Reformist Propaganda Czar Dies

China loses an early reformer, as authorities tighten online curbs.

Zhu-Houze-305.jpg Local media, including Sichuan-based Web site, carried Zhu Houze's obituary, as shown in this screenshot.

HONG KONG—Zhu Houze, widely respected for bringing a fresh approach to China’s powerful propaganda machine at a time of unprecedented openness during the 1980s, has died following an illness, his relatives said.

“Zhu Houze died in Beijing at 16 minutes past midnight on May 9, 2010, after his illness proved untreatable,” Zhu’s family said in a statement at the weekend.

“He was 80 years old ... His remains are to be cremated and the ashes returned to his hometown for burial,” the statement said, adding that Zhu had requested that no memorial service nor vigil be held in his honor.

Zhu was invited to take over at the propaganda ministry in 1985 by reformist premier Hu Yaobang, whose death sparked the student-led pro-democracy movement of 1989.

His death went largely unreported by China’s official media, which is far more tightly controlled today than it was under Zhu, according to media workers and academics.

Some media, including the Oriental Morning News, carried brief obituaries to Zhu, but many links to reports of his death on the popular chat service QQ resulted in error messages Monday.

Born in January 1931 to a literary family in Zhijin county, in the southwestern province of Guizhou, Zhu joined the Chinese Communist Party in March 1949.

After the People’s Republic was founded, he ran youth study groups in Guizhou, eventually rising to become provincial Party secretary.

In July 1985, he was called to Beijing by Hu to serve as the propaganda minister for the central government.

“Culture needs to develop,” he told a propaganda meeting soon after taking the helm.

“All the industries do. They need to broaden their scope if they are to help create a society that is full of opportunity, with a plurality of views, which has a different standpoint from traditional values and which doesn’t jump to conclusions easily,” the Oriental Morning News quoted records of the time as saying.

Zhu introduced his “three broadenings” policy at a time when ordinary people and politicians alike were beginning to breathe again following the political turmoil and wholesale aggression and suspicion of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Hu had already won broad political support from ordinary Chinese for his supervision of government attempts to right the wrongs of the Mao era and overturn wrongheaded and often senseless political verdicts and punishments.

“Can we take a more open-minded attitude to things which aren’t quite the same as our own point of view?” Zhu wrote at the time.

“Can we treat comrades who disagree with us with a little more generosity; and can we create fresh air and a more relaxed and flexible atmosphere?”

‘The exact opposite’

He Pin, founder of the Mirror publishing house, said many Chinese intellectuals saw the central propaganda bureau as a nefarious organization and a ready target for criticism and satire.

“When [Zhu] took over, and came up with the ‘three broadenings,’ he got called after this policy as a nickname,” He said.

“You could say that the time he was in office was the most relaxed climate for news and publishing that there has ever been in China since economic reforms began.”

Zhou Zehao, professor of information science at Pennsylvania’s York College said the central propaganda department had played “an inglorious role” in the history of the People’s Republic of China ever since it was founded.

“It is still playing that role today,” Zhou said.

“But Zhu Houze and [deputy] Deng Liqun managed to do the exact opposite.”

“Their attitudes and their methods were very relaxed—a bright spot in the history of the central propaganda department,” he said.

He called on current propaganda department officials to take a leaf out of Zhu’s book, so the organization could start to leave its “palace in the underworld.”

“Reforms can happen both from within and outside the system. What Zhu did was to start changing the system from within,” he said.

Chinese leaders have called on the media to help expose corruption in Party and government officials, and to work harder to reflect the reality of the lives of ordinary people.

But reporters are caught between top-down directives from Party propaganda bureaus and the vested interests of local corrupt officials and criminal organizations.

Authorities at China’s prestigious Beijing University effectively dismissed top media studies professor Jiao Guobiao in 2005 after he penned a blistering attack on the central propaganda department, which tightly controls the news industry.

Charges of media curbs

In an article widely circulated on the Internet, Jiao accused the department of stifling the media, taking away the right of the people to know what is going on.

In his article, Jiao called the propaganda department “a stumbling block to the civilized development of Chinese society.”

He said its actions had provided a helpful shelter for evil forces and corrupt officialdom, and that the department had become a bastion for the forces of ignorance and backwardness.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Yang Jiadai. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.


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