HONG KONG—A recent standoff between a top journalist and senior management at one of China’s top Communist Party newspapers reflects a wider struggle by President Hu Jintao to consolidate his grip on power, analysts say.
Zhang Weiguo, former editor of the Shanghai-based World Economic Herald , and currently editor-in-chief of New Century Net (www.ncn.org) said China Youth Daily was highly influential before, during, and after the political succession, in which Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao took over from the outgoing leadership of Jiang Zemin and Zhu Rongji.
“Hu Jintao made it to the top on the back of the Communist Party Youth League [the newspaper’s owners],” Zhang said. “The China Youth Daily is part of his power base, part of the Youth League system.”
The main characteristic of Hu’s policies is to rein in the media.
How Hu’s government chose to handle tensions at the newspaper would be a strong indicator of future policy direction where the media were concerned, he added.
“It won’t do him any good in future if he doesn’t handle this issue well. The problem is that if he can’t get the paper on his side, then it’ll oppose him. So this is a very difficult time for Hu.”
Many commentators, including the editor of the U.S.-based www.observechina.com, Chen Kuide, have pointed to a tightening of controls on China’s media by the Communist Party’s propaganda department since the advent of the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao administration.
“It’s obvious that they have been backpedalling since Hu Jintao came to power. By my observation, the main characteristic of Hu¹s policy is to rein in the media,” Chen told RFA reporter Shi Shan.
“Though he may have loosened his grip on other things, controls over the media are even tighter than that during the Jiang Zemin days and are likely to become tighter still,” he said.
It was not an open letter, but an internal discussion of ours on management regulations. We don’t know how the news got out.
But Wu Fanze, editor of the U.S.-based Web site China Affairs , said the relationship between Hu and the newspaper was more subtle than first appeared.
“Usually, if Hu Jintao has some new ideas, they will first be published in the China Youth Daily ,” Wu told RFA reporter Shi Shan.
“If he were to lose that, and allow the paper to be entirely taken over by the Central Propaganda Department, then his voice would not be as clearly heard...So there’s a deep political background to this debate.”
The row at the newspaper has been simmering for the past two years, with the resignation of a top journalist, Li Fang, and a diatribe against a top Youth League official by senior editor Lu Yuegang last year.
Last month, an angry internal memo penned by senior reporter Li Datong to his editor-in-chief criticizing a reward system linking journalists’ salaries to the good opinion of top government officials was leaked to www.observechina.com.
Reporter Li Datong’s complaint was that an unspoken system that pegged monetary rewards for journalists to the level of official praise their work generated had been enshrined as official newspaper policy with no consultation with editorial staff.
When contacted by RFA’s Mandarin service, Li confirmed that he wrote the letter posted on the overseas-based www.observechina.com Web site but declined to give an interview on the subject.
“It was not an open letter, but an internal discussion of ours on management regulations. We don¹t know how the news got out,” Li told RFA, but declined to comment further.
While reader’s survey results allocated points to newspaper articles, the highest recognition was accorded to articles that had succeeded in pleasing China’s leaders, www.observechina.com editor Chen Kuide told RFA.
“If an article is praised by a leader at the Politburo level or above, its author will receive 300 points,” Chen said. “The points are directly linked to the income of a journalist or an editor.”
Li’s letter also revealed that praise from the Central Propaganda Department was worth 120 points, while a glowing review in the department’s monthly news digest, Cankao Xiaoxi , would net the writer 100 points, Chen said.
He said the paper had a reputation for pulling no punches in the face of intense pressure from the authorities.
“Thanks to the solidarity of its staff, it has managed to survive over the last few years in spite of the intense pressures from higher authorities,” Chen added.
Shortly after Li’s letter became public, the newspaper—with a long tradition of resisting bureaucratic power plays and cults of personality—canceled the controversial reward scheme with plans to design a new scheme under way.
Cao Changqing, a former deputy editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Youth News now living in the United States, said that it was common knowledge that official preferences were the guideline for Chinese newspapers’ editorial decisions.
“Some things can only be said or done quietly,” Cao said. “A journalist could be told that a certain leader likes his or her article, and this means that his or her article has met the requirements of the government.”
“But the China Youth Daily has openly written official preferences into a document and made it a guideline for evaluation. It has almost become law,” Cao said in an interview broadcast before the scheme was withdrawn.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Shi Shan. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han