hit out at China's government for "clinging" to an authoritarian political way of life.
Wave of detentions
"It has caused an unbroken chain of human rights disasters and social crises, held back the development of the Chinese people, and hindered the progress of human civilization," it said.
A former reporter with state-run China Central Television (CCTV) surnamed Li said the government was trying to strong-arm the media. "Not allowing them to publish articles after they signed the Charter, this is the behavior of thugs," Li said.
"The ideas advocated in Charter 08 are the kind of things that a government should endeavor to achieve."
Meanwhile, Zan Aizong, former reporter with China Ocean News, said he doubted Beijing would be able to exert total control.
"More than 300 people signed the Charter initially. And so many more people have subsequently expressed support for it. Numerous articles have been written about it. It’s impossible for them to have total control," Zan said.
Many writers and academics were among the Charter signatories detained and questioned earlier this month. They included constitutional scholar Zhang Zuhua and Beijing-based independent writer Liu Xiaobo.
Deputy chairman of the writers' group Independent Chinese PEN Jiang Qisheng was interrogated by police for two hours after he signed Charter 08, and Hangzhou-based scholar Wen Kejian was also questioned. The Beijing home of writer Yu Jie, in the United States at the time, was also surrounded by police around the time that the Charter was published.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.