Chinese Officials Neutralize Cutting-Edge Magazine


A newsstand in Beijing. Photo: AFP

China’s powerful propaganda czars have pronounced the death knell for a magazine that ran hard-hitting exposes of official corruption, turning it into a cultural and lifestyle digest of mainly previously published materials.

Baixing , whose title translates roughly as “ordinary people” but is known in English as Commoners , was a popular monthly magazine, under the aegis of the Ministry of Agriculture, which made a name for itself exposing corruption among local officials in the countryside.

In an interview, former editor-in-chief Huang Lingtian told RFA’s Mandarin service that from the May 2007 edition, Baixing would take a digest format.

“They want to turn it into a sort of digest publication, a cultural magazine aimed at young people in the countryside,” Huang, who has been moved to edit another publication under the Ministry of Agriculture, told reporter Shen Hua.

They want to turn it into a sort of digest publication, a cultural magazine aimed at young people in the countryside...

“They will try their best not to produce any original material at all. Our treatment will be the same as for LifeWeek ,” he said. This radical transformation into a lifestyle publication that cherry-picks the best writing from the Web effectively means Baixing will no longer employ in-house staff to originate its own articles.

LifeWeek is a magazine that suffered a similar fate, following the publication of articles on the politically sensitive topics of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the Tangshan earthquake (1976). It was then ordered to stay off current affairs topics by the Communist Party’s central propaganda department, which runs tight monitoring and controls of China’s media.

Daring reports, police probe

Under Huang, Baixing had already received a lot of heat from the authorities because it dared to report on real situations. The magazine’s online edition had been repeatedly closed, and Huang himself was relieved of his position there at the beginning of the year.

According to a source familiar with the situation, Huang has remained the target of several police investigations since leaving the magazine.

Huang said: “First, there is absolutely nothing to be done about it. Second, we have to be firm about what we believe in.”

Huang said nearly all his former team at Baixing —from deputy editor, to reporters, to circulation and advertising staff—had almost all left the magazine after he did.

A journalist with Baixing who called himself “Mr. Wu” said he too was in the process of leaving the magazine.

“We are being posted away, too. We are following editor-in-chief Huang Liangtian. I am in the process of doing the paperwork. I’m going to work for him on the Agricultural Products Weekly . It’s also a Ministry of Agriculture publication.”

Both Huang and “Wu” said the order to change the content of Baixing hadn’t come from the Ministry of Agriculture, but from the propaganda department at a high level. “Wu” said most of the new staff of had been posted there from another publication run by the department.

“They all come from within the system, from Chinese Countryside . Our magazine is one of a stable of five or six publications. The leaders and the staff all rotate between them. Some people are hired from outside.”

Long decision-making process

Sources said the decision to change Baixing ’s format and content had been taken long ago, but Huang, who still cared about the magazine, had tried even after being moved elsewhere to convince those in charge not to go ahead.

He had also helped ensure that his staff were all placed in good jobs after he left Baixing : “I did it to preserve the deep ecology of Chinese culture, and also my own sense of justice, fairness, and conscience,” Huang said.

Asked if he thought that qualities of justice, fairness, and conscience were common among journalists in China today, Huang said: “These qualities are being severely challenged. But as intellectuals in public service, we should try to stand by them. It’s really not easy, not easy at all, to be an intellectual in China.”

Last August’s edition of the magazine printed an article titled “Ground-level investigation into evictions and demolitions in Jiangyin city,” an expose of how Jiangyin municipal government officials had grabbed land from local rural families and evicted them, imprisoning their representatives with manacles.

Just before the issue went to press, the editors came under pressure from the city government and officials higher up in its chain of command in the Ministry of Agriculture to spike the article.

Heavy-handed media controls

But then editor-in-chief Huang printed the article, providing a major boost to the civil rights movement in Jiangyin and causing major shocks in official circles in the city, with some officials losing their jobs. That was the last such article to appear in Baixing .

As well as issuing regular edicts and daily guidelines limiting news coverage in traditional media, Beijing has invested billions of yuan in a nationwide Internet surveillance system and manages to block Web sites it considers sensitive.

Many prominent Chinese academics and journalists have spoken out against the propaganda department, saying it has become more restrictive since the change of leadership from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao.

Critics also say such heavy-handed oppression of the media will harm the country’s overall development because so few channels exist to monitor the actions of officials.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Shen Hua. RFA 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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